From Troubadours to Twerking: Ted Gioia on the History of Love Songs


What threads connect Joni Mitchell’s relationship songs and Miley Cyrus’s twerk videos with the music that animated ancient Mesopotamian fertility rituals and Sappho’s poetry? What do the love songs of St. Francis and Rumi share with the soundtrack of the Summer of Love in 1967?

You’ll find informed speculation on these and other issues that may never have occurred to you in Love Songs: The Hidden History. It’s the final installment of a trilogy on functional music that music historian Ted Gioia launched with Work Songs and Healing Songs, both published in 2006. During the intervening eight years, Gioia offered the second, rewritten edition of The History of Jazz, an erudite, trim, thorough account of the timeline that wears its learning lightly; Delta Blues; The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, on the evolution of that ephemeral concept; and The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, in which Gioia tours 250 essential pieces that are, or should be, lingua franca for any well-educated jazz practitioner or listener.

During this eight-year span, Gioia — who holds a doctorate from Oxford and an MBA from Stanford, served consequential time as a professional jazz pianist, and worked for McKinsey and Boston Consulting Company as a futurologist before deciding that writing would be his career — also founded, executive-edited, and generated much content for, an ambitious, influential daily webzine that ceased operations in 2009. Currently, he self-publishes criticism of contemporary fiction on five separate websites, writes a weekly column for the Huffington Post framed around jazz and cultural commentary, and listens, by his estimate, to some twenty new CDs a week. —Ted Panken

The Barnes & Noble Review: Was Love Songs initially conceived as part of a trilogy?

“Love Songs” author Ted Gioia.

Ted Gioia: During the early 1990s, I started wrestling with ways to write a music history from the viewpoint of the ways music has transformed and enchanted people’s day-to-day lives. I spent years researching without a clear notion of where I was going to go. I read systematically books of letters, journals, folklore, myths, legends, memoirs, correspondence, social history, going to primary sources whenever I could, covering a period of 5,000 years. I had been researching for about a decade when the pieces started fitting together. Gradually, I realized I could tell the story by breaking it down into individual components and set myself the goal of writing this trilogy. I was surprised to realize that no one had written a complete survey of love music. But I soon realized why. It’s a huge topic. Most of the songs written over the last thousand years are love songs. How can you even begin to wrap your arms around it? It’s also complex. Apart from the history of the music, you have to understand the history of courtship, of romance, of the legal institutions of marriage, of sexuality. As I dug into it, I saw that many important episodes in the history of Western music had been neglected.

I’ve got stacks of notes about a host of issues I could write about now. The history of music and war. The history of the lullaby.

BNR: You write about the dialectic of the love song from ancient times until the present: “A cultural force turns into its opposite; the evil songs of sinners get transformed into the approved soundtrack for the power brokers and morally upright. The songs don’t show up on our historical radar screen until they had already gained admittance to the palace precincts.” At what point in your research did this dialectic start to emerge? Most of the “action” transpires before 1400.

TG: In ancient Mesopotamia, China, Japan, Africa, western Europe, the United States, I kept seeing the same dynamic of love songs linked to prohibitions, struggles, repressions, and censorship. The people who created these songs were written out of the history books, yet their traces could still be found. People I’ve spoken to about this book have dismissed the love song as wimpy, sentimental, lightweight. But the history is the exact opposite. This music is about human rights. It’s linked throughout history to an expansion of personal autonomy and people’s ability to have control over their lives, starting with their choice of a mate, their choice of romantic options. So it’s no surprise that in generation after generation, young people come up with new ways of singing about love, and the power brokers want to stop it. It’s a far more revolutionary type of music than I had anticipated.

BNR: You emphasize throughout that — at least up to the emergence of the blues — women seem to be the primary generators of change in love songs.

TG: In modern times, probably 90 percent of the hit records about love are by men. But historically, the ideas in these songs almost all came from women. The most famous, obviously, is Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who is credited by many as the inventor of the love song. But I found references dating to 1,500 years before Sappho, where these songs are always from a feminine perspective, though often men get the credit. If you go to the Shijing in China, Confucius gets credit for these songs, but they are clearly love songs sung from a woman’s perspective. The most famous in our culture is the “Song of Songs” in the Bible, attributed to Solomon, but it’s an erotic song from a feminine point of view.

The most surprising chapter came when I uncovered the history of these female singing slaves from the Muslim world who essentially created all the rhetoric and song concepts that would later inspire the troubadours in western Europe. It’s a connection that no one had written of or studied before. It was an eye-opener to see that our Western notion of singing about love as a kind of servitude to the beloved came from these women who actually were slaves. Even today, when we hear a love song, we expect an attitude of service and devotion to the beloved. But that came out of slave culture. Eventually these songs of the outsiders become accepted as the music of the insiders. This same assimilation has happened again and again over a period of thousands of years.

BNR: In another passage, you write: “If I have dwelt frequently on outsiders and the excluded in this book, this simply reflects the strange nature of the love song in the Western world. This strangeness can be summed up very simply: we feel compelled to sing about love, but are deeply embarrassed by this compulsion. We need the outsider to extricate us from our shame.” Is this also a pattern through history?

TG: I am constantly struck by how ashamed people are of this music through history. As one critic noted not too long ago, 90 percent of the songs are about love, but music critics prefer to write about the other 10 percent. I trace this development to the Roman Empire. The Romans sang about love, but shame clearly was associated with it. They viewed romance as a kind of illness, or madness. People feared the vulnerability that came with it. I believe we are still heirs to the Roman Empire in that regard. For at least 2,000 years we have felt compelled to sing about love but are also embarrassed by that.

BNR: It occurs to me that for perhaps the last 40–50 years, maybe since the emergence of the singer-songwriter, women have become the public face of the love song.

TG: My history of the love song starts with ancient Mesopotamia, where the love song is part of a fertility ritual. The songs are very erotic. In fact, they are so erotic that many scholars will complain that they are not really love songs. Well, surprise-surprise, the same thing is happening today. People see Miley Cyrus twerking while she’s singing and say, “This song isn’t really about love; it’s all about sex.” We’ve come full circle. Women have become this powerful symbol and emblem, and music is returning to kind of biological roots. At the very beginning I have a long section on “Was Darwin Right?” Darwin believed that all music was originally love music, and that this music emerged to preserve the species, and that the sexual element was the underpinning of love. The exact same thing jumps out at you when you look at today’s videos or hit songs.

BNR: Another dialectic that you trace through time is the relationship between the carnal and the spiritual that both animates the love songs and inhabits their contents.

TG: It’s a fascinating struggle in the history of the love song. For hundreds of years Christianity tried to eradicate love music. Virtually no love songs in vernacular English have survived, until the time of the troubadours. But since the Church constantly attacked them from the pulpit and issued condemnatory statements, we know they must have existed and flourished. Usually they were associated with women; we see numerous criticisms of women singing love songs.

After the troubadours, the Church could no longer stop it. But then they got a bright idea. They couldn’t stop the love song; they would try to control it. So for about 100–150 years, the Church tried to create what I call a Love Supreme, if I can borrow a phrase from John Coltrane. St. Francis in Italy wrote the first love song in vernacular Italian, but it’s about a divine kind of love. Dante mixed up the story of his girlfriend, Beatrice, with a theology of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Half a world away, Rumi tried to combine erotic romantic notions with religious ones. But the love song was too powerful for the Church to control, and eventually they gave it up. Still, periodically, people have tried to recreate this idea of a higher, metaphysical, spiritual love. The most powerful example in recent times happened in the Summer of Love, in 1967 — the idea that a rock band can sing about not just sexual love, not just romantic love, but this higher kind of transcendent love.

BNR: Did similar surprises crop up in the process of writing Work Songs and Healing Songs?

TG: I think I had some very radical notions in those books. For example, the connection of the myth of Orpheus to shamanism, and elements of the role of Pythagoras in Western music. Over the years, I’ve developed a number of theories about the social history of music that I may publish in the future that will, I think, challenge conventional notions of where our music came from.

But Love Songs by far had the most surprises. Numerous times in my research I’d stop and say, “I never knew that was true” or, “Has anyone noticed this before?” Then I’d have to make sure someone else hadn’t uncovered these connections. I am not interested in writing revisionist history and didn’t intend to try to overturn standard Western music history. But as it turns out, I’ve made very controversial allegations — that the love song was primarily created by women, that most of its history came out of Africa and the Middle East.

BNR: In a recent interview you stated that your experience in the business world deeply impacted your writing and thinking about music. Can you elaborate?

TG: My work with McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group trained me in empirical analysis and broadened my horizons. My job was to predict future trends, to extrapolate on market research, so I spent a lot of time trying to understand human psychology, the interaction between lifestyle and people’s decision making as consumers, analyzing data on a granular level, not theoretical, to ascertain what actual people do in actual settings. In a strange way, all these things have reappeared from time to time in my writings on music. Understanding music often is understanding socioeconomic behavior and how that interacts with aesthetic and artistic considerations.

BNR: It’s intriguing that your rigorously empirical approach to conveying information coexists with a metaphysical orientation.

TG: That’s the paradox of writing about music. Music is something you can’t taste, touch, or see. Yet it has tremendous real-life implications for people’s everyday behavior. So I’ve always felt that understanding music was, in a way, peering into people’s souls. That’s especially so with love songs, where I had to unravel people’s love lives over a period of thousands of years. That opened my eyes to what was happening in the music.

BNR: How has writing shaped or reshaped your musical aesthetics?

TG: When I was twenty, I thought I knew a lot about music. But looking back, I had very narrow notions of what good music or bad music was. I tended to view music analytically, almost mathematically. The process of becoming a music historian has made me much more sympathetic to a broad range of musical styles. I listen to music very differently.

The big breakthrough was writing Delta Blues. When I was twenty, I looked down on the blues. “Ah, just three chords; I know all these blues licks; I can play them in every key.” But I began hearing things you couldn’t analyze, particularly in the early blues musicians, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Son House. They didn’t follow the rules of music theory. There weren’t three chords. In fact, you could hardly even call them chords. They were more like these throbbing sounds. I realized that there was a certain area of musical expression that resisted analysis through the language of musicology or music theory. You had to open yourself up to the human experience, the spiritual dimension. Writing Work Songs reinforced the notion that there is an aspect of music beyond the analytical.

BNR: Not only do you release out a book every couple of years, but you seem to read — and write about — every novel that comes out, as well as journalistic pieces on music and cultural criticism.

TG: Every day I spend two to three hours reading and two to three hours listening to music, particularly music I haven’t heard before. Probably another two to three hours writing. A workaholic. I probably should cut back. But I enjoy it, and enjoy jumping from the one thing to the next.

To write about music or contemporary culture, I deliberately force myself out of my comfort zone into new areas on a regular basis. That might mean listening to music by artists I’ve never heard before, or reading a book by an author I know nothing about, or trying to learn about a subject that I was previously ignorant of. I do that to prevent myself from falling into sloth and inertia. I think people would like to see me write more about jazz, but I’d go nuts if I wrote about the same thing over and over again.

BNR: Your web page lists a number of websites that I gradually realized were your own. (Four are,,, and

TG: I have felt for a number of years that the Web will change how we appreciate art, that the next generation of critics will create new, hyperlinked forms of criticism which allow people to access information and opinions about specific artists and works just by clicking from page to page. I’m trying to create criticism that takes advantage of web-based technologies, and, as an experiment on my behalf, I’ve constructed several websites that act as surrogates for a book.

BNR: Can you discuss how your writings about music and literature interrelate and in what ways they’re different?

TG: I suspect I am a better reader of fiction for having studied music, and especially for having studied its technical side — theme-and-development, theme-and-variations, sonata form, fugue. To some people, those may seem completely irrelevant to literature. But I think the ability to perceive the patterns and the architectonic order behind the individual notes is useful for a music critic, and just as useful for someone writing about books. There’s clearly some connection.

BNR: Do you discern parallels on the evolution of contemporary fiction and contemporary jazz/improvised music?

TG: A pronounced similarity is that both fiction and jazz — and motion pictures — which were previously seen as resulting from personal inspiration and creativity, have become codified and are taught at universities. They are academic disciplines. I never took a class on jazz, for the simple reason that no school I attended ever offered one. So I had to learn jazz on my own, going to performances, listening to records, talking to other people. I see things I could have learned much more quickly if I’d had access to the codified studies that are out there now. For example, it took me forever to develop a system of playing chord voicings that I was happy with. Then, at a certain point, I saw some books where all these chords that I had learned painfully over a period of years were just sketched out for someone to learn off the page. I thought, “That’s not fair — I struggled to learn that particular voicing; you can’t just give it out there to people who buy this book.”

Is this good or bad? It’s a little of both. Clearly, it’s an extraordinary benefit for students to be able to assimilate this information in such an organized way that wasn’t available to use years ago. On the other hand, there might be a downside to everybody learning off the same book. So I am always especially interested in hearing musicians, or reading writers, or seeing other artists who seem to be able to break out of the confines of the methodologies they were taught in classrooms.

BNR: Who are some of your models as writers of music and/or cultural or social history?

TG: My role models were mostly from outside of music writing. At twenty, I would have said my goal was to write like Susan Sontag, or Lionel Trilling, or George Steiner, or maybe Isaiah Berlin — people who were either literary critics or historians of ideas. I liked the fact that they could take very complex areas of culture and show their relevance to daily life. You could learn something about books by reading Susan Sontag or Lionel Trilling, but you could also learn something about ethical issues, how people deal with other people, how culture sometimes constrains us or leads down to the dead-end paths. There’s no doubt that I apply to music things I learned from those writers.

BNR: Another of your articles from a year or so ago, “Has Music Criticism Turned into Lifestyle Reporting?,” provoked an indignant response from Jody Rosen. You wrote: “For most people living in the world, circa 1920, music was embedded into their life, not chosen as a lifestyle accessory. But gradually, over the next several decades, music’s value as a pathway of personal definition came to the forefront of our culture. . . . By the time we arrive at the age of disco and punk rock, the music consciously builds its appeal on lifestyle considerations.” This seems a fine summation of your core beliefs.

TG: Yes, that quote is an excellent summation of my core beliefs. Music nowadays is primarily a lifestyle consumer product. But I believe that this demeans music. Music can entertain, and it’s a valid thing for it to do, but it can do so much more. Aristotle wrote a passage that describes how music can heal, make soldiers braver in battle, enliven rituals, build our relationships with the gods. Almost as an afterthought, he mentions that it can entertain. I would say that’s the only thing most of us look for from music now. Not too long ago, music was embedded in our lives in a way that we can scarcely remember.

I would like to write a book some day on authenticity in music. Everybody dismisses the notion of authenticity in music. They act as if it’s bogus. There is no authentic music; all music is constructed with an audience in mind; it’s all corrupted by commercial considerations. I would say no. Throughout history, most music wasn’t a matter of a lifestyle choice. Musical rituals — dancing at a wedding in the Balkans in the 1800s, singing a work song — were embedded in the meanings of your life. These rituals were essential aspects of their identity, their involvement with their family, community and society.

BNR: That notion applies very much to the process of improvising, to the musical production of jazz musicians. Does this have something to do with the enduring fascination jazz holds for you?

TG: It has to. At a very young age, I was exposed to jazz and it completely turned me around. Literally, within ten seconds of hearing the first notes at a jazz club, my life had been changed. It’s no exaggeration. My life went differently because of that experience. There was something about it that seemed real and authentic, and it seemed to reach me in a place beyond consumer categories or lifestyle marketing issues. I don’t think I have the vocabulary to describe that. I’m sure some outsider could be very cynical and give me all sorts of reasons why the capitalist marketplace has made me susceptible to this.

BNR: In a joint interview with your older brother, Dana Gioia, you both mentioned your namesake uncle and the impact of his legacy upon you.

TG: My mom grew up in a very poor Mexican-American family during the Depression. Her brothers all left home at an early age and joined the Merchant Marine. Her older brother, Ted, was a self-made intellectual; he died shortly before I was born, so I was named after him. The stories I was told about him are scarcely believable. For example, my father once said you could read him any one line from Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italian, and he could continue reciting it from memory. He had the complete works of Mozart in sixty bound volumes, and you could show him any few bars and he would tell you what composition it was from. He was going to leave the Merchant Marine and go to college at Berkeley. He died in a plane crash at age twenty-seven. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most tragic moment in my mother’s life. She was devoted to her older brother. When he was not out to sea, he would stay with my parents, and he left with us hundreds and hundreds of recordings of classical music; one of the largest collections of musical scores anyone had ever seen; his piano, which was the piano I learned on; and all these books. I was just showing my kids the other day his collection of Thomas Mann novels, which I now have.

Neither of my parents went to college. But I think they encouraged my brother and me to get an education, because my mother felt her brother had been robbed of his education. If he hadn’t joined the Merchant Marine, he might be alive today. In a way, I think I felt, and my brother Dana felt, that we had to do well in our education to compensate for our mom’s tremendous loss.

BNR: Can you offer some speculations on how the next cycle of love songs will take shape?

TG: At first glance, it looks like we’ve reached an endgame in love songs. It’s video-driven. It goes viral on YouTube. It’s very erotic. It’s very built on images. Today’s videos are trying to reach for the most powerful universal message, which is essentially biological. I am hardly surprised these videos so strongly emphasize eroticism and sexuality, which cut through every language barrier. Everybody, in every country in the world, understands what these videos are all about. At first glance, it may seem that this is here to stay as the new way of the love song.

My hunch, though, is that this, too, will pass. I discern that from the dialectic that reappears in 10-20-year cycles through the history of the love song, where we go from a Love Supreme to a Love Carnal, the continuous switching back and forth between boisterous dance music and introspective singer-songwriters. So I think there will be another change. I’m not sure exactly of its dimensions, but if you had to pin me down, I would say the next revolution in music will be similar to what’s happening in food and beer, where you hear “crafted” all the time — a “crafted meal,” a “crafted beer.” What does a “crafted beer” mean? I’m not even sure I know, but the idea is that it’s no longer routine. It’s no longer targeted to the mass market. It’s targeted at more discerning people, and contains more of a human element. So I think the next change in music will be “crafted” music. It’s going to have a slightly higher level of sophistication. Not only will it avoid the trappings of mass market entertainment, but it will do so proudly, and audiences will respond to it for that very reason.

BNR: That’s an optimistic prognosis for jazz.

TG: I think so. Time will tell. I believe that we are reaching a saturation point. The example I give is television. Television when I was growing up was the dumbest thing around. They called it the “boob tube,” the “idiot box.” But these sophisticated new shows, True Detective, Breaking Bad, have a much greater level of intellectual content. TV has found that increasing the sophistication of the product has increased loyalty and created what is now called a new golden age of television.

If the “idiot box” can be transformed, I think music can be, too. So I do believe that jazz will benefit. I believe a number of music idioms that are considered on the periphery will benefit as we go to a new generation of crafted music. Then again, I could be completely wrong, and we may be dealing with twerking videos for the next fifty years.

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