Errors In Groovesmanship

The Western tradition of Music Theory concentrates mostly identifying vertical structures (chords) and their tendencies (functions). It does this quite well. It lacks any sophistication, however, in putting into words the subtle rhythmic pressures that constitute a rhythmic 'groove.' We have words like swing, shuffle, laid-back, in-the-pocket and so on, but we aren't really equipped to do anything but shrug our shoulders.

This is a cultural "blind spot" for most of us from European descent. It is nothing new; during the boom of the "jazz age," one of the most exciting and exotic innovations (at least to white audiences) were the rhythmic devices present in African-American music like the blues.

Wm. Robert Miller, in "The World of Pop Music and Jazz," succinctly describes where African-American music and the Western European tradition meet:

...as jazz moved out from New Orleans, it gathered small numbers of white musicians, such as Bix
Beiderbecke, who set up jazz bands and developed their own styles based on what they heard
Negroes [sic] play. Often the white jazzmen played the same tunes, but they lacked the blues
feeling and substituted spectacular technique for the Negroes' [sic] immediacy of expression. (Miller, 40)

In other words, while the classically trained white performers had a refined and showy technique, the African-American jazz/blues players had 'the blues feeling' that made their music compelling and interesting. The result: two traditions of popular music, the white "pop" vs. the black "rhythm and blues."

This takes us back to the first paragraph. One of the biggest things lacking in the (largely white) CCM movement is any sensitivity to the groove. Worse, we don't even get the benefit of enjoying excellent technique, as the style demands a nonthreatining, simple, and folksy approach.

In fact, I'd posit that a really funky, "on," ensemble in one of these churches might come across as being too "out there," or too "aggressive," for the worshippers. We're much more comfortable with MOR slosh than anything that might be rhythmically challenging. (Dare I say that a group like that might be "too black" for people raised on "Jars of Clay" and "Caedmon's Call?" [1])

If anything, most CCM groups are amateurs who either completely ignore the pulse, or grip it too tightly. Either mistake results in an awkward, stilted effect completely devoid of the most important part of all this: being "cool."


[1] Even Martin Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress" has appeared in at least a couple of versions, one more syncopated than the other...

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