Charlie Keil: Groovologist

by Bill Benzon

Tracing things back to the beginning is always a bit arbitrary. There is always something that came before, and even before that. For example, just how is it that Charlie Keil, winner of the 22nd Annual Koizumi Fumio Prize for ethnomusicology, ended up playing tuba in front of the Vermont Statehouse in the Fall of 2012? I suppose it isn't much of a stretch to get from ethnomusicology to the tuba, as both have to do with music, but the Vermont Statehouse?


It's time we take a short tour through a long story. Just for sake of perspective, let's start the tour sometime in the late early 20th Century, with the band of John Philip Sousa, the March King. He was the highest paid member of that band, which had been touring America for years. His bass drummer during the 1920s was a man named August Helmecke. Helmecke was also the highest paid member of the band.

Why, you might ask, was the bass drummer the highest paid member of the band? Simple, really. He maintained the pulse. Without the pulse, the music had no life. Helmecke was the heart of the band.

And he was Charlie Keil's first percussion teacher. Helmecke gave group lessons on Saturday mornings at Darien High School in Connecticut in the late 1940s. Every Saturday morning he'd teach the kids to hold their arms high and then down stroke vigorously, getting the whole ar and trunk into the motion. And though it would be years before Charlie would know this, many of the jazz drummers he came to admire – Papa Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb and others – would go hear Sousa's band just so they could bear witness to Helmecke's mighty drumming.

That's the start. Charlie went on to learn the snare drum, orchestral percussion, and the traps set. And while he's played professionally from time to time, he ended up studying anthropology in graduate school at the University of Chicago. That's when he did a master's thesis that he published in 1966 as Urban Blues.

At which point all hell broke loose, figuratively speaking. You've got to understand. This was 1966 and in 1966 the blues was not yet fully certified as music even as the Rolling Stones were touring around playing blues they'd learned from America records that had made their way to the British Isles. Keil wrote about B. B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, James Brown, and others, and about their fans. Robert Christgau has pointed out that

for Keil to embark upon a serious study of currently popular entertainers who earned good livings with electric guitars was a radical departure that heartened a generation of like-minded listeners back when it still took chutzpah to admire James Joyce and James Brown in the same lifetime, much less the same sentence. Keil hardly invented this attitude, which was built into the experience of the countless individual college kids who were trying to make sense of it. But he proved they had allies in high places, and he set an intellectual standard few of them were equal to.

Urban Blues gave high-class intellectual legitimacy to rock criticism. This stuff was real and Keil laid out the reasons why.

That same year, 1966, Charlie published “Motion and Feeling Through Music” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, perhaps the central academic journal on those subjects. In effect, he argued for the musical centrality of the groove, of the beat and bodily motion. He argued on behalf of his teacher Gus Helmecke and those jazz drummers who'd been entranced by him – Jo Jones, and the rest – but also B. B. King and John Coltrane and countless other movers and groovers.

Keil's argument may seem obvious to you – why of course the groove is important! – but it was not at all obvious to the academic readership of that very august journal, J. of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. For that journal existed in a world where music was overwhelmingly Western Classical Music and the beat was basically a conceptual afterthought, mostly, I fear, because it's easier to think about melody and harmony than it is to think about the beat. “Motion and Feeling Through Music” did not explode anywhere. It didn't sit well with a conceptual world built on Classical music.

Urban Blues reached an audience that wasn't committed to that conceptual world and it's Urban Blues that got Keil a position in American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He went on to do field work among the Tiv in Nigeria, resulting in Tiv Song: The Sociology of Art in a Classless Society. But he also did a great deal of work on the polka, and published on it as well. Many of his fellow academics had troubles with that one. Polka was not cool.

But coolness, whatever that might be, was not the point. What is the point is that polka is music, and dance music at that. It's a way of creating a community and it does just that for its many fans.

That's what's at the heart of Charlie's enterprise, music, dance, and community. And when music looses touch with dance, community suffers as well.

And that gets us halfway to that day in 2012 when Charlie Keil played the tuba at the Vermont Statehouse. While music was part of that day, it wasn't the whole day.

By law the citizens of Vermont have the right to rent the chambers in the Statehouse when they are not being used for legislative business. The Vermont Independence Party had decided it was time for their third convention and scheduled it for September 14, 2012. Their objective was to get Vermont to secede from the United States. We need not hash out whether or not this is a reasonable thing to do; for the purposes of this article it is enough that Charlie Keil thinks it worthwhile. He fears that the USA is too big and too brittle and that downsizing is in order.


And so he was happy to support this effort, both by reading The Montpelier Manifesto at the convention and by organizing some music for the occasion. Music engenders community. People that groove together will be more able to live together. Charlie's presence in Vermont that day was and is an expression of the values he finds inherent in the blues and the polka.

Even as he's been teaching at the university and publishing research, Charlie's been organizing community music making wherever and whenever he could, often with an overt political purpose, but not necessarily so. I've marched with Charlie on a number of occasions – the Vermont gig, but also demonstrations in Manhattan, such as the major March 2003 demonstration against the impending war in Iraq and a 2010 anti-nuclear demonstration where the number of Japanese and Koreans on the street was startlingly larger than the number of white people.

But Keil's greatest passion is for kids, kids and music and dance. When he was in Buffalo he founded MUSE – Musician's United for a Superior Education, Inc. – “to help children develop fundamental personal, social, leadership, academic and artistic skills.” More recently he joined with Pat Campbell, an expert in music education at the University of Washington, and Becky Liebman, to form the Jubilation Foundation, which also focuses on music and dance for children. And he spends a fair amount of his own time working with kids at schools in his neck of the woods – Lakewood, Connecticut.

The rationale is simple: kids love to make music and to dance. It's fun. And it provides a strong foundation for other cognitive and social skills. The brain is a rhythm machine for which music and dance are as natural as water to a fish, air to birds, and light to the sun. That may be obvious to many, but it's not so obvious in a culture that has emphasized reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic while neglecting rhythm, though rhythm is in fact crucial to speech and without speech there is no reading, writing, nor even ‘rithmatic.

In the years since Charlie Keil published Urban Blues a great deal of research has been done on music and its general benefits, much of it in the last two decades. Perhaps in a decade or two the academy – what's left of it – will catch up with “Motion and Feeling Through Music”. But will our children be adequately schooled in music and dance? That's a tough one to call.

Bill Benzon's blog.