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The Wailing, Keening Sound as a Hidden Current in Music History
Or how the forbidden laments of medieval peasants help us understand contemporary pop
Some musical performances aren’t intended for audiences. Perhaps even the word performance isn’t appropriate to describe them. If you sing alone in a forest, are you really performing? How about singing in the shower or providing an out-of-tune accompaniment to the hit songs on your car radio?
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Most of the aesthetic theories attached to music assign a privileged role to the audience, but rarely question the assumptions behind this decision. The elite status of the onlooker is merely taken for granted. I’ve heard smart music writers even state categorically that music without an audience is an impossibility.
But is that really true?
Surely you can sing just to please yourself? That happens all the time, no? Or perhaps you sing to please the deities, or to ensure the power of a ritual, or provide rhythmic accompaniment for your work, or for some other reason that has little to do with the modern conception of an audience.
And some types of musical expression are so intensely personal that even calling them performances seems disrespectful.
Which brings us to the subject of keening—which is wail of grief for a dead person. It’s clearly musical, not linguistic, and typically involves high-pitched, wavering tones of intensity and prolonged duration. In some instances, perhaps even most, keening is involuntary—which makes it an extraordinary type of song.
Music historians and musicologists don’t pay much attention to such things. But they should. Keening deserves our respect, if only for its extraordinary emotional power. But as I will explain below, the musical lament has been one of the most controversial and politicized types of songs in human history. And it has exerted a hidden influence on our musical culture, even entering into commercial genres, albeit in disguised ways.
I will fill in the details below, but here are the key elements of the keening sound that will serve as our guides in this inquiry.
It is a song of deep emotional force
It is a song embraced for personal expression, not audience expansion
It is a song of commoners, not elites
It is typically high-pitched, not low
It is typically melismatic, not static
It is a song more closely linked to the country than the city
It is a song associated with women, and only rarely with men
When I say that keening is a private musical expression, that doesn’t mean it takes place in isolation. A musical cry of grief might be overheard by others at a deathbed, funeral, or gravesite. Those who dare to listen can hear the keening sound in all its emotional fury—but they simultaneously feel that they are violating some taboo in overhearing it.
The terminology used to describe this song is very ancient. The Greek words thrênos and góos, indicating a shrill cry over a dead body, are of Indo-European origin. They are clearly associated with intense emotions. The former word is more typically applied to a genuine performance, often by hired mourners (a standard funeral practice in those days), while the latter was a more spontaneous outcry.
But at a very early stage, even the góos got transformed into a more stylized performance, gradually evolving into formal expressions and narratives—as part of an ongoing attempt to make keening respectable. But the genuine keening of the grief-stricken bereaved never completely disappeared.
How could it? Grieving is an inevitable part of the human condition. The keening cry, as noted above, is often involuntary—that’s a special part of its power. How can it ever be eradicated?
“There’s a long history connecting lamentations to love songs, but even a casual music fan understands that a song about a broken heart is a kind of grieving.”
But these kinds of highly-charged songs were disturbing to the authorities—and musical laments thus served as a focal point for edicts and prohibitions over the course of thousands of years. In both ancient times and throughout the medieval era, the lament was arguably the most censored and marginalized song style.
Plutarch, for example, tells us that the famous Athenian lawgiver Solon prohibited women from singing “composed dirges.” Plato specifies that this type of song is “weak and feminine,” and argues in his Laws that it ought to be prevented at funeral processions. The Greeks preferred the more masculine elegy—a formal lament for the dead, praising the deceased in stately or poetic speech. Some of the most famous authors of antiquity were celebrated for their elegies, which were implicitly the superior male way of responding to death.
The Romans were just as hostile to the lament as the Greeks. And the Christianization of Europe didn’t change matters at all. Church authorities repeatedly attacked the woman’s lament—and, yes, this song style was always considered a specifically feminine genre.
Highly stylized musical laments were acceptable—for example, songs representing the weeping of Mary at the cross of Jesus, or a planctus for the funeral of monarch or noble, especially if it were sung in Latin. But the actual melodic keening at the death of a peasant or artisan was repeatedly criticized, sometimes even prohibited, during the entire medieval era. In text after text from leading authorities—John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine—these intense expressions of grief were singled out for attack. When Gregory of Nyssa describes the funeral procession for his sister St. Macrina, he proudly announces that the dignified participants sang psalms, but complains bitterly that these uplifting songs were interrupted by the pagan wailing of a sinful onlooker:
“Then the rest of the women joined her in crying out in the same way, and a wild confusion broke out, disrupting the ordered and sacred character of the psalm singing, as everyone echoed the women’s laments. We signaled to them to be quiet but it was hard to get them to do so.”
The Council of Toledo in 589 specifically forbade funeral songs—and added that striking the breast in grief was also prohibited. In other instances, the singing of laments was mentioned alongside physical lacerations, or what we nowadays call self-harm. The general notion was that a woman who engaged in this kind of singing was a danger to herself, and perhaps to others who, because of some strange mimetic force in the music, might be compelled to imitate her.
As bizarre as it sounds, medieval authorities even sent spies to observe mourning families to ensure proper decorum was maintained. Excesses could result in punishments, a sad state of affairs for those who were already bereft and grieving. Burchard of Worms, for example, not only attacks the “diabolical songs” performed by those “present at the watch over the corpses of the dead,” but even prescribes a penance of “thirty days on bread and water.”
None of these attacks had much impact, judging by the fact that the same prohibitions had to be repeated over and over.
But why would authorities dislike this music so intensely?
Church authorities often claimed that keening and other songs of lamentation ran counter to the official teaching that death was a passageway to resurrection and a blessed life to come. But I suspect that a deeper fear motivated the prohibitions. Intense emotions were always seen as dangerous, especially those associated with women, and could easily spread like a virus. Laments had to be suppressed at the very outset to prevent such contagion.
Even in modern times, the woman’s lament has continued to face marginalization. Classicist Charles Segal has labeled this song style as “negated music” and others have relied on similar terminology to brand the lament as a song that isn’t really a song.
Let me also suggest a more unusual motive here. The oldest songs about death known to us are typically from fertility rites in which explicit sexual language is intermixed with laments for a dying god. I write about these at more length in my Love Songs book, but the key point is that music about sex frequently intersects music about death—much more so than people realize—and that may explain why musical lamentations were often condemned by the same authorities that disliked songs about love and intimacy. That unusual connection survives even today, albeit in symbolic form—consider, for example, the controversial practice of hiring strippers to perform at Chinese funerals.
I don’t want to get distracted by these side topics, so let me return to the keening sound at the heart of the musical lament. It is half a cry and half a melody, and typically high pitched and melismatic. And it is employed in other settings than just a funeral or wake. In fact, when we trace its lineage, it’s surprising to learn how much it has evolved and spread over the centuries.
For example, the same kind of keening sound shows up in communities where herders need to control livestock. It’s almost uncanny how closely the keening lament resembles the cattle call. We also hear it in the yodeling of dairy farmers, as well as in various other countrified song styles. The sound seems to have a calming effect on domesticated animals—or perhaps on the herders and cowboys themselves.
This is how the keening sound entered country music. The earliest recorded cowboy songs are filled with yodeling and keening phrases—and for the simple reason that these were the melodies actually used with cattle. It’s no coincidence that commercial music star Jimmie Rodgers was called both “the Father of Country Music,” and the “Blue Yodeler.”
But why is the word “blue” combined with the word “yodeler” here? Is there any possible connection between blues and yodeling?
This is where the story of the keening sound gets very interesting. Some of the swooping, melismatic phrases of early blues reflect a very similar sound palette as early country music. I hear that keening sound in Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Robert Johnson, and many other blues singers.
And when the top stars in jazz and country music collaborated in the famous 1930 session that paired Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers, the song they recorded was “Blue Yodel 9.”
Many music fans today would be shocked by the idea that blues and country music share a common lineage. But the reason is obvious to me. All my research indicates that the blues is rural music, which started in the country and only slowly migrated to the city. You can tell as much just by looking at the subject matter of the famous early blues songs, which make frequent mention of cows, ponies, horses, and other pastoral elements.
As noted above, the keening song has always been more closely associated with the country than the city. Even in the medieval era, the peasants were the performers of the musical lament, while the more urbanized elites relied on sophisticated Latin songs at their funerals. So we shouldn’t be surprised to hear the same vocal techniques on the plantations and in the rural communities that gave rise to early blues music.
This finally changed in the 20th century, when the keening sound entered urban commercial music via the blues. You can hear it in soul music, R&B, and a host of other popular styles.
This evolution made sense in other ways too. As hinted above, there’s a long history connecting lamentations to love songs. That’s too big of a subject to outline here—the details would go back five thousand years—but even a casual music fan understands that a song about a broken heart is a kind of grieving. Hence, it’s hardly a coincidence that the keening sound has entered into commercial music as a quasi-spontaneous expression of love and desire, evident in vocalists as different from one another as Minnie Riperton, Roy Orbison, and Milton Nascimento (to cite just three examples)—or, in much different cultures, among the coloratura sopranos and castrati of the opera hall.
By the way, this strange history helps explain why some of the most macho blues artists (most famously Robert Johnson) have feminine, epicene singing styles. They are drawing on a song tradition that was originally associated with women. The keening sound did get masculinized, but not until the 20th century. The later intense popularity of black male singers with high-pitched sweeping voices (Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Prince, etc.) has a deep connection with this same tradition.
The keening sound simply isn’t satisfying in a low register. We want to hear those high-pitched cries of grief and desire, and the baritones don’t deliver the goods.
So the next time you hear someone complain about the “unwieldy exclamations and shrieks, approximately four and a half octaves” of Prince, you can remind them that this is simply the result of a pop music vocal tradition that originated in ancient funeral rites. When a naysayer tells you that Michael Jackson built his style on “grunts, squeals, and yelps,” you can enigmatically assert that this is his rebuttal of Plato and Augustine.
And in a way, it really is.