Useful Music

by Jonathan Crowe

Useful Music is all that remains of the ambitious plans I had, in graduate school, to write a social history of music that examined it from the ground up, looking at public participation in musical activities, from piano lessons to music in schools to community bands.

In late 1994 or early 1995, while studying for my M.A. in History at the University of Waterloo, I got it into my head to study the social history of music. The idea could be expressed with a succinct question: “Why do parents make their children take piano lessons?” I thought that a lot of class-based and cultural assumptions were wrapped up in the answer to that question, and I thought it would be extremely interesting to pursue it. Everyone I mentioned it to thought so too.

The problem was that I had already picked the wrong field: I had decided to study the history of modern France, which was a little inaccessible for an impoverished Canadian graduate student, especially for a topic that necessitated local and archival research. I’d have to wait until my Ph.D. before I would have the opportunity to study this question in a French context.

In the meantime, though, I thought it would be a good idea to test it with a local project. I was then enrolled in Wendy Mitchinson’s Canadian Social History seminar, and needed a topic for a research paper for the second term. Since social history was frequently best done as local history, I would tackle the question in Waterloo County in the early twentieth century.

The paper got an A and was well received. After I completed my M.A., I continued to work on it. I returned to Kitchener and found a treasure trove in the Waterloo County Board of Education’s archives — stored, atrociously, in a leaky warehouse. That material I incorporated into a shorter version of the paper that I presented at a graduate student conference in the fall of 1996.

As a proof of concept, my research was a tremendous success. I had plans to continue, even get the paper published in a major journal, but my Ph.D. work overtook them. After I left the Ph.D. program in 1999, I left academe behind altogether; discouraged and burnt out, I wanted nothing more to do with the subject.

Even so, in early 2002 I started work on Useful Music, hoping it could be some kind of repository for studies in the social history of music, with contributions from divers hands. Unfortunately, my heart still wasn’t in it, and the site languished, lacking even an index page, for years. I posted my conference paper and two selections from my research, but nothing more.

In July 2005, I decided to wrap things up on this site: finish off what was here, clean it up, and acknowledge that nothing more would be forthcoming on this subject. And write this little introduction.

In a sense, this site represents what could have been, had I finished my Ph.D. If it stimulates some interest in the subject, I’d be delighted. There was a time when my supervisor warned against revealing what I was working on — someone might steal the idea, she warned me. I don’t subscribe to such proprietary notions any more; besides, if it was mine, I should have done something with it by now, even out of academe.

Table of Contents

The Better Class of Music
My conference paper, as presented in the fall of 1996, warts and all.
Mr. Lindsay’s Minority Report
The minutes from the Galt Public School Board reveal a fascinating story about a stubborn trustee with some fixed ideas about music instruction.
Mr. Sefton’s Salutary Songs
A music textbook with hilarious lyrics that shows us what music instruction was really for.