The love song has dominated Western music for a thousand years, since the rise of the troubadours. But its history, as commonly told, is filled with distortions, half-truths and a few bald-faced lies. The real innovators, who created almost every key thematic element in this music, are left out of the history books—especially the visionaries from Africa and the Middle East who gave us the modern love song.
I’ve been researching the history of the love song for more than two decades—an effort that has resulted in my new book Love Songs: The Hidden History. If asked to sum up what I’ve learned in a single sentence, I’d repeat Will Rogers canny observation: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you; it's what you think you know that ain't so."
In the history of the love song, the common narrative stresses the centrality of Europe and the United States in the evolution of the music. But at several decisive junctures over the last 5,000 years, Western songs of courtship, romance, and sexuality have been fundamentally changed by the introduction of African and Middle Eastern innovations.
In the modern day, we are familiar with white rock musicians borrowing sexualized lyrics and song structures from the blues, and building their successes off innovations from the African diaspora. But are you aware that a similar cross-cultural borrowing took place in the middle of the 19th century? Or that the troubadours of the late medieval period drew on precedents from Africa and the Middle East? Or that a similar cultural appropriation took place in ancient times?
Some of these borrowings are entirely written out of the music history books. The qiyan, the singing female slaves of the Islamic world, invented the key elements of courtly love long before they were known in Europe. I have a whole shelf of books on troubadour love songs in front of me, and not one of them mentions these innovators, whose music spread into Europe via North Africa after the Muslim conquest of Spain. Yet the bold concept of lovers pledging service to their beloved, the key to the troubadour songs, came from these enslaved women—who adopted this tone for the simple reason that they lived in actual servitude.
All-but-forgotten sources tell us of an even earlier meeting between African and European musical cultures from the 7th century. Saint Valerius, an ascetic monk from this period whose autobiographical sketches have survived, was shocked by his encounter with an Ethiopian priest who performed love songs on the lute. Valerius resided in Spain before the Moorish invasion, but his experiences make it clear that African songs of romance were entering Europe even during the Visigoth era. It is worth nothing that no love songs in the vernacular language have survived from the Christian world during this period—so these hints of a vibrant African tradition are especially revealing.
At a still earlier stage in Western history, Sappho gained renown as the celebrated “inventor” of the ancient love song. But who knows the name of Enheduanna, the Sumerian high priestess who wrote sexually-charged love songs more than 1,500 years before the Greek poetess? Enheduanna is the oldest songwriter identified by name whose works have survived, yet only a handful of specialists in Assyriology have any grasp of her significance. More than anyone, she deserves credit for creating the love song—but music history textbooks ignore her contributions.
Even closer to our modern love songs, however, are the lyrics unearthed in Egypt from the 19th and 20th dynasties. These also pre-date the Greek lyric poets by centuries, yet here too this important legacy is known only to a few scholars. And here, as in the other instances mentioned above, the most innovative love songs adopt a female perspective. This is obvious in the cases of Enheduanna and Sappho—who were women, after all—but is more surprising when we find feminine love songs attributed to powerful men.
Perhaps the most famous instance of this is the biblical Song of Songs, attributed by tradition to King Solomon, but filled with the perspectives of a female lover. Theologians have long wrestled with interpreting this anomaly. How did erotic songs get into the Bible? Was this unusual scriptural text influenced by the precedents from Egypt and Mesopotamia?
Biblical scholars, however, won’t know how frequently powerful men in other cultures—Confucius in ancient China or the nobles of the troubadour era—have participated in a similar gender shift. A lesson I’ve drawn from my research is a simple one, but it took me a long time to learn: when a powerful man gets credit for a new way of singing about love, there is usually a hidden story—about a slave or woman or some other forgotten innovator—hidden in the background worth unearthing.
This story repeated itself in the United States. The minstrel songs of the 19th century helped establish the careers of many songwriters and performers, who borrowed (and typically distorted) the musical innovations of slaves. The story has an uncanny resemblance to what had taken place in Europe during the Middle Ages. Innovations from Africa serve as the building blocks for a style attributed to the ruling class. "Oh! Susanna," the biggest selling love song of its day, made its white composer Stephen Foster famous, but the original lyrics (almost never sung nowadays) make clear that he was both imitating and denigrating black slave culture.
And again in the 20th century, the African element revolutionized the love song via the blues, which dealt with romance in an earthy and often raunchy way that shook up the music industry—but also led to the emergence of more white imitators who achieved sales and renown far beyond anything experienced by the actual innovators. Robert Johnson is acknowledged nowadays for his guitar acumen and saucy blues lyrics, but when he died in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938, he was hardly known to music fans, and during his life Johnson made just a few dollars per day from his songs. But another Mississippi lad born three years earlier, named Elvis Presley, would build his own career on the foundation of the blues … and sell 600 million records!
The most amazing part of this story is how the same plot is repeated over and over again. What took place in ancient Mesopotamia is echoed during the Middle Ages, and again in 19th century America, and finally at the heart of the 20th century music industry. The ascendancy of the love song to the dominant position in Western music is the cumulative result of these cross-cultural innovations. Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge the innovators from outside the Western world who laid the groundwork for this success.
Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History will be published by Oxford University Press on February 10.