Jan Ling (1934-2013)

— a personal statement by Philip Tagg —

2013-10-03 is the day when Jan Ling died. He was 79, my PhD supervisor, dear friend and comrade-in-arms.

I first met Jan in 1968, just after moving to Göteborg, where I’d joined the same choir as his wife, Britt, who introduced us. I was delighted when he showed interest in the little study I'd done during my teacher-training year about the possible uses of popular music in secondary education. No-one else had seen much mileage in my ideas but Jan did. He asked me to give a short talk on the topic at the musicology department he’d recently set up as an alternative space for independent thinking about music in the real world, away from the city’s stifling euroclassical conservatory. His musicology department was a breakaway action successfully carried out on a shoestring budget with the department’s administration ‘in my jacket pocket’, as he put it.

Having recently spent three rather depressing years studying music at Cambridge University, one of the UK’s two great Renaissance Disneylands, it was for me a great joy and relief in 1968 to find someone who:

  • had a sense of humour and proportion;
  • talked sense and didn’t ponce about;
  • thought popular music education was important;
  • held skills in and knowledge about music to be of equal and complementary importance;
  • had an unswervingly democratic and egalitarian view of culture (including music) and society;
  • had the vision, guts and perseverance to put those humanist ideas into practice, and to make them work.

That’s how Jan Ling became my mentor and long-standing friend. All credit, too, to the Swedish social-democrat government of the day that had the good sense (in 1970) to call on Jan, rather than on anyone else, to set up and to head a new music teacher training college called SÄMUS.[1]

Jan Ling as head of SÄMUS in Göteborg (photo in Tonfallet, 1971-11-26)
[more pictures and report]

Popular music was an intrinsic part of the SÄMUS curriculum and was treated on a par with jazz, as well as with euroclassical and ‘folk’ music.[2] Jan hired me to teach aural keyboard accompaniment (ackordspel), music theory and music history which he quite rightly insisted we call Music & Society. All through the 1970s I worked closely with him, first in helping establish and develop courses involving popular music at the college, then as his PhD student working on my ‘Kojak thesis’. Who else would have had the guts back then to encourage someone writing hundreds of pages about fifty seconds of popular music? He’d turn up at my flat for an hour, read a few pages and say ‘you can’t say this because you haven’t defined it’, then read for another ten minutes and say ‘this is really good’, or ‘too much detail; get rid of it or put in a footnote’, or ‘this needs problematising’, ‘this is important; you need to highlight it’, or ‘you need a link here; it’s not clear where you’re going’, etc. Then we’d have a beer and discuss politics for a while...

Jan’s democratic principles didn’t just run to equal respect for all sorts of music and their audiences. He also put the principles into practice in the day-to-day running of first the music college (SÄMUS) and later of the whole University of Göteborg when he was its Vice-Chancellor in the 1990s. (Which other musicologist ever become Vice Chancellor?) Jan was a committed Marxist and humanist who would have been tortured, shot and ‘disappeared’, or at least vilified, sacked, exiled or marginalised, under an overtly repressive régime. He saw students, researchers and teachers as workers on the university shop floor, as those producing the university’s real values. Management, was there, in his view, to provide an essential service facilitating, not dictating, the production of those values.

Göteborg University bulletin Alba, 1993-05-14: cartoon accompanying interview with Jan Ling as recently appointed Vice-Chancellor

In fact, when Jan visited me in Liverpool in 1999, I came to understand that he was just as appalled as I was[3] by the pseudo-managerialism blighting universities, by its magic mumbo-jumbo, its moronic unidimensionality of league tables and peer-review publication bean counting, its insidious arrogance and its hijacking of public education and research. ‘Det är alldeles förfärligt, Phille’ (=it’s utterly appalling) is the polite version of what he actually had to say about it all.

‘Det är alldeles förfärligt’. Jan Ling and Philip Tagg at The Albert Dock, Liverpool, April 1999

Jan was a bold man with oodles of personal charm. He worked very hard, long hours. He knew how to listen and was quick to see positive potential in younger brothers and sisters. I’m just one among countless individuals he helped and encouraged to do something constructive or innovative with our lives, something that we were passionate about and that could be useful to the rest of humanity. At the same time, although he didn’t suffer fools gladly, he despised them much less than he did those who wielded the arrogance of power, or who exhibited dishonerty, pretence, hypocrisy, civil cowardice, moral sloth or lazy thinking. At a personal level, this is for me Jan’s most important legacy. It prevented me from making too many errors of judgement and kept me going through some difficult times. It is in my mind forever linked with his always pertinent Marxist question —‘Who actually pays for your trousers?’— and its answer —‘Surplus-value created by the working class’. It’s an abrupt and salutary reminder for us academics to examine why on earth we’re doing what with whose money to achieve what in whose interests. At least I know why I’m writing this!

Of course, Jan’s legacy goes beyond the personal and political issues just mentioned. His work on Swedish folkmusik[4] has been highly influential, not least his doctoral thesis about the keyed fiddle (nyckelharpa). There’s hardly a keyed fiddle player in the world who hasn’t either heard of Jan Ling or used information first documented in his 1967 PhD thesis Nyckelharpan to learn about the instrument. The trust that Jan gained from the musicians he studied in rural Uppland, especially from Eric Sahlström, is obvious in his work and may even have inadvertently contributed to the creation of heritage industry phenomena like the Eric Sahlström Institute (“National Folk Music Centre in Tobo”) and the Eric Sahlström Minnesfond (Memorial Fund), which in 2012 hosted a sell-out gig featuring the Benny Andersson Orchestra. It’s worth noting that Swedish folkmusik,[4] more or less written off as moribund by Jan in 1964, rebounded, thanks in part to his writings on that very same subject, to permeate the nation’s mainstream music culture in the 1970s. That revival is exemplified by the 50-kronor nyckelharpa banknote (see below) and by the fact that Sweden’s Traditional Musicians of the Year were, in 1982, Abba (incl. Benny Andersson) and, in 1983, Eric Sahlström and Jan Ling.

The nyckelharpa became such an icon of Swedishness (svenskheten) in the public conscious that it is featured on the
back of 50-kronor banknotes. Famed
19th-century Swedish soprano
Jenny Lind is on the front.
Above: Jan Ling’s folkmusik books:
[1] Nyckelharpan: studier i ett folkligt musikinstrument (PhD, 1967);
[2] Svensk folkmusik (1964);
[3] Europas musikhistoria — Folkmusiken (1989);
[4] A History of European Folk Music (1997).
For more details, see selected bibliography.

Jan’s interest and expertise in svensk folkmusik[5] never involved quests for a Holy Grail of ‘authenticity’. He simply loved music and wanted to understand how it worked in the real lives of real people. Svensk folkmusik, more specifically music in rural Uppland, where his father was organist and where Eric Sahlström lived, was literally close to him. In 1994 he told me:

‘Sometimes I used to run choir practice in [my] Dad’s church while I was studying piano at the Stockholm Conservatory [1956-8]. I remember thinking that the locals in the choir were hopelessly unmusical: their intonation and tone production were awful, I thought ... Not until I got properly into ethnomusicological work with Ernst [Emsheimer],[6] in fact not until I did my work on the keyed fiddle, did I start to understand how truly musical those same locals actually were and how much that musicality was related to music having real functions in the day-to-day lives of real people, something that was clearly absent in the way my piano studies were conducted.’

Jan seemed to have two modes of dealing with this realisation. One was quite amusing and involved the use of colourful expressions like ‘piano broilers’ and ‘performing seals for a fast disappearing labour market’ to draw attention to the absurdities of the conservatory system. The other was less amusing but more constructive.

Answering questions after his paper ‘The Gärdeby Folk Melody: a Musical Migrant’ (Ling 1985a, about a folk-pop crossover) at the second IASPM international conference.

Jan’s interest in popular music derived also from his first job cataloguing all sorts of music for Sveriges Radio and Svenskt visarkiv. During this period (1962-7) he worked closely with respected popular song composer Ulf-Peder Olrog.
Jan clearly realised that although there were other values in music than those propagated in institutions like the Stockholm Conservatory, it would be absurd to replace one set of exclusivist aesthetics (euroclassical ‘authenticity’) with another (folk ‘authenicity’). In Jan’s mind all music —euroclassical, folk, jazz, pop, rock, etc.— had a function. It all involved musical and social competences among real people in real cultural situations. No music could be included in or excluded from education or research on arbitary and unprovable grounds of intrinsic superiority or inferiority. That’s one reason why Jan saw no problem in encouraging me and others to develop the field of popular music studies. In fact, even though he never feigned expertise in such intrinsically urban musics as jazz, rock and pop and their related sub-genres, he penned several important articles dealing with crossovers between folkmusik and rock-related genres (Ling (1978, 1983, 1985)). His reflections on ‘world music’ (Ling 2003) are, I think, particularly valuable.

It’s essential here to underline that without Jan I would have been unable to co-organise, along with Gerard Kempers, the first international conference on popular music (Amsterdam, 1981), not just for practical reasons (phone, typewriter, university pre-paid envelopes, time off, etc. that he had to vouch for as department head) but, more importantly, because I knew I had his backing for what I was trying to do. This encouragement gave me the confidence boost I needed to see it all through (1979-83). It helped me face up to some daunting tasks and to overcome fears about founding an international association (what became IASPM) with no finance or official backing, about writing its statutes and rules of procedure without legal expertise, about building it all up from scratch, about all the things that could go wrong, etc. When it all seemed ‘a bit too much’ I was able to argue that if Jan could establish a previously non-existent musicology department in 1968 (with all the admin in his jacket pocket), if he could successfully set up and run a completely new type of music teacher training college, why couldn’t we start an International Association for the Study of Popular Music (with all the admin in three files)? We could and we did. In IASPM’s early days we may have been ridiculed by reactionary forces, as Jan had been, but, also like Jan, we prevailed. I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have had such a courageous role model dedicated to making the world a better place and having fun while doing so. If only there were more like him...

I also think it’s important, when considering the future of (any sort of) music studies to understand their history, including the role of pioneering individuals like Jan Ling (and his supervisor, Ernst Emsheimer). I’ve written about all that in The Göteborg Connection: lessons in the history and politics of popular music education and research. Now, even though some anglocentrics may find it hard to believe that something happening in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s can have any bearing on what needs to be done today for tomorrow in their own patch of ‘Angloland’, I strongly recommend the article to anyone interested in understanding essential issues affecting the success or failure of (popular) music studies at any time and in any place. It’s all as relevant now (October 2013) as it was back then.

While Jan has been a huge influence on the rebirth of traditional music in his native Sweden, as well as a driving force in the democratic reform of music studies and music policies both at home and abroad, some of his seminal work has been passed over in relative silence. I’m referring to the sort of writings illustrated here.

Important books by Jan Ling. [1] Europas musikhistoria -1730 (1983). [2] En rundresa med Charles Burney. 1700-talets musikmiljöer (2004).
[3] Franz Liszt och 1800-talets konstmusik (2009).[4] Musiken som tidsspegel - 12 essäer om musiken kring sekelskiftet 1900 (2013).

Jan’s 1983 history of European music up until 1730 is an exceptional book. For example, despite inevitable practical problems with source materials, Jan presents the music of the people (folkmusiken)[7] alongside, on a par with and as a prerequisite for the official music of courts and cathedrals. It’s a meticulously researched and attractively presented book with plenty of illustrations. The only explanation that I can think of for its unfortunately rare appearance in lists of course literature on line is that it doesn’t square with conventional notions of folk/popular and art/classical music that still all too often determine the division of music into institutionally inherited genre categories corresponding to conservative notions of what belongs with what and to the teaching staff’s narrow areas of competence. As I’ve already explained, Jan was not interested in genre apartheid (or any other kind of apartheid!).

Jan’s 2004 Burney book is a gem. I’ve used it on several occasions to find out about musical scenes in Europe at a time when the (then) new instrumental music was all the rage in bourgeois circles, well before it became a set of deep-frozen (or canned) rules and practices conserved in conservatories. Like Burney, Jan was a consumate musical thinker who wanted to understand how music worked in the lives of real people in different places. The paradox is, I think, that although ‘scenes’ (musikmiljöer = lit. ‘music environments’) are common topics in popular music studies, the implication of cultural context and variability (‘scenes’), is in direct contradiction with any notion of music imagined as ‘absolute’ in conservative minds. As I’ve explained, Jan strongly opposed such misguided orthodoxy.

I’ve yet to read Jan’s Liszt book (2009) or his twelve essays (2013). I’m definitely looking forward to doing so. Meanwhile, the choice of Liszt is, I think, typical Jan. Instead of dealing with a ‘serious’ composer, a genius of ‘absolute’ music, he’s gone for someone caricatured by many a critic with ‘good taste’ as a flashy, scandalous, virtuoso celebrity of international fame, for someone who even thought that instrumental music could express more than ‘just itself’. I can’t wait...

Of course I’m gutted that Jan’s life has ended. But putting this web page together has reminded me so strongly of who he was and what he meant to me, and probably to many others like me. I am so glad about and grateful for his life, for how and who he was and for what he did. No-one could ask more of anyone. OK, I do wish he could have had the extra years that abominations like Thatcher and Pinochet were granted, but he didn’t. My point is that although he may have, as he would have said himself, trillat av pinnen,[8] he sure as hell (klart som fan, Janne! )[8] lives on in me and in so many others.

As I look at the recent photo of Jan shown below, I don’t hear him telling me to grieve inconsolably. He’s saying ‘Kom igen, Phille, ge dem en rejäl omgång!’ (approx. = ‘Go on, Phil, give them a proper going-over!’). He knew that I knew that he knew that the struggle for a better world, inside and outside the world of music studies, does not stop when you die. It carries on after you’ve gone in the struggle of younger people to make the world a better place. Jan is living proof of that and I hereby pledge not just to fight, but to enjoy fighting, as he did, to make the world a better place so that those who come after me will feel as inspired to do so as I am, thanks to him.

Ett jävligt stort tack till dig, Janne!

‘Ge dem en rejäl omgång!’


1. Back to main text SÄMUS = Särskild Ämnesutbildning i Musik. For more info, see The Göteborg Connection, pp. 14-18.
2. Back to main text Folk in Swedish means people. It doesn’t have the same archaic connotations as the English word folk.
3. Back to main text See Audititis — The Contagion (Tagg 2002).
4. Back to main text Folk in Swedish means people. It doesn’t have the same archaic connotations as the English word folk.
5. Back to main text Folk in Swedish means people. It doesn’t have the same archaic connotations as the English word folk.
6. Back to main text Ernst Emsheimer was Jan Ling’s mentor and PhD supervisor. He had a profound effect on Jan’s development as a critical and independent thinker. You can learn more about Ernst if you check out ‘The Göteborg Connection’, pp. 9-13.
7. Back to main text Folk in Swedish means people. It doesn’t have the same archaic connotations as the English word folk.
8. Back to main textTrilla av pinnen is a typically irreverent Jan Ling use of a popular/slang expression for something serious. It literally means ‘drop off the perch’ like a dead parrot in a cage. A close English equivalent might be to ‘snuff it’. The spirit of Klart som fan can be rendered ‘sure as hell’, ‘you betcha!’, ‘too damned right!’, ‘claro que sí’, etc.

Jan Ling: selected bibliography

About SÄMUS in Tonfallet, 1971-11-26, p. 4