© Derek Massey

family group sitting together on and around a coffee table and comfy chairs

© Derek Massey

For numerous musicians the family plays a central part in their musical learning. In her study of music-making in the English midlands city of Milton Keynes in the 1980s, 'The Hidden Musicians' (1989), Ruth Finnegan concluded that the family was more important than social class in an individual's decision to become involved in music. A few years later the sociologist Mavis Bayton found that parental encouragement or musicality was the key factor for about one-third of the women rock musicians she interviewed for her book 'Frock Rock'.

However the family's central role is perhaps most evident in the various forms of traditional music found around the world. In West Africa music is often seen as part of the inheritance of certain families, called 'griots' or 'jalis'. These have formed a special caste in society for hundreds of years. The role of the griot has been to sing the praises of the aristocratic families that formerly ruled parts of the modern nation states of Mali, Gambia, Senegal and Ivory Coast. Such stars of the world music scene as Youssou N'Dour and Toumani Diabate come from griot families. Conversely another world music star, Salif Keita, became a musician in the face of disapproval from his family. He told an interviewer "I come from a noble family. We are not supposed to become singers. If a noble had anything to say, he said it through a griot." (quoted in Stapleton and May, 1992: 111)

Writing in 1970 the English folk singer, song collector and broadcaster Bob Copper explained how his father Jim learned songs from his own father (Bob's grandfather), a farm labourer in Sussex. In the cottage on winter evenings his grandfather would sing whilst peforming menial tasks with the family learning and joining in (Copper 1970:24). Similarly, Irish traditional music is intimately connected with musical families. Many of today's professional virtuosos learned their instrumental or vocal skills from relatives who were part of a tradition, singing in their communities as part of everyday life. For example the singer Dolores Keane had two aunts who were well known internationally through their folk song recordings.

Families can be very important repositories of culture in dispersed, immigrant communities. Robert Amoo, a guitarist and tap-dancer from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) arrived in Liverpool in the 1930s. He performed in various Black-owned clubs with such performers as Eddie Jenkins and Powie and Johnny Wenton. In the late 1950s Robert's sons Chris and Eddy formed a black vocal harmony group, the Chants, with Joe Ankarah, whose Ghanaian father was a church organist in Liverpool. In the 1970s Chris and Eddy formed the Real Thing, a soul group that found success in the charts and on television. Later Eddy's four daughters (Robert Amoo's grandchildren) sang and danced together as a vocal group (Cohen, 2007).

But there are also occasions when children born into a musical family rebel against their inheritance and adopt a different music genre as their own. One example of this is the Campbell family of Birmingham, England. Ian Campbell was a well-known figure in the British folk music revival of the 1960s. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he moved to Birmingham and formed his own folk group and ran a weekly club. His sons Alistair and Robin were brought up in the family folk song tradition. In their autobiography they recalled how they would sing soul songs at family gatherings to disapproving relatives (Campbell and Campbell, 2006: 28). A few years later, Ali and Robin formed the renowned multiracial reggae band UB40.

However generational differences in musical taste and commitment need not be so discordant. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were fanatical about Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll, music that was supposed to have caused a 'generation gap'. Nevertheless, both had strong support from at least some of the older generation in their families. Julia Lennon, John's mother, allowed her house to be used for rehearsals of the skiffle group the Quarry Men. Paul's father had been the leader of a dance band in Liverpool, and he taught his son various musical techniques. Other relatives of Paul were also involved with making music (for example, see Cohen and McManus, 1994).