John Anthony Randall Blacking (1928-1990) was born in Guilford, Surrey, but his family moved to Salisbury, Wiltshire, when he was two-years-old, where his father worked as an Anglican ecclesiastical architect. He received a Cathedral choir school education (1934-1942), where he began his studies of music, before going on to Sherborne School (1942-47), which had a good reputation for music, allowing him to continue to pursue his musical interests. He became an accomplished pianist, and for a time entertained aspirations of becoming a concert performer. Though his career took a different path, the piano remained a companion throughout his life, and he frequently played in public.
Upon completing his studies he entered the Army, and was sent to Malaya. He became fascinated by the country's musical traditions and religious diversity, and engaged in independent studies of Malay culture and language. When he returned to England in 1949 he decided to read Social Anthropology, with the intention of returning to Malaya to pursue these new interests. He took his degree from King's College, Cambridge (1950-1953), under Meyer Fortes, who encouraged him to combine his interests in music with his anthropological studies, and during his final year at Cambridge he spent a summer in Paris with André Schaeffner at the Musée de l'Homme, receiving basic training in musical ethnology.
After taking his degree he found employment under Army command as a civilian assistant adviser on aboriginal affairs, which took him back to Malaya, where he intended to begin field research as part of the job. Almost as soon as he took up the post, however, he lost it for objecting to Army plans to displace the native peoples of the forest. Still in the hope of conducting fieldwork in Malaya, he moved to Singapore, taking a teaching post, but the lack of research funds, made it impossible for him to pursue his aims. In a letter from Fortes, he was told that Hugh Tracey had received a large Nuffield Foundation grant, and was searching for someone to assist him in making recordings of African music. Blacking wrote to Tracey, who offered him a job at the International Library of African Music in Roodeport, South Africa. He immediately packed his bags and set off for South Africa, where he remained for fifteen years (1953-1969), until he was declared persona non grata, for his anti-apartheid views and activities.
Soon after he arrived in South Africa he accompanied Tracey on short recording expeditions to Kwazulu and Mozambique. Though this type of documentation was the common practice in Ethnomusicology at the time, these experiences made him acutely aware of the limitations of such field methods, as they did not permit the researcher to establish relationships between the music being recorded and the wider social context of its performance. He convinced Tracey to allow him to apply anthropological field techniques to musical research, and he embarked on his now famous expedition to the Venda, which lasted from May 1956 to December 1958. He began by learning to speak Tshivenda, and throughout his stay he participated in music and dance activities with his hosts, keeping careful records of all aspects of Venda culture: the political structure, the economic system, kinship and marriage patterns, and ritual life, but he also documented Venda history and the vast Venda repertoire of expressive forms. He returned from the field with extensive notes, recordings, photographs and film footage; arguably he held the most complete record of a single non-western musical culture ever amassed up to that time. The primary data collected during those twenty-two months provided the basis for his publications for the remainder of his professional career, and when he died he was working on a collection of three volumes dedicated to the music and culture of the Venda.
Before undertaking his extended field expedition, Blacking married Brenda Gebers, with whom he had five children, but two of them died in childhood. Immediately after he returned from the field he took up his first lectureship at the University of Witwatersrand. In 1965 he was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Witwatersrand for his work on Venda children's songs, and in the same year he was made Professor and Head of the Department of Social Anthropology.
Blacking wrote extensively during this period, formulating what he came to call the 'cultural analysis of music', in which he showed how "musical structures [grew] out of cultural patterns of which they [were] a part" (Blacking 1967b:191). In "Musical Expeditions of the Venda," published in 1962, for example, he showed how musical performance articulated with the Venda political structure, a theme also prominent in "Songs, Dances, Mimes and Symbolism of Venda Girls' Initiation Schools (Parts 1-4)" (Blacking 1969c), which forms the basis of this Website/CD-Rom. Just as he showed that knowledge of an appropriate repertoire constituted a social asset for children in his first major monograph, Venda Children's Songs (Blacking 1967b), in his studies of the girls' initiation schools he emphasized the social advantages women obtained from learning the schools' songs and 'laws', whether or not they grasped the pedagogical and symbolic content of the repertoire. His research stressed the part played by 'cultural situations' in processes of music acquisition, and he highlighted the connections between the acquisition of musical skills and social skills. Musicological analysis was also shown to be dependent upon cultural factors; he outlined the complex inter-relationships between Venda concepts of music, their compositional procedures, the relationships between different genres in the Venda repertoire and the speech-tones of the Venda language in generating the principles of the Venda musical system.
Blacking left South Africa with Zureena Desai, who would become his second wife; they had four daughters. He was offered a professorship at the Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, but while he waited for his visa he was offered another professorship at The Queen's University of Belfast, which he took up in 1970, on the condition that he be allowed to spend the first year in America. Though Blacking never lectured on Ethnomusicology at any of the institutions at which he held permanent employment, he played a leading role in the establishment of the discipline in the United Kingdom, Europe and further afield. He founded the degree programme in Ethnmusicology at Queen's, with both undergraduate and post-graduate levels of study, for which two permanent Ethnomusicology posts were established. He attracted students to Belfast from all over the world, playing a significant role in the training of professional ethnomusicologists in many parts of the globe. Moreover, he founded the ESEM (European Seminar in Ethnomusicology), a professional association with a predominately European membership, and he also played an active role within the UK branch of the ICTM (International Council for Traditional Music), now known as the British Forum in Ethnomusicology. He was also the only president of the SEM (Society for Ethnomusicology) not based in an American academic institution.
Blacking is probably best remembered for his book How Musical is Man? (1973b), which was based on his John Danz lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle. Its success transcended the English-speaking world, with translations into several language, including French, Greek, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and Japanese. Written in a fluid and accessible style, it continues to provide a stimulating introduction to the concerns of Ethnomusicology for undergraduates and non-specialist readers.
As Reginald Byron (1995 :17-18) has pointed out,
While one may question his idealised vision of the role of music in society, he definitely broadened the scope of ethnomusicological inquiry into new realms of exploration which remain a challenge to the discipline.
After How Musical is Man?, Blacking produced only one other single-authored book, 'A Common-Sense View of all Music': Reflections on Percy Grainger's Writings on Ethnomusicology and Music Education (1987e), but he edited two other volumes, The Anthropology of the Body (1977d) and The Performing Arts: Anthropological Perspectives (1979b), and he was a prolific publisher of scholarly articles, many of which can be found in the major ethnomusicological journals. Furthermore, he was the general editor of the Cambridge Series in Ethnomusicology, and he also produced a series of six programmes called "Dancing" for Ulster Television, aired in 1988.