What do you call somebody who hangs out with musicians?  Answer:  A drummer.

What do you call a drummer with half a brain?  Answer:  Gifted.

A man walks into a bar and says to the bartender, ‘Hey, want to hear a great drummer joke?’  The bartender stares at the man and replies, ‘Before you tell your joke, I need to warn you that I’m actually a drummer myself.  And the two tough-looking bikers at the end of the bar are also drummers.  And the pair of sumo wrestlers sitting in the back are drummers too.  And the two police officers in the far corner are drummers.  So you might want to think twice before telling your drummer joke here.  The man looks at the bartender and says, ‘Thanks for the warning.  I’d hate to have to explain it seven times.’

Those jokes are told (not without appreciation) in an unusual and interesting book I’ve just read by Matt Brennan.  It’s called ‘Kick it.  A Social History of the Drum Kit’ and it’s excellent.  A lot of the history that follows is taken from it.  The jokes are typical of many others regularly made about how drummers are thick and uneducated and how their role requires no talent.  The character of Animal in the Muppets is a parody of the primitive savage underlying the stereotypes.

The devil’s invention

Brennan traces the origins of the disdain for drummers and drumming back in time over years and even centuries – giving  examples along the way – all the way, in fact, until 1511 when a compendium of musical instruments written by Sebastian Virdung excluded drums from the list.  That was because ‘the devil invented and made them, for there is absolutely nothing pleasant or good about them’.

And yet, as Brennan writes, ‘drums have provided the pulse of popular music from the earliest days of jazz through to the chart pop of the present day.  […]  The sounds of the drum kit have influenced almost every major genre of music from the twentieth century onwards’.   He quotes a drums magazine from the 1930s pointing out that ‘a drummer in a […] band can do more toward making or breaking things than a whole room full of saxes, trumpets and what not’.

Drumming and slavery

I said that a notion of the primitive savage underlies drummer stereotypes and Brennan’s book gets really fascinating and disturbing when he looks at the critical part played in this by the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  The major instrument of black Africa was the drum and on the ships transporting them to the New World enslaved Africans were sometimes forced to exercise by dancing to the rhythm of a drum.  They were flogged if they showed any reluctance.

Once arrived at their destination, slaves were often forbidden by law to play drums themselves because slave owners were worried about the instrument being a sophisticated way of communicating over long distances and organizing rebellion.  So slaves would beat their hands against their bodies instead.  Witnesses described the rhythmic complexity and the skill on show.  One of them wrote, ‘I have never seen it equalled in my life’.

The racist roots

But such appreciation seems to have been rare.  In New Orleans, where slaves were allowed to keep their drums and their ancestral musical and dance practices, a traveller called Benjamin Latrobe watched one Sunday in 1819 while a large group of slaves in Congo Square were permitted to relax and make music.  ‘An old man sat astride a cylindrical drum […] and beat it with incredible quickness with the edge of his hand and fingers […].  I have never seen anything more brutally savage and at the same time dull and stupid than this whole exhibition’.

So the roots of the drummer jokes made so casually in modern times turn out to be profoundly racist.


Nineteenth-century American and European musical culture then built on the early slavery-fuelled racism.  At first, in the United States, working-class, middle-class and upper-class audiences would all attend anything from Shakespeare to opera.  But as the century progressed, a division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture was created.  ‘Wealthy benefactors, art critics, theatre management personnel and orchestra conductors all contributed to a larger movement towards ‘sacralizing’ certain kinds of concerts’.  Popular genres of music began to be looked down on.  Classical music was heavenly and therefore other types of music necessarily inhabited lower realms.

High brow, low brow

The words ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ were invented – literally high and low brow in that they derived from nineteenth-century racial and racist beliefs about the shapes and capacities of skulls.  The terms have stuck.  Even to our own day.  As Brennan notes, ‘what initially looks like a division according to genre – the bourgeois elite’s mission to elevate some kinds of music […] and denigrate other kinds of music […] – quickly descends into base assumptions about the race, class and status of people associated with that genre (non-white and/or working-class culture becomes coded as lowbrow in opposition to white and/or aristocratic culture as highbrow)’.

It won’t be any surprise to hear that drummers and drums went straight to the bottom of this hierarchy.  They were less intellectual, less valuable and – guess what – more primitive than music made, say, on a violin.

Jazz – the great equalizer

Some musical balance began to be redressed and some inroads into racism began to be made with the advent of jazz in the early twentieth century.  Brennan quotes Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins saying that ‘the particular combination of sounds that characterize jazz is uniquely African-American’.  And many of the early influential jazz drummers were black.  Individuals like Baby Dodds, Buddie Gilmore and Chick Webb showed that you needed as much talent, skill and dedication (often including, incidentally, the capacity to read notation) to play drums as you did to play any other instrument and that they had these qualities in abundance.  They were mesmerizing musicians who in turn influenced some of the legends of drumming like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

Jazz and drumming generally refused to play the game of trying to enter classical music’s sphere in order to be compared favourably with it.  One final great quote from Matt Brennan makes the point:  ‘Because the music they made was so compelling, drummers challenged the very preconceptions that underpinned classical music’s claim to superiority – the claim that it was ‘high art’ and other forms of (mostly popular and non-Western) music were somehow lower and less deserving.  As the global reach of the drum kit grew, it actively broke down barriers between high and low, undermined the tenuous arguments propping up such boundaries, and helped to expose the high-low divide for what it was:  a dubious cultural power grab by Eurocentric elites on the wrong side of history’.


Obviously everything I’ve discussed here has been about prejudice.  The human capacity for objectifying and mistreating people because of difference or supposed inferiority seems endless.  As we know, anything can be used for this – ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability and so on.

Drumming and your mother

But there just may be one other reason why drummers have been denigrated.  Drumming is all about rhythm and rhythm is everywhere in our world.  When you think about it, it’s a strange thing to disparage.  There’s the rhythm of day and night, the rhythm of the seasons, the rhythm of the years.  There’s the rhythm of a church bell or the rhythm of a ticking clock.  There are even rhythms – or at least beats – in the quantum world.  And if your heart has problems with its rhythm it’s a good idea to have a chat with someone about it.

That rhythm of the heart may shed more light on why people have looked down on drumming.  I was once on a Cherokee Indian reservation where the point was made that cowboy films have got it wrong when they portray the sound of Indian drumbeats as dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.  The actual beat was dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.  And that is the rhythm of a mother’s heartbeat – the first rhythm we all hear.

In the language of psychotherapy, that’s a primitive sound.  Not in the sense of unsophisticated but in the sense of early (although it is also unsophisticated).  Could that early, simple and basic sound of the heartbeat be another reason why drumming has been belittled as an art form?