Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crowby Karl Hagstrom Miller
In Segregating Sound, Karl Hagstrom Miller argues that the categories that we have inherited to think and talk about southern music bear little relation to the ways that southerners long played and heard music. Focusing on the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, Miller chronicles how southern music—a fluid complex of sounds and styles in practice—was reduced to a series of distinct genres linked to particular racial and ethnic identities. The blues were African American. Rural white southerners played country music. By the 1920s, these depictions were touted in folk song collections and the catalogs of “race” and “hillbilly” records produced by the phonograph industry. Such links among race, region, and music were new. Black and white artists alike had played not only blues, ballads, ragtime, and string band music, but also nationally popular sentimental ballads, minstrel songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and Broadway hits.
In a cultural history filled with musicians, listeners, scholars, and business people, Miller describes how folklore studies and the music industry helped to create a “musical color line,” a cultural parallel to the physical color line that came to define the Jim Crow South. Segregated sound emerged slowly through the interactions of southern and northern musicians, record companies that sought to penetrate new markets across the South and the globe, and academic folklorists who attempted to tap southern music for evidence about the history of human civilization. Contending that people’s musical worlds were defined less by who they were than by the music that they heard, Miller challenges assumptions about the relation of race, music, and the market.
"A cultural exploration and, in part, a polemic, Segregating Sound is at once a social history, musical history, business history and an intellectual history. . . . Miller is an engaging writer who regularly turns memorable phrases. Thickly researched and cogently argued, Segregating Sound makes a thought-provoking, very likely lasting contribution to how we think about and relate to American musical genres.” - Barry Mazor, American Songwriter
“[B]rilliant . . . . Miller is the first scholar to take the overwhelming presence of popular music in the South seriously and to weave the story of changing ideas about what makes music ‘authentic’ into the history of what musicians from the South were actually playing and what people were actually listening to. Segregating Sound tells the stories of the varied cast of characters who invented the category of southern music, a significant part of what is called ‘folk’ or ‘Americana’ or ‘roots’ music today and understood as part of the American musical canon.” - Grace Hale, Southern Spaces
“[A] marvelous reappraisal of early 20th century American musical culture. . . . [Miller’s] book is rich with examples of folklorists or academics heading south in search of something ‘elemental’ and pure, and editing out anything that didn't fit. And there was a lot.” - Hua Hsu, TheAtlantic.com
“Miller . . . provides a fascinating exploration of the segregation of commercial music in the US during the course of the 20th century. . . . Supported by extensive notes, this study adds considerably to the already extensive literature on the blues and country music.” - R. D. Cohen, Choice
“Ultimately Miller’s study succeeds because it questions many assumptions about folk and pop music, and about the commercial music business and the academic folklore world.” - Rory Crutchfield, Popular Music
“Segregating Sound provides a convincing and far-reaching argument that the duality within southern music developed out of three factors in the latter part of the nineteenth century: the rise of political and economic segregation, the academic professionalization of folklore, and the modernization of the music industry. . . . Segregating Sound is a valuable and interesting work that anyone working in cultural studies should consult.” - Kenneth J. Bindas, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“In this head-banging, eye-opening study, Karl Hagstrom Miller examines with stunning clarity the historical and material grounding of the music industry’s three main revenue streams: live performance, recording, and publishing. Along the way, he demonstrates how the notion of authenticity in folklore discourse, systemic Jim Crow, and minstrelsy legacies worked together to calcify our contemporary—and quite naturalized—perceptions about music and racialized bodies.If you ever wondered where MTV, CMT, VH1, and BET got their marketing logic, look no further. In fact, you’ll never experience a Billboard chart, nor the words ‘keep it real’ in the same way after reading this book!”—Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop
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SEGREGATING SOUNDInventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow
By KARL HAGSTROM MILLER
Duke University PressCopyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTIN PAN ALLEY ON TOUR
The Southern Embrace of Commercial Music
Some of the earliest written examples of African American blues lyrics come to us from a white man named Charles Peabody. An archaeologist with Harvard's Peabody Museum, he supervised an excavation of Native American burial mounds in the Mississippi Delta during the summers of 1901 and 1902. Peabody was fascinated by the music sung by the local African American laborers he employed on the dig. In 1903, he published a description of what he had heard in the Journal of American Folklore.
They had me arrested for murder And I never harmed a man.
Peabody transcribed a number of his workers' lyrics, "'hard luck' tales" that closely resembled blues stanzas later recorded throughout the South. Contemporary scholars have found Peabody's observations very useful in their attempts to chart the early history of the blues. He discovered that a new style of music-the blues or a close relative-was being sung in the early-twentieth-century South.
Peabody was less thrilled to hear his workers sing commercial popular hits, mass-produced songs sold throughout the country. "Undoubtedly picked up from passing theatrical troupes, the 'ragtime' sung for us quite inverted the supposed theory of its origin," he reported. He felt cheated when his requests for a recital resulted in "'Goo-Goo Eyes' with any number of encores, and 'Nigger Bully' and others quite as original probably with Miss May Irwin as with them." "Goo-Goo Eyes" was most likely "Just Because She Made Dem Goo Goo Eyes," a song about a blackface minstrel's failure to find love, written in 1900 by professional composers Hughie Cannon and John Queen. It was featured in at least six major touring shows soon after its publication. "The Bully Song," first published in 1895, was perhaps the biggest hit ever enjoyed by the white singer May Irwin, one of the most recognized entertainers of the day. Peabody found the songs mundane, hardly worth comment. He was not interested in hearing music that was equally familiar to Harvard archaeologists and black workers in rural Mississippi.
Yet commercial popular songs constituted a significant portion of the music heard in the early-twentieth-century South. If scholars have seized upon Peabody's collection of indigenous southern lyrics, they have paid far less attention to his revelations about pop music's penetration into the region. Peabody's brief article shows that Mississippians were aware of songs just recently published in distant New York City. It demonstrates that they liked these songs enough to learn them, remember them, and sing them with their peers. And it shows that some of the same people who sang the blues also sang imported commercial pop tunes. Collectors such as Ralph Peer and Dorothy Scarborough, who scoured the region in the following decades, came to similar conclusions. Lamentations aside, these observers got it right. Southern people were busy listening to the products of the commercial music industry.
Acknowledging the prevalence of mass-marketed music in the South necessarily complicates our understanding of the relationship between race and music in the age of segregation. Charles Peabody was primarily interested in identifying the "sharp contrast" between black and white music, and he belittled evidence to the contrary. He was far from alone. Defining racial difference was one of the great intellectual and political enterprises of the day, visible from scholars' theories about separate racial cultures and cranial capacities to legislators' construction of "separate but equal" segregation regimes. The history of mass-produced music in the region reveals that these projects of racial separation were incomplete in their execution and inaccurate as descriptions of southern lives. Black and white southerners sang many of the same songs, tunes they often had learned by hearing the same touring musicians while attending the same performances. These shared songs did not result in shared perspectives or mutual understanding between black and white, however. Indeed, Peabody's two examples were coon songs, tunes that traded on derogatory stereotypes of African Americans. Racial commonalities had nothing to do with racial harmony. Rather, commercial pop functioned as a common ground upon which black and white southerners negotiated some of the meanings and effects of the new racial regime that white residents were imposing on the South.
The Spread of Commercial Music in the South
In the late nineteenth century, three processes converged to bring northern commercial music to southern ears. An expansion of railroad lines made it possible to deliver a wealth of new consumer products into even previously remote areas of the South. Sheet music publishers, concentrated in Manhattan along what came to be known as "Tin Pan Alley," perfected the mass production and distribution of popular songs. And a changing theater economy pushed successful northern shows and songs into cities and small towns across the region. As a result, mass-marketed songs flooded the South. They found willing buyers.
Railroad expansion provided the stimulus. United States train companies completed approximately 100,000 miles of rail between 1869 and 1900, the pace in the South exceeding that of any other region. By 1890, an estimated 90 percent of southerners lived in counties served by railroads. Residents of relatively isolated rural climes found themselves connected to each other and points beyond through the expanding web of steel. The railroad helped fuel southern urbanization. Villages cropped up at a remarkable rate, many of them around new railroad depots. Larger cities across the region experienced population booms that doubled the national average, spurred by their growing importance as regional centers of trade. The railroad also fueled southern industrialization. In the 1880s, southern extractive industries such as sawmills, mining, and turpentine manufacturing blossomed. Textile manufacturers, encouraged by the region's cheap labor and new connection to national transportation networks, created mills employing almost 100,000 workers by 1900, an increase of almost one thousand percent over 1870 figures. The railroad boom inaugurated a revolution in the southern consumption of mass-produced fare. From soap, clothing, and canned goods to beauty aids, tools, and musical instruments: mail order catalogues from New York and Chicago firms opened a new world of consumer goods. The number of southern general stores skyrocketed in the late nineteenth century, averaging 144 merchants per county in 1900. General stores tantalized with their eclectic array of items available for cash or credit. New access to goods helped many southerners feel a part of national trends in fashion, literature, and music.
Among the goods stuffing southern general stores was sheet music, the product of an industry that was reaching a new level of consolidation and sophistication. Beginning with the founding of the T. B. Harms publishing house in 1881, New York became the center of popular music publishing in the United States. By the turn of the century almost every major publishing house in the country was located on or near Manhattan's 28th Street, later dubbed Tin Pan Alley. The city's publishers perfected the mass production of songs. Earlier publishers had been comparatively unorganized, featuring a diffused list of various styles, surviving off loopholes in copyright law, or signing individual compositions in a business model akin to today's book publishing industry. Tin Pan Alley changed the game. Firms specializing in popular songs developed compositional and lyrical formulas based on past hits. Most paid a flat rate of ten to twenty-five dollars per song to staff or freelance composers to write specifically for the company. They thus often owned the tune before it was even written. Tin Pan Alley publishers issued thousands of titles in the hopes that a few would score with the nation's public.
Tin Pan Alley firms also systematized the process of promoting songs through popular stage performers and musical comedy actors. "The way to popularize a ballad is to have it first sung by a well known artist, after which all the other singers will eagerly fall in line," insisted the composer and publisher Charles K. Harris. Stage singers could introduce the song to their audiences and encourage listeners to purchase the musical score for themselves. Firms did not leave much to chance. "Song pluggers, from early morning until late at night, stood in front of their respective publishing houses waiting for singers to come along, when they would grab them by the arm and hoist them into the music studios. There was no escape," Harris explained. "Once the singers entered the block, they left it with a dozen promises ringing in the pluggers' ears,-promises to sing the newly acquired compositions." As the evening wore on, pluggers descended on theaters, hotels, and vaudeville stages to continue whispering their songs in singers' ears. If words failed, publishers showered coveted singers with gifts ranging from cigars and drinks to fur coats and expensive stage scenery. The system worked.
Charles Harris, for example, worked diligently to convince singers to perform his 1892 ballad "After the Ball." He unsuccessfully courted singers in the Howard Burlesque Company and the Primrose and West Minstrels, before he persuaded prima donna Annie Whitney of Clark's Burlesquers to give the song a try. May Irwin heard Whitney sing it and added it to her own act. The song began to catch on. Unaware of Irwin's support, Harris bribed the popular balladeer James Aldrich Libby to sing "After the Ball" on tour. He reportedly offered the singer positive newspaper reviews, five hundred dollars, and a percentage of sheet music profits. Libby was happy to comply. Sales of "After the Ball" grew, and the song began getting picked up by other singers, including William Windom, a featured performer with the Primrose and West Minstrels, one of the very companies that had initially passed on the song. "After the Ball" became one of the biggest songs of the 1890s. Such twisted paths to success were common as Tin Pan Alley scored hit after hit. "There was no system, no set rules, no combination of publishers, no music publishers' association; simply, do as you please, everybody for himself, and the devil take the hindmost," Harris concluded.
A revolution in American theater production and booking helped to funnel Tin Pan Alley songs into towns across the nation. Prior to the 1860s, legitimate theater outside of a few major cities depended on local stock companies, relatively stable and self-contained troupes of actors, musicians, and producers that developed a repertoire of plays they could perform throughout a year. In the 1840s and 1850s, stock company managers began importing traveling New York stars to perform the lead roles in their local productions. The star system proved the death knell for the stock company. Audiences began expecting extravagant stars whose expensive paychecks cut into the salaries of stock actors. The quality and reliability of stock troupes declined along with their wages. Star actors, in reaction, began bringing supporting actors and musicians on the road with them in order to assure a quality production. By 1890, the process had culminated in the practical replacement of local stock theater by touring companies and the emergence of New York as the national center of theater production.
The availability and cost of railroad travel forced touring shows into quite small towns across the country. The success of a touring company depended upon the creation of a good route. Two qualities characterized the ideal route. First, it put troupes in well-known theaters in major cities when wallets were full and competing shows were absent. Second, it provided enough one-night stands between major cities that railroad transportation costs would not overwhelm profits. Tour managers obsessed about limiting the length of "jumps" from one performance to the next and kept a running list of small towns along a route that would be good for a pit stop. The need for stops between major cities, the New York Dramatic Mirror reported in 1882, meant that each town with two thousand residents got performances of two to three plays a week.
In a meaningful sense, theater from New York became American theater. Just as southern consumers bought Velvet Skin Soap and Ayer's Hair Vigor at their general stores, they lined up for New York theater productions featuring Tin Pan Alley songs. Theater companies did whatever they could to associate themselves with the city. Average productions made their profits on the road. Mounting a show in New York was expensive, audiences were fickle, and most companies ended their stay in debt. Yet a production that could boast a stint on Broadway could make up for hometown losses by taking New York to the hinterland. Even if troupes never played the city, they were better off pretending that they had. Manager John Golden surveyed the national theater business in 1925, years after the emergence of New York as a successful brand. "I found second-rate New York productions advertising all-star New York casts that had never been nearer New York than Xenia, Ohio," he wrote. "I found plays billed as New York successes, of which I, a fairly well-informed New York manager, had never even heard. I saw displayed in more than one of the theatres, photographs of players who were supposed to be in the cast but who, I knew, were actually playing in New York." Southern audiences actively sought New York theater, and entertainers willingly complied. Southern tours were the lifeblood of many troupes, the only way they could fill seats and make payroll during the slow winter months.
New York became the center of a national theater-booking network just as it was emerging as the home of the song publishing and theater industries. Each summer representatives of theaters from across the country would descend on the city to find attractions that could fill their houses over the coming season. Negotiations were tense and contracts untrustworthy as approximately 5,000 theaters in 3,500 cities and towns attempted to secure the talents of about 250 touring companies in the early 1880s. Beginning in the 1870s, small town theaters banded together into circuits. Negotiating performance contracts as a group enabled them to book top attractions by insisting that a production appear in all or none of the circuit's theaters. Centralized booking agencies emerged in the 1880s and 1890s. Serving as middlemen between attractions and individual theaters or circuits, booking firms brought a new level of organization and centralization to national theater tours. They took a bite out of the profits for each show, the remainder being split between the house and the attraction according to percentages negotiated through the agency. Yet they offered predictability: a full season for theaters and a full tour for troupes.
One of the largest booking agencies in the country specialized in the South. Formed by Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger in 1887, the partnership gained control of a modest booking agency serving Texas theaters. The pair identified the South as a region ripe for theater centralization. In 1888, they announced, "We have made a close study of this territory, KNOW EVERY INCH OF GROUND WORTH PLAYING; EVERY THEATRE IN THAT SECTION FIT TO PLAY IN." The firm offered their information free to any troupe interested in touring the region. Klaw and Erlanger controlled bookings in two hundred theaters across the South by 1895. The following year, it joined with two other major booking agencies to form the Theatrical Syndicate, an organization that virtually monopolized theater bookings throughout the country for the next fifteen years. The Syndicate came to dominate national bookings by insisting on exclusive contracts with theaters and attractions. Once in the fold, a touring company could play only Syndicate houses on tours planned by the agency. Likewise, member theaters relinquished all control over their season to the Syndicate, taking virtually whatever attractions the agency was sending through the region.
Excerpted from SEGREGATING SOUND by KARL HAGSTROM MILLER Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Karl Hagstrom Miller is an Assistant Professor who teaches in the History Department and the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, Austin.
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