Episode 43: Segregating Pop Music

Host: Joan Neuberger, Editor, Not Even Past and Professor, Department of History
Guest: Karl Hagstrom Miller, Associate Professor, Department of History

51mq2FtFjrLAnyone who’s been to the music store lately (or shopped for digital downloads) is probably familiar with the concept of music categorized not only by genre, but also more subtler categorizations that might make us think of country music as “white” or hip-hop as “black.”  It might be surprising that such categorizations were a deliberate mechanism of the music industry and that, even at a time when American society was as racially divided as the late 19th century, such distinctions were usually neither considered nor proscribed onto genres of music.

Guest Karl Hagstrom Miller has spent a career using popular music to explore the economic, social, legal, and political history of the United States. In this episode, he helps us understand how popular music came to be segregated as artists negotiated the restrictions known as the “Jim Crow” laws.

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So let me start by asking you about the categories that get imposed on music at the turn of the century. Most people probably think it’s normal to associate certain styles of music or specific songs with culture, ethnicity, class, or whatever. But it was really only at the turn of the century that something like this came about. Can you talk a little about those categories and the way they came about?

Sure, sure. I found it fascinating, this was kind of the heart of my getting started on this book, was reading about contemporary popular music, which is often divided into racial and ethnic categories. And you can just see that going to a record store, if you can find one, or a bookstore. Different shelves for different genres of music. You have the blues and jazz over here and you have country western over here and you have the rock, which is largely categorized primarily as white musicians at this time. And I was wondering, where do these categories come from? I started looking back and discovered that they really came about at this moment in the late 19th, early 20th century where a lot of different thing are changing in the way that people buy music, they way they write about music, and the way they listen to music. So a lot of what we think we know about popular music actually emerged at this time—late 19th, early 20th century.


So one of the distinctions that comes about is a distinction between folk music, on one hand, and popular commercial music. It makes sense that musicians sit around and play whatever comes their way, why was it so important to make that distinction at this time?

Well I think one thing that happens, essentially I find three groups are essential to this book and three groups of players or people really started interacting in new ways at this period. Those groups are musicians in the south, who have been there all along of course, a record industry that is new, recordings really started taking off around 1905-1906 and they spread across the north and south and the globe, in fact. And this is a completely fresh and novel way of making music, listening to music, and buying music. It’s is this moment where music actually gets separated from the musician for the first time. That has dramatic effects on the way people conceive of the identity of the music as separate from the identity of the musician, because their had never been an opportunity to contemplate that before.

So musicians, music industry, and I also think academics at the time, particularly folklorists were instrumental in this shift. At the same time that record companies were distributing this technology and new records across the south, folklorists were moving into the south looking for particular kinds of music and not others. It is at this moment when records, musicians, are permeating the south that folklorists begin talking about the south as a repository of older styles of music, more authentic, more true, more genuine styles of music as a way of distinguishing them from these commercial ditties that they didn’t like very much

So lets talk about the technology a little bit. We have got technology that can now mass produce sheet music, and technology that can mass-produce recordings, and as you said send them around the world. Do you think this categorization was technology and market driven primarily?

Well, I wouldn’t say primarily. What I think is really fascinating is the way in which the record companies and record technology kind of interacted with academics and folklorists in this caldron in the south in the early 20th century. And I think you have to look at both of those to figure out how it happened. One thing that is interesting with technology is, I try to look very closely at the big stages of technological change in recording industry at the time and they have dramatic effects for the kind of music that gets recorded and the kind of musicians that have the opportunity to record.


You mean which musicians? 

Well there are kind of two or three different flash points. Number one, in the early 20th century, there was severe patent control on recording technology so it meant that very few companies had access to the technology. These companies were all located in or around New York City. At the time the recording technology was so bulky and fragile that you couldn’t move it. So all of the recordings took place in New York, any musicians that
wasn’t from New York had to go to New York to make the recording. This resulted in a commercial music industry that primarily pushed New York music out to the world. This changes in 1917 when the patent controls disappear, you have a proliferation of small record companies popping up.

At the same time record technology has gotten more mobile, so you are able to start taking record technology around the country in a way that you hadn’t before, giving access to more musicians. And because all these independents were scraping around trying to find a niche that they could serve, you get a lot more diversity. It’s not just New York anymore, its not just Broadway tunes being recorded, it’s just about anything that these small labels could find. So technology has a direct connection to the history of access to the recording studio.

So who are some of your favorite song collectors and people who study, who are your favorite characters?

Well this book is filled with a lot of characters so it is hard for me to pick out. A number of characters just pop up just for one brief moment then disappear, but a number of characters kind of run through the book and those are the ones that I think are most interesting to talk about.

One of my favorites is James Weldon Johnson. James Weldon Johnson was well known to students of African American history. He wrote what came to be known as the Negro national anthem: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” He was a politician and an activist and a writer, but not as much is said about his early songwriting career. He and his brother moved from small town Florida up to New York to make it in the commercial theatre business, and I think it was around 1899 and they wanted to be songwriters and he spent a long time writing songs. And he actually kind of transformed what were quite derogatory minstrel inspired songs that were dominating Broadway at the time into a much more sophisticated anti racist style of pop song, and he ended up becoming wildly successful at this.

He wrote a book in 1912 called Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anonymously at the time. It was a story that kind of paralleled his experience in his life. The main character goes to the big city, becomes popular ragging the classics, becoming a ragtime pianist, and then travels to the south in search of old slave songs and folk material that he cold use to write high brow, highfalutin pop music—serious music. James Weldon Johnson later rejected the pop music world, thought that it was not as anti racist and actually contributed to these minstrel stereotypes, and by the 1920’s he like many of his peers become much more interested in this concept of folk culture and folklore. And so he kind of follows one of the major trajectories of the book.


You have talked about the process of distinguishing pop commercial music from folk music, how does the color line get established?

Something happens in the collision between academics, musicians and recording industry at this time that shifts music from being relatively free of distinct racial identity, to having music be marketed and understood by academics as indicative of different racial or ethnic cultures. This is a major shift. And the reason that I spend so much time writing about it is we are still living in this shift, a lot of our scholarship and a lot of what we understand about music still l fits in this mold of understanding it in racial and ethnic terms. What I call segregating sound—this process of actually splitting apart music into separate racial categories—established a music color line, black on one side, white on the other, and I argued that it happened at the same time, and in many ways because, of the Jim Crow segregation color line that was being developed across the south at the very same time.

So you have corporations, you have academics descending into the south trying to sell or discover songs, and at the same time they are encountering this very new racial regime of Jim Crow segregation. And they tend to take the songs that they are finding within these newly segregated spaces and read the segregation back into the history of the south by making the argument that races are different, that they have different cultural histories that are separate. They actually kind of naturalized the regime of segregation that was so fresh and being put in place.

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