June 26, 2000

Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945.  By William Howland Kenney.  Oxford University Press, 1999.  258 pages.  ISBN: 0-19-510046-8. $45.00.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

 The early history of the phonograph is finally beginning to attract serious attention from professional academics.  That can be a good thing, to the extent that they bring rigorous analysis, a broad contextual view, and thorough documentation of sources–factors often missing in articles by collectors.  Unfortunately, since they are usually strangers to the field, it can also mean misunderstandings, garbled facts, and overreliance on flawed secondary sources.  Prof. A.J. Millard’s America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (reviewed in ARSC Journal 27:2) was filled with factual errors.  Prof. Reebee Garofalo, a highly respected writer on the rock era, makes numerous misstatements about the early phonograph industry in a long, erudite article appearing in a recent issue of American Music (17:3).  Most of these statements were uncritically repeated from secondary sources.  For some reason academics rarely consult knowledgeable private collectors,  the real experts on the facts of recording history.

William Howland Kenney, a Professor of History and American Studies at Kent State University, has avoided many of these mistakes by relying principally on original sources for Recorded Music in American Life.  Presented as “an in-depth cultural history of the phonograph in the United States,” the book mixes a narrative history of the recording industry with sociological and socio-political analysis, citing sources ranging from Talking Machine World to cultural theorist Theodor Adorno.  Kenney’s central thesis is that the recording industry neither raised nor degraded popular taste, but rather communicated a diverse set of sensibilities which were assimilated differently, and used for different purposes, by different segments of society.  Recordings may well have introduced operatic and concert music to vast masses who could never have heard them in performance, but they also spread all sorts of jazz, blues, country and ethnic musical styles across the land.

In the first chapter the author spends a good deal of time analyzing a 1921 Edison survey of its customers, quoting responses from individuals who described how their “Edison” had become an integral part of their lives.  This survey of 2,644 consumers provides fascinating insight into ordinary people’s attitudes toward, reception of and use of recordings.  One caveat regarding this survey is that due to Edison’s rather specialized market (older, conservative, more rural), the responses should not be taken as representative of the record buying public as a whole.  Kenney augments this interesting data with a discussion of record buyers of the period (mostly women), and jazz artists who were inspired to learn their trade from early records.

Later chapters deal with major ways in which recordings impacted American society.  In more or less chronological order, we read about the industry’s beginnings as a sort of sideshow attraction in the 1890s (recording artists of this period dubbed themselves “the Coney Island Crowd”); the impact of early coin-slot phonograph parlors; the efforts of Victor in the early 1900s to make the phonograph acceptable to middle class patrons by emphasizing classical repertoire; the spread of ethnic recording in the 1910s, promoting group identity among immigrant populations; women and recording (as artists, sales clerks, and buyers); African-Americans and the phonograph; and the rise of hillbilly recording in the 1920s.  The 1930s are seen as bifurcated.  First Brunswick and later Decca records, both under the leadership of Jack Kapp, stressed soothing, melodic tunes to reduce the stress induced by hard economic times.  By mid decade, however, a younger generation of record producer, epitomized by rich kid John Hammond, seized the field with the energetic sounds of big band swing.  Hammond, interestingly, strongly criticized Kapp in print.

Throughout Kenney’s analysis individual executives are singled out as having reshaped the industry, popular music, and even cultural thought.  In the 1890s it is Louis Glass, manager of the Pacific Phonograph Company, who installed the first coin-operated phonographs in San Francisco in 1889.  Of the rather distant Eldridge R. Johnson it is said that his own very proper, Victorian life “personified the search for gentility that he imposed on the talking machine business.”  Other notables profiled include soprano Geraldine Farrar, whose relentless determination to control her own destiny in a male-dominated world is represented as a case study in feminism; black record producer J. Mayo Williams, who managed to get authentic blues on record under the noses of white recording executives; Ralph Peer, who pioneered country music recording, while ripping off all he encountered (in Kenney’s view); and the aforementioned Kapp and Hammond, who according to Kenney virtually reshaped American popular music.

The majority of the book is devoted to narrative history, most of which will be familiar to students of the field.  More interesting, in this reviewer’s opinion, is Kenney’s sociological analysis, which focuses on business practices and the effect those practices had–or may have had–on individuals and society at large.  To take one example, the early record companies prided themselves on large, varied catalogs, and encouraged dealers to stock and promote almost every type of music.  By the 1930s, however, the business had become hit-driven, with slow selling discs (and entire genres) systematically weeded out.  Dealers stocked only what would sell quickly, transforming the record business from an enterprise with educational aspirations to one that simply delivered what people already wanted.  This narrowing of the recorded repertoire had inevitable effects, which Kenney discusses.

Some of Kenney’s analysis caters to such present day hot-button topics as racism and gender inequality, glibly applying today’s standards to other eras.  It is doubtful whether anyone considered Arthur Collins a racist for singing the “coon songs” of the turn of the century.  He was simply a “voice for hire” singing whatever was popular at the time.  (A much more interesting example would have been Walter C. Kelly, “The Virginian Judge,” whose performing career and personal actions apparently echoed the racism of his recordings.  Or the transformation of black performers Williams and Walker, who exploited black stereotypes to get their career started, were criticized for it, then switched to less offensive material after they achieved power and fame.)  The failure of record companies to pay royalties to black artists is lambasted as “exploitation” and “racism,” but one suspects that struggling record companies preferred not to pay royalties to anyone they didn’t have to.  Kenney claims that “whether or not a recording artist got… royalties depended on the color or his or her skin” (p.142),  but in fact it had more to do with the artist’s power and competition for his services.  Bert Williams got royalties, Arthur Collins did not.

Similarly, in the discussion about women and the phonograph, there is the remarkable assertion that the record industry was in part responsible for “their lives of domestic submission” (p.89).  As interesting as the intersection of recorded sound and social mores may be, this may be granting a little too much power to Nipper and his kin.

Despite occasional sweeping generalities, the author’s discussion of how women, African-Americans, immigrant groups, and other societal groupings were treated by, and interacted with, the phonograph is fresh and often thought-provoking.  One wishes that even more of the book had been devoted to such analysis, and less to a recounting of history that can be found in other sources.  There are plenty of fertile areas left to be tilled by someone of Kenney’s insightfulness.  For example, one seismic change that is only briefly touched on is the introduction of low-price recordings (beginning with Little Wonder in 1914 and spreading via the budget labels of the 1920s); arguably this both broadened the audience for recordings and changed expectations regarding repertoire, due to those labels’ single-minded focus on the “latest hits.”  Another shift deserving serious analysis is the popularization in the 1930s of the concept of the “hit parade,” which established a mechanism by which the industry could finally control, to some degree, what became popular.

The author has consulted a great many original sources, which are thoroughly documented in the extensive notes.  Such factual errors as there are–and there are some–come mostly from secondary sources.

Overall, Recorded Music in American Life is a thoughtful study of the relationship between phonograph recordings and American culture during the 78 rpm era.  Well researched and accessibly written, it will be rewarding reading for anyone interested in serious thought about the phonograph in the larger social context during the first half of the twentieth century.


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