August 25, 1996

America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound.  By Andre Millard.  Cambridge University Press, 1995.  413 pp.  ISBN: 0-521-47544-9 Hardback, 0-521-47556-2 Paperback ($17.95).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Most books bite off a little bit of phonograph history and chew it over thoroughly.  Here is a book that tries to swallow the whole steak–the entire history of the phonograph in America, no less–and unfortunately chokes in the process.  Nearly 40 years have passed and a great deal of important research has been published since the last serious attempt at a general history (From Tin Foil to Stereo, in 1959).  A solid new overview is badly needed, but the task deserves better than this.

America on Record was written by an Associate Professor of American History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as a text for students.  Millard has previously written about the career of Thomas Edison (Edison and the Business of Invention), which apparently led to his interest in the phonograph.  Written in a clear, easy-to-read style, fact-filled and accompanied by appropriate (and often interesting) photographs, it looks at first like a very authoritative and yet accessible study of the field.  Only the garish cover, a drawing of a black couple dancing on a phonograph record superimposed on cartoonish “images of America,” is jarring.  It looks a bit like 1940s coal company calendar art.

The text is divided into three main sections, allotting roughly one hundred pages to the acoustic era, one hundred to the electric/78 rpm era (1925-1950s), and one hundred to the microgroove era (1950s-1980s).  A 35 page coda brings us into the digital era of the 1990s.  Generally it can be said that Millard gives fair treatment to all eras in the 100-plus years of recording, not mocking the past or waxing rhapsodic about the significance of the rock era, as baby-boomer academics are sometimes wont to do.  He also treats both the cultural and technological aspects of recording, although he does seem more comfortable discussing technology than what was in the grooves.  Unlike the pro-Edison Tin Foil to Stereo the book is not particularly partisan, and chapters on such subjects as changes in recording studios over the years sometimes put familiar subjects in a new and interesting light.

Unfortunately while the overall structure of the book is laudable, it is factually inaccurate in so many places as to bring into question the entire enterprise.  When I first started hearing this from colleagues who had seen it, I thought their complaints were merely “the attack of the nit-pickers,” a phenomenon that unfortunately greets most major publications.  But on closer examination the problems go much deeper than that.  Some are matters of implication, some of misplaced emphasis, and some are outright inaccuracies.  Listing them all would probably fill this issue of the Journal, but here are a few–just a few–representative examples:

p.5 (Introduction): To convey the enormous size of the industry, why cite sales figures from 1977, nearly 20 years ago?

p.7: “Over 10 years after the CD appeared, the microgroove disc showed no sign of disappearing.”  This is romantic nonsense, as anyone who has visited their local record megastore can attest.

p.10: The recent discovery of cylinders reputedly by poet Walt Whitman may have caused “great excitement,” but they turned out to be a fraud.

p.55: A picture of a shop selling Edison phonographs and records is dated 1892, but judging by the machines and the large, flowered horns it is obviously from ten to twenty years later.

p.82: “The most popular recordings of the late 1880s” were not novelty songs such as “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,” and sentimental favorites like “After the Ball.”  There were no “popular recordings” in the 1880s, and these two songs were both published in 1892.  This erroneous statement is based on comments in The Music Goes Round by Fred Gaisberg, who was talking about Berliner in the late 1890s (the statement is also incorrect for that period).  The overall point is also wrong; marches and other instrumental pieces, not novelty songs, were most popular in the very earliest days of recording.

p.87: George W. Johnson, the first black recording “star,” was not discovered panhandling on the street of Washington, nor did he record his famous songs “for a pittance.”  He lived his entire adult life in New York City, and was reasonably well treated by the record industry.

p.94: Billy Murray was not “a music hall star,” nor did he make “some of the first recordings on cylinder in the 1880s” (sic).  By the time he rose to fame in the early 1900s scores had gone before.

p.99: Al Jolson did not have one of the two most successful recordings of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” in 1911.  He did not record it until 1947.

p.107: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s second release was not “Mournin’ Blues.”  This was a rather minor title waxed a year and a half and a dozen titles after they began recording

p.107: Paul Whiteman’s “Whispering” did not sell “over 2 million copies in 1920.”  Nothing sold 2 million copies, or even a million, in a single year at that time.  Will these gross misstatements of early record sales never end?

p.161: Much is made of the synergy of Warner Brothers studios buying Brunswick records in 1930 to exploit its movie music.  Warners sold the label after only a few months.

p.161: RCA bought Victor in 1929, not 1919.

p.177: Bing Crosby’s most famous hit was called “White Christmas,” not “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and it was a studio recording, not from the soundtrack of a film.  Soundtrack recordings were extremely uncommon at the time.

p.192: the possibility of stereo was not demonstrated by a recording of “My Fair Lady” in the 1930s!  The show did not debut until 1956.

Of even greater concern are examples of misplaced emphasis.  Some subjects that we now know were key to recording history are omitted entirely.  Never mentioned are Vernon Dalhart (who first popularized country recordings), James Reese Europe (a seminal figure in African-American recording history), or the 1914 Little Wonder label (the first major crack in the major labels’ price-fixing trust).  Giants like Bert Williams are brushed off, and Billy Murray receives only a single, short mention.  There is only cursory treatment of the patent wars that reshaped the industry around the turn of the century, and of the proliferation of independent labels in the late 1910s and 1920s that not only reshaped the industry once again, but introduced all sorts of new artists and musics to the record-buying public.

The 1925-1950s section largely ignores the fields of country and ethnic music, around which recording empires were built.  There is, however, much discussion about the impact of radio and juke boxes in the 1930s.  The impact of independents is finally recognized in the rock era–about 30 years too late!

There is also a simplistic and very politically-correct discussion of “coon songs,” which not only rants but has its own misstatements of fact.  “Who Dat Say ‘Chicken’ in Dis Crowd” (1898) was not a big seller for any company, and is hardly a typical example of this genre on record; Bert Williams did not introduce the Cakewalk; “coon” songs and dialect songs are two very different things, and were so regarded at the time; and “Harlan & Collins” (sic) were not “black-faced performers.”  The team’s name was Collins & Harlan, and they worked almost entirely in the recording studio–obviously not in blackface.  “Coon songs” are offensive to modern ears, and they were to many people then as well; but we understand nothing of the phenomenon, the forces that drove it, or the gradations it contained, from a discussion like this.

I have concentrated here mostly on earlier eras, although I understand from experts in more recent periods that the book has its problems there as well.

Appendixes include a short, useless discography, a much more helpful “select bibliography,” and indexes by subject, recordings, and motion pictures.

Many names are cited in the Preface, but it is hard to believe that respected authorities such as Peter Copeland, Sam Brylawski, Dan Morgenstern or Allen Koenigsberg were ever given the opportunity to see a final draft.  Works by Raymond Wile, George Frow, Dick Spottswood, Brian Rust, Dixon & Godrich, Charlie Gillett, Greil Marcus, Bill C. Malone, Robert Pruter and other giants of recording research old and new are cited in the bibliography, but they must have been read in a very dark room.  The author evidently did do some original research, principally at the Edison National Historic Site and the AT&T Archives.  However most of American on Record appears to be based on secondary sources, including such unreliable sources as Fred Gaisberg’s Music Goes Round and Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories, read uncritically.

Students who are assigned this book, but who aren’t really interested in the subject, probably won’t be harmed by it.  But for those who care at all about accuracy, my suggestion is to pass this one by.


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