Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

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Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow. By Karl Hagstrom Miller. Reconfiguring American Music. (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2010. Pp. [x], 372. Paper, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-4700-2; cloth, $94.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-4689-0.)

While it might be a tad hyperbolic to insist that the field of popular music studies, especially as it relates to the discrete vernacular musical traditions that eventually coalesced into the behemoth called rock and roll, is entering a new golden age, much recent scholarship has thankfully, if somewhat controversially, challenged analytical paradigms that have become ossified. For a book so thoughtful, complex, and nuanced, Karl Hagstrom Miller begins his introduction to Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow with an assertion that is simple yet resoundingly emphatic: "Southern musicians performed a staggering variety of music in the early twentieth century. Black and white artists played blues, ballads, ragtime, and string band music, as well as a plethora of styles popular throughout the nation: sentimental ballads, minstrel songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and Broadway hits.... Many performed any music they could, regardless of their racial or regional identities" (pp. 1-2). Miller's argument contests the racialized categorizations of musicians (white folks played hillbilly music, black folks played the blues) that, over decades, had become the bedrock of popular music discourse and do not, in any meaningful way, represent the way many southerners listened to or performed music. Putting performers in these boxes was not, however, solely the province of academic folklorists. Commercialists, such as Ralph Peer, also inscribed on the music their own concepts of authenticity--itself a moving target, or in the words of the late Richard A. …