Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945

Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945

Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945

Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945


Have records, compact discs, and other sound reproduction equipment merely provided American listeners with pleasant diversions, or have more important historical and cultural influences flowed through them? Do recording machines simply capture what's already out there, or is the music somehow transformed in the dual process of documentation and dissemination? How would our lives be different without these machines? Such are the questions that arise when we stop taking for granted the phenomenon of recorded music and the phonograph itself. Now comes an in-depth cultural history of the phonograph in the United States from 1890 to 1945. William Howland Kenney offers a full account of what he calls "the 78 r.p.m. era"--from the formative early decades in which the giants of the record industry reigned supreme in the absence of radio, to the postwar proliferation of independent labels, disk jockeys, and changes in popular taste and opinion. By examining the interplay between recorded music and the key social, political, and economic forces in America during the phonograph's rise and fall as the dominant medium of popular recorded sound, he addresses such vital issues as the place of multiculturalism in the phonograph's history, the roles of women as record-player listeners and performers, the belated commercial legitimacy of rhythm-and-blues recordings, the "hit record" phenomenon in the wake of the Great Depression, the origins of the rock-and-roll revolution, and the shifting place of popular recorded music in America's personal and cultural memories. Throughout the book, Kenney argues that the phonograph and the recording industry served neither to impose a preference for high culture nor a degraded popular taste, but rather expressed a diverse set of sensibilities in which various sorts of people found a new kind of pleasure. To this end, Recorded Music in American Life effectively illustrates how recorded music provided the focus for active recorded sound cultures, in which listeners shared what they heard, and expressed crucial dimensions of their private lives, by way of their involvement with records and record-players. Students and scholars of American music, culture, commerce, and history--as well as fans and collectors interested in this phase of our rich artistic past--will find a great deal of thorough research and fresh scholarship to enjoy in these pages.


In memory, everything seems to happen to music.

--Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Most people would admit that the phonograph and recorded music have had an impact on life in the United States. Americans' enjoyment of records has evolved into a major phenomenon: by 1902 the Victor Talking Machine Company had assets of $2,724,016 which grew to $33,235,378 in 1917. Despite several difficult periods, record sales have soared over the long run, taking off in the mid-1050s: they totaled $199,000,000 in 1954 and by 1977 we were purchasing $3 billion worth of recordings a year at retail prices and playing them on 75 million domestic playback machines. The numbers alone give pause and oblige us to consider that turntables and records may have been more than clever distractions.

Most would as quickly acknowledge that records played a dominant role in spreading a taste for popular and vernacular music styles--jazz, blues, hillbilly, rock and roll--and a variety of other styles of popular music. The mere mention of these stylistic labels and those that subsequently replaced them in popularity usually suffices to demonstrate the cultural significance of the phonograph. Clearly, people of divergent tastes have not only bought and listened to recordings but participated in associated social and cultural movements as well. But important questions about this larger social and cultural context remain unanswered: where did these style categories come from; how did they come to be defined; what did they mean to those who bought and listened to the records; and what, if anything, may they be said to reveal about the cultural life of the United States?

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