Segregating Sound

Segregating Sound

Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Book - 2010
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In Segregating Sound , Karl Hagstrom Miller argues that the categories that we have inherited to think and talk about southern music bear little relation to the ways that southerners long played and heard music. Focusing on the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, Miller chronicles how southern music--a fluid complex of sounds and styles in practice--was reduced to a series of distinct genres linked to particular racial and ethnic identities. The blues were African American. Rural white southerners played country music. By the 1920s, these depictions were touted in folk song collections and the catalogs of "race" and "hillbilly" records produced by the phonograph industry. Such links among race, region, and music were new. Black and white artists alike had played not only blues, ballads, ragtime, and string band music, but also nationally popular sentimental ballads, minstrel songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and Broadway hits.

In a cultural history filled with musicians, listeners, scholars, and business people, Miller describes how folklore studies and the music industry helped to create a "musical color line," a cultural parallel to the physical color line that came to define the Jim Crow South. Segregated sound emerged slowly through the interactions of southern and northern musicians, record companies that sought to penetrate new markets across the South and the globe, and academic folklorists who attempted to tap southern music for evidence about the history of human civilization. Contending that people's musical worlds were defined less by who they were than by the music that they heard, Miller challenges assumptions about the relation of race, music, and the market.

Publisher: Durham [N.C.] : Duke University Press, 2010.
ISBN: 9780822346890
Characteristics: ix, 372 p. ; 24 cm.


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Oct 18, 2014

Segregating Sound, an academic book, based on a PhD dissertation in History, is not light reading. A retired academic myself (doctorate in Folklore), I sometimes skimmed sections not of great interest to me. That being said, for anyone with an interest in folk music, country music, or the blues, this book is well worth reading.

Miller is passionate about his subject and his research is thorough. Interesting, amusing, and often disturbing anecdotes aid in showing how our views of southern music have been shaped by both commercial interests (often operating out of New York City), and academic trends -- folklorists being prominent in defining the "folk" despite the protestations of those whose songs they recorded (though contemporary folklorists would have few disagreements with Miller's criticisms of their predecessors). Patronizing attitudes toward economically or culturally peripheral groups, and the casual racism shown by "liberal" Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century makes uncomfortable reading. The relationships between the well-know folk-song collector, John Lomax, and African American singers including "Lead Belly" are disturbing.

Past attitudes toward both music, ethnicity, and the romance of "isolated" peoples, explored in this book, have contributed greatly to our own ideas about music, creating divisions between both both commercial and folk music, and "black" and "white" people's music that are dubious at best. Although Miller focuses on the USA, many issues covered in Segregating Sound are relevant to Canadian interpretations of our own folk or traditional music. I highly recommend this book to any readers with an interest in its subject, and a willingness to work their ways through it.

(Most of the music discussed is readily available on YouTube.)


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