Orphan Songs, Part 8:
Motherless Children Have a Hard Time
Terri Schiavo and Science in the News

Why the 1920's?

Wreck of the Old 97
from "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol," UNC-Chapel Hill

I'm always writing here about records from the 1920's — so much so, that it might sound like I have "a thing" for them, that I'm just obsessed with that decade for peculiar personal reasons. Maybe. But the main reason the 1920's records keep appearing at The Celestial Monochord is that they are really and objectively special. Something happened in the 1920's that had never happened before, can never happen again, and changed forever a lot more than just music in America.

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The commercial record business started just before 1890 with wax cylinders, and evolved from there. The customers were well-off white city folk — the sort of people who could afford the high-tech gizmo that sound recording was then. For the next 30+ years, this audience bought (and was sold) the sort of music it liked — opera singers, European classical, military bands, Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, etc. Mostly, the recordings only supplemented sheet music, which had long been the primary way people bought music for the home.

Then came the 1920's. Better recording and player technology had been developed and was now inexpensive, making records appealing to a wider audience. Perhaps more important, the record companies were nervous about radio. They imagined their traditional white, well-off customers investing in this new-fangled technology, and then just enjoying its limitless, streaming, high-fidelity music — for free. Why ever buy another record? (Record companies are fretting over the same question today.)

The record industry realized that a vast market was untapped — new immigrants, poor urban and rural whites, and urban and rural blacks. Essentially, anyone who couldn't yet affort a radio.

So, early in the decade, the industry started seeking out musicians who could play what these audiences liked. Such musicians had never been recorded before in human history and their music had been badly under-represented in sheet music. Companies like Vocalion, Paramount, Okeh, and Columbia took mobile recording units into cities throughout the South, or brought the musicians to New York and Chicago.

Today, what we think of today as the earliest days of jazz, the blues, country, folk, bluegrass, and gospel can be vividly heard in the recordings of the 1920's: Dixieland, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Charlie Patton, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley, the Skillet Lickers, Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. J. M. Gates, the Sacred Harp. What came before is generally known only in the most shadowy terms.

The economic bubble of the 1920's burst dramatically with the onset of the Depression. Many record companies went out of business, and the rest slashed their recording schedules. The next time the record business picked up, the U.S. had experienced not only the vastly disruptive Great Depression but the even more vastly disruptive Second World War as well. By then, everything had changed.

In decade after decade since the 1920's, virtually everyone who has mattered to most American music listeners has made these recordings the cornerstone of their work — from Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin to Elvis Presely, from Earl Scruggs to Jimi Hendrix, from Miles Davis and Charlie Parker to Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch ... Perhaps mysteriously, these records have remained an inexhaustibly generous wellspring of inspiration.

Perhaps mysteriously. For me, trying to explain just why this is true — why these records are inexhaustible wellsprings of inspiration — has seemed like the intellectual and spiritual adventure of a lifetime. Why the 1920's? At least a few answers are already clear and are surprisingly concrete. I'll try to mention some in the coming days.