Sounding Out America:
Music and Technology From the Phonograph to the MP3
To the musicologists of the twenty-first century our epoch may not be known by the name of a school of composers or of a musical style. It may well be called the period of the phonograph…
-Alan Lomax, 1960
When Thomas Edison unveiled his first phonograph machine in 1877, observers marveled at the possibility of preserving the sound of human voices for future generations. But if sounds could be canned like fruits or vegetables, could the soul of musicians be preserved too? What was the meaning of increased mechanization in American life and music? The dramatic expansion of the recording industry during the first decades of the 20th century coincided with many other important trends in U.S. history; the rise of corporate capitalism; the consumption of goods made and sold by national brands; increased urbanization and immigration; and the emergence of a national mass culture. As a result, questions about music in the U.S. often became questions about what kind of society was being forged by all of these developments. Who got to decide whose culture would be sold and heard? What did it mean for people to buy and be surrounded by consumer goods like phonograph players, radios, and 78 rpm records?
Over the course of the 20th century, the migration of millions of African Americans from the rural South to major cities elsewhere, post-World War II affluence, and the social dislocations created when the U.S. economy began to lose its industrial dominance brought new questions to the fore. Would demographic shifts in U.S. cities lead to a more inclusive popular culture, or would social barriers segregate the music marketplace? Would new technologies like magnetic tape and the Internet make the production of music more democratic? Finally, as musical copies became easier to make, what could it mean to own a sound? By learning to listen to the musical history of the United States, we might start to hear and write the answers to some of these questions.
This course is intended as an introduction to the history of recorded sound, and doesn’t require any special training in music listening. Every week, I’ll be preparing radio programs (Mondays, 12-1 pm) on the University of Michigan’s student radio station (WCBN FM) that will highlight some key examples of the sounds we’ll be about. Here’s a weekly schedule with discussion topics and readings for anybody who wants to follow along with the class.
Week Two: Thinking About Sound and the Music Industry Before Recordings
- Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays (Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2012), “How to Spell the Rebel Yell,” (27-40)
- David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), chapter one, “When Songs Became a Business,” (18-55)
- Robert Christgau, “Writing About Music is Writing First,” Popular Music 24:3 (2005): 415-421
Week Three (01/20): The Phonograph and the Gramophone in the Age of Invention
Invention of recorded sound technologies, differences between Edison and Berliner’s machines.
- David Morton, Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University press), introduction and section of chapter one, “High Culture, High Fidelity, and the Making of Recordings in the American Record Industry” (1-23)
- Timothy D. Taylor, Music, Sound, and Technology in America reader, “General Introduction: Music Technologies in Everyday Life” (1-10)
Week Four (01/27): Socializing the Phonograph
How did people actually use the phonograph, and what role did it have inside and outside of the household?
Reading from Music, Sound, and Technology reader:
- “How We Gave a Phonograph Party,” (1899) (48-51)
- “Men, Women, and Phonographs” section (70-77)
- William Kenney, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), introduction and chapter five, “The Gendered Phonograph: Women and Recorded Sound, 1890-1930,” (xi-xix, 88-108)
Week Five (02/03): Musicians on Records
Rise of recorded music as big business. How did musicians respond to recording technologies? How did the ability to record change the way that composers and performers thought about music? Caruso and more.
- David Suisman, Selling Sounds, chapter four, “The Traffic in Voices,” (125-149).
Readings from Music, Sound, and Technology reader:
Week Six (02/10): Selling the Vernacular? Jazz, Blues, Folk, and the Politics of Race in the 1920s and 1930s
Invention and growing popularity of radio and “talking pictures,” and the rise of jazz and blues as commercial forms.
Reading and viewing:
- Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues (New York: Basic Books, 2008), chapter four, “Sound Photographs of Negro Songs,” (53-90)
- John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010), chapter three, “The Saga of Lead Belly,” (59-76)
- Excerpt from 1935 March of Time newsreel on Leadbelly [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxykqBmUCwk]
Week Seven (02/17): Folkways Records, Liner Notes, and the Anthology of American Music
- Greil Marcus, “That Old Weird America,” (5-25), Neil Rosenberg, “Notes on Harry Smith’s Anthology,” (35-37) and Harry Smith, “Foreword,” liner notes to Anthology of American Music reissue (1997)
- Richard Carlin, Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2008), chapter six, “Striking Lightlin’: Folkways and the Blues Revival,” (111-134).
Week Eight (02/24): Popular Music during the Depression and World War II
Crooning, popular radio, and the star system. Labor dispute between American Federation of Musicians and recording companies during World War II.
- Allison McCracken, “’God’s Gift to Us Girls:’ Crooning, Gender, and the Re-Creation of American Popular Song,” American Music 17:4 (Winter 1999): 365-395.
Week Nine (03/03): From Hillbilly Music and Rhythm and Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Urban music and the rise of the independents; jump blues, rhythm and blues, bebop, country and western music and more.
- George Lipsitz, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens: The Class Origins of Rock and Roll,” from Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994): 303-333.
Week Ten (03/10): The Rise of Hi-Fi Culture
Long-playing records, magnetic tape, and the birth of hi-fi culture.
- Keir Keightley, “’Turn It Down!’ She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948-59,” Popular Music Vol. 15 No. 2 (May 1996): 149-177
- Tony Schwartz, “Communicating With Tape,” HiFi/Stereo Review, (March 1962)
Week Eleven (03/17): MC5 Case Study, Sonic Experimentation in the 1960s
Music as revolution: from free jazz to guitar armies.
- LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Collins, 1999 ), final pages, 230-236.
- John Sinclair, Guitar Army: Rock & Revolution With MC5 and the White Panther Party (Los Angeles: Process, 2007), selections: “White Panthers on the Move” (1968), “Rock & Roll Is a Weapon of Cultural Revolution” (1968), and “Community Radio,” (1969) (93-101, 109-113)
- Lester Bangs’ Rolling Stone review of Kick out the Jams [http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/kick-out-the-jams-19690405]
Week Twelve (03/24): Disco and other Sonic Innovations in the 1970s
Rise of disco and other forms of studio-based music. Reaction of rock music for and against these developments.
- Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), intro and chapter two, “More, More, More; One and Oneness in Gay Disco,” (xv-xxvi, 39-70) [CTools].
- Robert Vare, “Discophobia,” New York Times, 10 July 1979
- Frank Rose, “Discophobia: Rock & Roll Fights Back,” Village Voice, 12 November 1979, 36-37.
Week Thirteen (03/31): Remix Culture; the Rise of Hip Hop and Punk
Hip-hop and punk technologies; rise of cassette tapes.
- Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter two, “Mix and Scratch – The Turntable Becomes a Musical Instrument,” (43-69)
- Thurston Moore, ed., Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, introduction
Week Fourteen (04/07): Sample-based music from analog to digital
Week Fifteen (04/14): Music in the YouTube Era
Effects of Internet production and distribution mechanisms on recorded music.
- Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past (New York: Faber and Faber, 2011), chapter 2, “Total Recall: Music and Memory in the Time of YouTube,” 55-85.
Week Sixteen (04/21): Where Are We Now? What To Do With the Musical Past?
- Reynolds, Retromania, chapter 12, “The Shock of the Old: Past, Present and Future in the First Decade of the Twenty-First Century,” 403-428.