Segregating Sound

Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Segregating Sound

Refiguring American Music

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Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: Published: February 2010

American Studies, History > U.S. History, Music > Popular Music

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.


Segregating Sound is certainly an eye-opening book. I found myself completely engrossed in it, nodding my head in agreement, and uttering ‘a-hah’ as my previously held assumptions were overturned.” — Mitzie Collins, ARSC Journal

Segregating Sound is revisionist cultural history of the first order. . . . Miller has produced a resounding critique of reductive cultural categories and the discursive power they indubitably wield.” — Michael Pickering, European Journal of Communication

“[A] captivating description of the tactics that the early 20th-century recording industry used to isolate the musical styles, artists, and audiences into racial categories for marketing purposes. Moreover, one will find a compelling critique of the folkloric paradigm of authenticity that is sure to garner attention. Segregating Sound is well worth reading.” — Korey Bowers Brown, Journal of African American History

“The book’s strong points include its review of factors leading up to that hard-core segregation: touring theatre groups in the 1870s and 1880s; the sheet music publishing industry; white performers who specialized in blackface, minstrel, and ‘coon song’ acts; and the emergence of academics who created a new field of study known as folklore. . . . [T]he book is worthwhile in terms of presenting the big picture of how business and academic interests as far back as the 1870s influenced decisions about what was acceptable for consumers to listen to, what wasn’t, and how those decisions were deeply connected to race.” — Lindy,

“In this fascinating study of the nature of music, those who study music, and the music business, Miller explains how musicologists and folklorists tried drawing hard lines during the late 19th and early 20th centuries between what they considered music of the folk (poor black and, sometimes, white, Southern musicians) and more worldly pop music. [T]he author displays an incredible depth of knowledge and presents an important history of music.” — Library Journal

“Karl Hagstrom Miller has produced a meticulously researched and compelling multidisciplinary study that contributes much not only to our understanding of the relationship between race and musical culture, but also the emerging revisionist literature on Southern distinctiveness.” — Clive Webb, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“Rarely does a book offer a clear paradigm shift in thinking about a historical topic as successfully as does Segregating Sound by Karl Hagstrom Miller. . . . Miller’s ‘imaginative leap’ (p. 280) results in a completely new way of conceptualizing folk, blues, hillbilly, and even jazz and popular musics that brings into question decades of scholarship. . . . Segregating Sound now leads the revision underway in studies of southern music.” — Glenn T. Eskew, Journal of American History

“Scrupulously researched, engagingly written, and bursting with ideas, Segregating Sound asks readers to reengage with the origins of folk and pop music in a manner that offers a roadmap to the future, rather than simply a dismantling of the past.” — John Dougan, Journal of Southern History

“Throughout this study, borrowing from Steven Feld’s notion of listening as a 'feelingful activity,' Miller complicates musical meaning, allowing multiple interpretations, multiple identities to exist in any performance, allowing individuals to embrace and use music often assumed to be outside of their core culture. This is a provocative study, sure to incite further commentary on the topic.” — Bertram Lyons, American Studies

Segregating Sound provides a convincing and far-reaching argument that the duality within southern music developed out of three factors in the latter part of the nineteenth century: the rise of political and economic segregation, the academic professionalization of folklore, and the modernization of the music industry. . . . Segregating Sound is a valuable and interesting work that anyone working in cultural studies should consult.” — Kenneth J. Bindas, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“[A] marvelous reappraisal of early 20th century American musical culture. . . . [Miller’s] book is rich with examples of folklorists or academics heading south in search of something ‘elemental’ and pure, and editing out anything that didn't fit. And there was a lot.” — Hua Hsu, The Atlantic

“[B]rilliant . . . . Miller is the first scholar to take the overwhelming presence of popular music in the South seriously and to weave the story of changing ideas about what makes music ‘authentic’ into the history of what musicians from the South were actually playing and what people were actually listening to. Segregating Sound tells the stories of the varied cast of characters who invented the category of southern music, a significant part of what is called ‘folk’ or ‘Americana’ or ‘roots’ music today and understood as part of the American musical canon.” — Grace Hale, Southern Spaces

“[T]he most thorough achievement thus far in a growing body of scholarship and criticism demystifying and dissecting the roots of American music, and by extension the American music industry. . . . Miller goes several steps further than prior bodies of research, tracing back the artificial distinction to a confluence of marketing, scholarship, and music classification decisions, each driven to some degree by the prevailing racial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” — Mark Reynolds, PopMatters

“In this head-banging, eye-opening study, Karl Hagstrom Miller examines with stunning clarity the historical and material grounding of the music industry’s three main revenue streams: live performance, recording, and publishing. Along the way, he demonstrates how the notion of authenticity in folklore discourse, systemic Jim Crow, and minstrelsy legacies worked together to calcify our contemporary—and quite naturalized—perceptions about music and racialized bodies.If you ever wondered where MTV, CMT, VH1, and BET got their marketing logic, look no further. In fact, you’ll never experience a Billboard chart, nor the words ‘keep it real’ in the same way after reading this book!” — Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Karl Hagstrom Miller is an Assistant Professor who teaches in the History Department and the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, Austin.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. Tin Pan Alley on Tour: The Southern Embrace of Commercial Music 23

2. Making Money Making Music: The Education of Southern Musicians in Local Markets 51

3. Isolating Folk, Isolating Songs: Reimagining Southern Music as Folklore 85

4. Southern Musicians and the Lure of New York City: Representing the South from Coon Songs to the Blues 121

5. Talking Machine World: Discovering Local Music in the Global Phonograph Industry 157

6. Race Records and Old-Time Music: The Creation of Two Marketing Categories in the 1920s 187

7. Black Folk and Hillbilly Pop: Industry Enforcement of the Musical Color Line 215

8. Reimagining Pop Tunes as Folk Songs: The Ascension of the Folkloric Paradigm 241

Afterword: "All Songs is Folk Songs" 275

Notes 283

Bibliography 327

Index 351
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4700-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4689-0
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