Origins: Minstrelsy to Music Halls (1830-1880)

There has undoubtedly been music in America as long as there have been people to make it. Some of the earlier musical cultures, such as the indigenous peoples' songs and dances, the Puritans' Psalmody, and British colonists' ballads are better understood and better communicated by a real historian. For this I can recommend Richard Crawford's "America's Musical Life".

My story of American music begins on a sour note with a form Tim Brooks elegantly called a "stain on the national character", the minstrel show. Minstrelsy captured broad public attention in a way that would have been impossible before the railroad and telegraph. White entertainer Thomas Dartmouth Rice ignited minstrelsy in the early 1830s by donning burnt-cork makeup ('blackface') and singing his song "Jump Jim Crow", lampooning the remarkably un-white speech and mannerisms of an African slave named Jim Crow. A decade later, Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels would expand this character into a full song and dance routine, inventing the modern minstrel show. They popularized songs that are still well known today, such as "Dixie" and "Old Dan Tucker". The minstrel show was the most popular form of entertainment between the 1830s and the Civil War. Its popularity waned slowly, beginning with the spread of music halls in the mid 1850s, but the stereotypes would continue in popular theater and song well into the recording era, lasting nearly a century.

Thomas D. Rice and Dan Emmett
Images from "The Negro on the Stage" Harper's Magazine, 1889.

Beginning his career at the height of the minstrelsy fad (mid 1840s), Stephen Foster would become one of the most beloved icons of our nation's musical heritage. His sentimental parlor songs predate recording technology, but the sheet music left behind and later recordings preserve his music faithfully. His works "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", and "Swanee River" are still household names today. It's interesting to note that sheet-music was the de facto carrier of popular music until the turn of the century. Popular myth tells us that until 1880 (1890, 1900, etc.), there were more pianos than bathtubs in the average American home.

Live performance, though, was king in these days. I won't attempt to make qualitative judgements, but I find it interesting how studio recording technologies have allowed recordings to supersede performance, sometimes even replacing it entirely (in electronica, for instance). Regardless, if you wanted to see popular music happen between 1850 and 1880, you were probably headed for the music (variety) hall. Music halls were theaters with liquor and smoke, and the shows tended to be burlesque in nature.

The Birth of Recording (1877-1900)

In the 1880s and 90s, Manhattan music halls, following Tony Pastor's lead, would begin catering to a more sophisticated middle class audience, advertising these cleaner shows as "vaudeville". Somewhere between musical theater and circus, vaudeville shows featured singing and dancing, short acting skits, athletic feats, puppet shows, minstrelsy, juggling, and anything else that would pass for entertainment. The vaudeville episode of PBS' American Masters series is a great introduction, and is available on DVD.

Musical theater differed from vaudeville in that the entire experience was devoted to a single story, like movies are today. Unlike the spoken stage plays or purely musical operas that preceded them, musicals freely moved between spoken dialogue and song and dance to create compelling, yet entertaining theatre. While Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart laid the foundations of musical theater with their musical comedies on Broadway, Richard Rodgers really brought the form into maturity. In the late 1890s, black composers like 
Will Marion Cook ("Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk") and Bob Cole ("A Trip to Coontown") produced mainstream stage successes with all-black casts.

Also in the 1890s, somewhat in line with musical theater, composers and publishers would begin to coalesce around Manhattan into a scene that would eventually become known as "Tin Pan Alley". Emboldened by copyright reforms that would grant publishing houses exclusive rights to a composition,  sheet-music publishing became a competitive business that developed in tow with the budding phonograph technology. Their songs would feed the first generation of popular recording artists such as Henry Burr and the Peerless Quartette, Billy Murray, and Ada Jones. Comic "novelty" songs and ballads were popular genres. For a history of these popular recording pioneers, check out Tim Gracyk's "Popular American Recoring Pioneers". You can find brief biographical information on many artists in this online encyclopedia.

A popular novelty song by Jean Schwartz and William Jerome

Edison's first successful recordings were made in 1877 by amplifying the voice through a recording horn, which embossed the sound waves into the surface of of a sheet of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. After displaying this technology with limited success at the Paris World's Fair in 1878, Edison temporarily suspended research on the topic to work on his electric light bulb. In 1886, Edison returned to phonograph research after competition from other inventors. In 1886, Charles Sumner Tainter and Chichester Bell patented a process by which grooves were cut into a wax disc (Edison's were simply impressed). In 1887, Emile Berliner patented the lateral-cut groove record, or gramophone. Although this patent specified a cylinder record, Berliner would go on to produce the first stamped disc record, the precursor to the 78rpm format that would dominate the first half of the 20th century (and, incidentally, the precursor to the greatest label - more on this later).

Edison with crank phonograph - Image LoC

In 1888, glass magnate Jesse Lippincott purchased American Graphophone (the product of Bell and Tainter's Volta experiments) and the Edison Phonograph Co. for the purpose of manufacturing and selling phonographs for dictation. Some 34 regional offices were set up for the distribution of these machines, creating an enterprise worth $30,000,000!. Transcripts of their conventions have been made available on, and give great insight into uncertain fate of the new technology.

In 1893, Leon Douglassthe manager of the Chicago Central Phonograph Co., purchased 100 phonographs to display at the Columbian Exposition ("World's Fair") in Chicago. This stock of machines would later come under the control of Peter Bacigalupi in San Francisco, becoming the cornerstone of a successful phonograph "jukebox" parlor. These machines were still functionally little more than the curiosity Edison had displayed years earlier. They were powered by unwieldy (and dangerous) glass batteries, and were heard through listening tubes (think earphones). Still, people paid to come hear music and recitations, and companies began making and selling records for this purpose. In 1896, Edison and Columbia began marketing home cylinder players using Douglass' spring motor. Continued technical improvements and reductions in price encouraged a lucrative market for talking machines and pre-recorded cylinders in the following years.

Childhood (1901-1910)

The turn of the century marks the beginning of the mature phonograph market. Notwithstanding small independent startups such as Lambert, Indestructible, and Everlasting, the "big three" publishers: Edison, Columbia and Victor dominated the market due to early technological patents.

In June of 1900, Frank Seaman, a former sales agent for Berliner records, established the Universal Talking Machine company (maker of Zon-O-Phone records), and joined with Columbia to leverage their Bell and Tainter patent to force Berliner out of the market. In October 1901, Eldridge R. Johnson, who previously supplied and manufactured for Berliner, leveraged Berliner's lateral-cut patent to successfully counter-sue for the right to make disc records, incorporating the Victor Talking Machine Company. Each holding a patent crucial to the others success, Columbia and Victor cross licensed their patents in 1903, effectively guaranteeing a duopoly of the disc market for years to come.

Edison wouldn't enter the disc business until 1912, but would spend this decade improving everything about the recording and manufacturing of cylinders, notably developing the 'permanent master' (trade name "gold moulded") in 1902, which allowed cylinder records to be duplicated from a metal master record. For a narrative history of this and the next decade, see Allan Sutton's "A Phonograph in Every Home".

Musically, the decade wasn't exciting to my taste. Records typically feature
popular singers, vocal quartets, band music, instrumental soloists and groups, vaudeville & race-comedy. One newcomer, however, would shape the most exciting music of the coming decades:

is a primarily piano-based form developed from the similar cakewalk. Ragtime is sophisticated music, employing polyrhythm and heavy syncopation. The first ragtime hit was Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899, though his "The Entertainer" may be more widely recognizable today.

A typical piano rag, performed by Roy Bargy

The Teenage Years (1911-1920)

In 1912, Edison would debut the final form of their cylinder output, the celluloid "Blue Amberol", as well as their disc format, the vertically-cut "Diamond Disc". Columbia settled into the disc market, dropping cylinders entirely in 1917. With Victor and Columbia holding the patents to the lateral-groove record, many minor record labels began issuing vertical-cut recordings, beginning with Pathe in 1914, OKeh and Starr/Gennett in 1915 and Aeolian-Vocalion in 1916. The public were reluctant to buy these recordings for their incompatibility with the pervasive lateral-cut gramophones marketed by Victor and Columbia. In 1918, Starr threw caution to the wind and began pressing lateral-cut recordings. Their right to do so was upheld in court (against Victor) and all of the other minor labels soon followed suit, further marginalizing Edison's Diamond Disc.

Revue entertainment, combining the variety and energy of vaudeville with the higher-class culture of musical theater became popular through this decade with Florenz Ziegfeld's "Ziegfeld Follies", and remained popular through the next.

The most characteristic music of this decade, however, was the foxtrot. Named after vaudeville performer Harry Fox, the foxtrot was initially danced to ragtime music. Its popularity hit its peak when it was introduced to the ballroom dance scene by Vernon and Irene Castle and their composer and bandleader in residence, James Reese Europe. The foxtrot introduced young people to dance music and set the foundation that would allow jazz to soar.

Jazz [listen] is arguably the most successful and enduring originally American form (alongside rock and roll). Although New Orleans musicians such as the Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton had been at it since turn of the century, jazz wouldn't find its audience until a small white jazz ensemble stepped into the Victor studio in New York in 1917.

The Original Dixieland Jass (later Jazz) Band's "Livery Stable Blues" set off a national craze that spread jazz to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. I won't attempt to tell even a beginner's history of jazz. If you're interested, Ken Burns' documentary "Jazz" is a great place to start (it's currently on Netflix instant), and any number of books can take you from there.

Livery Stable Blues, the first jazz record.

Early jazz ensembles typically featured a piano, drum kit, contrabass, banjo or guitar, and one or more winds (clarinet or tenor saxophone) and horns (cornet or trumpet, trombone). Jazz before 1950 can be broadly broken down into Dixieland/Traditional (~1920), Swing (~1935), and Bebop (~1940).


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band - San Francisco 1921

The Jazz Age (1921-1930)

The recording industry at large developed into maturity in the 1920s.
Independent studios began making strides against the majors, and all sound records began to compete with the increasingly popular radio. Victor and Columbia diversified their recording activities, discovering old-time/country and "race records" (e.g. blues, gospel) to be profitable. Edison dropped out of the business entirely in 1929.

The electric recording process, debuted by Columbia UK in late 1924, was the most significant technological advance in decades. Replacing the acoustic recording horn with an electric microphone improved sound fidelity immensely, which allowed sounds like the female voice, wind instruments and guitars to be recorded satisfactorily.

Though Columbia had been recording folk music from across the world since 1908 for their ethnic series (in their Manhattan studio), American folk music was curiously absent from the catalogs until the 1920s. It's hard to pinpoint why this is, but the majors were typically risk averse, and shipping recording equipment and engineers to the culture-rich southeast (or musicians to the northeast) would be complicated and expensive.

In 1920, Okeh Records would find unexpected success in vaudeville blues songstress Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues". It introduced the jazz-buying public to the blues and demonstrated the buying power of black listeners. Okeh responded by sending Ralph Peer, the recording engineer of Crazy Blues on expeditions across the country to search for local talent. In 1923, Peer Recorded fiddlin' John Carson in Atlanta, and piqued interest in old-time white music of the south.

"Old-Time" music (AKA "Hillbilly Music") [listen] is typically white folk music from the Southeast coast of the Atlantic ocean to the Appalachian mountains, with roots in British dances and ballads. The term 'hillbilly', as used to describe this form, is not meant as a pejorative, but simply a descriptive moniker for a genre without a clever name. Al Hopkins embraced the name given to his band the Hill Billies (later Buckle Busters) by his recording studio after his popular contemporary Ernest Stoneman jokingly approved [source]. Archie Green tells an elegant history of Hillbilly Music in "Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol". Highly recommended.

Image from Folkways RBF 654 Liner Notes

In 1926, Columbia bought out OKeh records, and Peer moved to Victor. The following year, Peer traveled to Bristol Tennessee and recorded a group of musicians including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Stoneman, creating a new market for 'country' music, seemingly overnight. Tony Russell's "Country Music Originals" tells the stories of the first generation of old-time and country recording artists.

The Carter Family were important in the development of country music

Blues [listen], like 'old-time', was kind of historic by the time it was recorded. I list it here because the race-records market created a kind of renaissance in recorded blues in the late 1920s. Wisconsin based Paramount records bought out the all-black Black Swan record company in 1924 and started a short-lived but influential blues-recording endeavor in the 12000 series. Blues before World War II can be broadly classified as urban (vaudeville blues such as Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey) and country (delta blues like Charlie Patton or Memphis blues like Frank Stokes). After the war, blues became popular in Chicago with artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and began incorporating electric guitar and harmonica.

Jug Band music combines Memphis country blues with ragtime and jazz for a wonderfully danceable and accessible form. Notable acts include the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers.

Gospel - While gospel music has many meanings, and as many disparate roots, American gospel music, from Southern 'spirituals' to Appalachian 'sanctified singers', has its own distinct sounds and histories. The shape note tradition, especially the Sacred Harp, is central to the history of American Gospel music. You can learn more about this tradition in the documentary "Awake, My Soul".

Great Depression, Swing and World War II (1931-1941)

Just as suddenly as the industry had boomed in the previous five years, the stock market crash and consequent 'great depression' busted it profoundly. This temporarily put a near freeze on recording activity bottom to top for almost five years, shuttered many independent recording studios, and ended the careers of many important artists.

Between 1929 and 1935, the American Record Corporation subsumed many labels, creating an enormous conglomerate that was needed to compete with RCA-Victor. Columbia and it's OKeh label, Brunswick and Vocalion, Banner, Cameo, Perfect and Regal labels (among others) were all acquired. In late 1938, ARC was sold to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). As some had predicted more than a decade earlier, the record business was beholden to the radio industry.

Building on the successes of late 20s white dance orchestras such as Paul Whiteman and Art Hickman, clarinetist Benny Goodman sent the country (and the world, really) into a tizzy over "Swing" jazz music after a legendary concert at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935. Swing, to me, marks a sort of end of innocence in the recording industry, representing an incisive victory for commercial music. Certainly, the industry had necessarily been commercial from its inception, but swing really demonstrated how lucrative it could be to water down music for mass appeal.

At the same time, folk song collectors such as Alan Lomax and Lawrence Gellert were traveling around the country with portable recording machines searching for obscure folk traditions. The mass communication enabled by radio flattened regional variations of folk music, some of which might never have been heard again without the initiative and persistence of these recording pioneers. This spirit of folk preservation was continued in the 1940s by Moe Asch's Folkways label, which is now owned and maintained by the Smithsonian Institution. This tradition is truly one of the great victories of American recording.

Post-War (1942-Present)

The second world war and the beginning of the 'atomic age' represent a paradigm shift in musical styles, commercial attitudes, and even recording technology itself. From August 1942 to November 1944, James Petrillo and the American Federation of Musicians successfully led a strike prohibiting musicians from recoring until the record companies would pay royalties to ordinary performers (big names were already getting royalties). V-Discs, recorded for soldiers overseas, were a notable exception. After the war, popular recordings would come to be billed by vocalist, rather than bandleader or instrumental soloists. Jazz ensembles shrunk to a few pieces, and experimental 'bebop' jazz was born. Country continued to grow more commercial, and bluegrass string bands became popular. Following the 'second great migration', blues would evolve to feature electric guitar and amplified harmonica (later to be labeled 'urban blues').

The federal government began rationing shellac in 1941 to support war efforts overseas. This would drive Victor and Columbia to begin experimenting with plastic "vinylite" discs in the late 1940s. Columbia debuted the 33 1/3 rpm "long-playing" (LP) disc in June 1948, and Victor followed suit the following year focusing on the 45 rpm "extended-play" (EP) record, which gave listeners the traditional experience in a more convenient and higher fidelity format. In November 1957, Sydney Frey's "Audio Fidelity" record company debuted the stereophonic record.

The story of recorded music, of course, does not end here, but I find popular music from the LP until the present to be better documented, and generally better understood.

This about sums it up. Bleh.