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Tim Gracyk's amazing American Popular Music site
May 17, 2005 9:55 PM   Subscribe

Buying Rare Race Records in the South. Music That Americans Loved 100 Years Ago. The Cheney Talking Machine. Just three among dozens of amazing articles about early recording machines and American popular music at the astonishingly detailed site of Tim Gracyk, author of Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925. Scroll down for bios of forgotten stars, including Nora Bayes - who performed in the Follies of 1907, before Flo Ziegfeld's name became part of the title, George W. Johnson - "the most important African-American recording artist of the 1890s," and piano player Zez Confrey, whose sheet music for the 1921 hit "Kitten on the Keys" sold over a million copies and became "the third most-frequently recorded rag in history."
posted by mediareport (39 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I'm too tired to make a joke about the Cheney Talking Machine.
posted by Espoo2 at 10:12 PM on May 17, 2005


Aw, and I highlighted it just for the likes of you. :(
posted by mediareport at 10:24 PM on May 17, 2005


Nice post, mediareport. Also recommended: Gelatt's The Fabulous Phonograph, which relates the impact of this amazing instrument on society. One player was advertised as having a sound "indistinguishable from an actual performance." As the owner of a few cylinder players and wind-up phonographs (as well as some nice old 78's), I love the hiss of a needle on wax -- it means I'm about to hear an echo from a lost world.
posted by QuietDesperation at 10:36 PM on May 17, 2005


Wardlow's article is rather telling. Yep, it ain't as safe for white boys to be walking 'round in them colored neighborhoods as it was during those tense days of the civil rights movement era. And a generation or two of folks like him, while they saved the music, set the stage for yet another cycle of ripping off the artists by folklorists and rock and rollers and German and English specialty record companies. Not to mention the old ladies who sold him Son House discs for a quarter they probably needed.

Sorry, it's just an old, annoying genre of boy-collector travelogue that needs to be called what it is.

Gracyk is an interesting cat. Wrote a neglected book on rock aesthetics.

Flame away. I have it coming to me.

RCM
posted by realcountrymusic at 12:09 AM on May 18, 2005


my bad. THEODORE Gracyk, not Tim, wrote the book *Rhythm and Noise.* Don't know if they are related.

RCM
posted by realcountrymusic at 12:33 AM on May 18, 2005


So what are the ethics of the rag and bone trade?
posted by TimothyMason at 1:28 AM on May 18, 2005


Joe Bussard is another collector of 78s who's site includes alot of audio samples, as discussed previously on Mefi.

As long as they free the music I am happy.
posted by asok at 2:08 AM on May 18, 2005


realcountrymusic, why do you sign your posts? You may have noticed nobody else does it here and your username appears after each post anyway.
posted by asok at 2:11 AM on May 18, 2005


realcountrymusic, I wouldn't flame you; I thought that 2nd-to-last line in the Race Records piece was unfortunate, too. But I think you go a bit too far in condemning music geeks like Wardlow for being...what? Greedy? Disrespectful to old ladies? Racist? It's not clear exactly what your condemning them for, actually. And to condemn a guy who apparently was among the first to seriously research the lives of some important blues musicians for "setting the stage" for further exploitation just seems bizarre.

Unless you have specific evidence that he was complicit, blaming "boy collectors" like Wardlow for the economic practices of blues-rock musicians hardly seems fair.
posted by mediareport at 6:16 AM on May 18, 2005


Nice find.

Yep, it ain't as safe for white boys to be walking 'round in them colored neighborhoods as it was during those tense days of the civil rights movement era.

I don't know about that. Sharing taste in music can definitely help bridge a divide between individuals of different races (although I'm not naive enough to say that it can bridge the racial divide itself).
posted by jonmc at 6:32 AM on May 18, 2005


Obviously it's a gray situation, is all I'm saying. Not all roses and pineapples. I'm intentionally not using words like "racist." The point is that collectors like Wardlow are part of a history that starts with the initial racialization of popular music in the teens and 20s (hell, it starts with Tom Jefferson observing how very musical his slaves were, and being pleasantly surprised that such creatures had a redeeming quality or two -- on two, see Sally Hemmings; on the larger picture, see Ron Radano, *Lying Up A Nation.*)

I'm not blaming anyone. I just fine the tone of the piece by Wardlow all to reminiscent of a classic genre of white (and male) privilege (see Schapp, Phil; see also O Brother Where Art Thou; see Lomax, Alan, etc. Hell, see High Fidelity).

On a related point, as a musician I've never had time for the obsessive cataloging, collecting, acquiring mentality. I hear almost no passion for the music itself (not to mention the people who made it and listened to it and sold it to him) in Wardlow's prose, merely for the accumulation of the next rare record by any means necessary. The records might as well be baseball cards. See again Schapp, Phil.

Snarky? Yes. But it amazes me how many people hear such criticism as a) extreme and b) distasteful. It's not personal. I'm sure Wardlow is a wonderful guy and that many of his best friends are Black Musicians. I don't think he's a "racist."
And I don't think it matters all that much in the big picture. Like I said, I'm very glad some of that music was saved from the dustbin.

See Lott, Eric - *Love and Theft.* Best. Book. On. The. Subject. Ever.

RCM
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:18 AM on May 18, 2005


And thanks for the pointer about signing posts asok. I shall cease doing so.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:21 AM on May 18, 2005


...initial racialization of popular music in the teens and 20s - Not sure what this means. There were Schottiches and Irish jigs and other ethnic influences in popular mainstream American music before rags and jazz came in. Of course, there were minstrel shows, which is an entire study in itself.

When I listened to Phil Schaap on WKCR I noted that he talked about 400% too much, but I never doubted his love for the music (one tends not to become a walking encyclopedia on topics one loathes). As you say, you're not a cataloguer, but different people approach music in different ways. I loved it so much I made a living at it for a couple of decades.

What should Jefferson's attitude toward his slaves' music have been (a complex question, given that no human being should have owned slaves)? Is all white appreciation of Black culture either theft or condescension?
posted by QuietDesperation at 8:53 AM on May 18, 2005


I stand corrected on the spelling of Schaap's name. My feelings on his prodigiously catelogian contribution to jazz history are mixed, but again, I'm not dismissing him, just pointing to a style of dealing with otherness through music that is rooted in the psychology of a race-obsessed society.

By "the racialization of popular music teens and 20s" I mean the development of racially categorized catalogs (note the phrase) by American recording companies in those decades ("race," "hillbilly," "ethnic," etc.). The effects of that practice are still very much with us today in the way we think about the basic character of american music. Witness the charts, still racially coded in ways that most Americans can easily decipher.

Ron Radano (in lying up a nation) deals in a subtle way with the Jefferson tale (from whence I know it). I wouldn't pretend to address it more carefully here.

And I don't think it's as simple as a choice between "theft and condescension" at all. As Lott's title has it, we have "love AND theft," though the title is polemical of course. There are some intersecting issues here having to do especially with masculinity and accumulation, since of course there are people with the same encyclopedic approach to all major musical genres, and not a few minor ones. But go read the article again and see if, aware of this very interesting discussion, you can detect the race politics informing the aesthetic and commercial agenda. It's not, again, that I am calling Wardlow a "racist." But his perspective is very much of its time, and the essay hardly reflects the degree of self-reflexive critique necessary to historicize his experiences. I'm interested in what his perspective tells us about American music and its cultural politics, then and now, and not in charging anyone with anything. It had never occurred to me to juxtapose the door-knockers collecting cultural artifacts with the door-knockers signing people up to vote in the same communities, as the article explicitly does, and in a manner that says a lot about what the politics of the practice of curating America's recorded musical legacy then and now.
posted by realcountrymusic at 10:32 AM on May 18, 2005


It had never occurred to me to juxtapose the door-knockers collecting cultural artifacts with the door-knockers signing people up to vote in the same communities, as the article explicitly does, and in a manner that says a lot about what the politics of the practice of curating America's recorded musical legacy then and now.

You have something of a point there. I remember John Fahey (who I admire in many ways) saying something along the lines of "The civil rights movement will be the end of blues music," which I have to admit made me look askance.

But there's also the possibility that many people listen to black music because they like the music as music, and because they relate to it as humans, not because they have any illusions about "tuning into the black experience." Then again, hearing and relating to the humanity in a black persons performance makes it that much more difficult to countenance racism. So it is complicated.

But there are better treatises on collecting. Brett Milano's Vinyl Junkies is a lot of fun.
posted by jonmc at 11:00 AM on May 18, 2005


just pointing to a style of dealing with otherness through music that is rooted in the psychology of a race-obsessed society I think there is a style of music criticism that is race-obsessed, that sees every form of black music exclusively in terms of race (cf. Ken Burns). Sometimes a b-flat is just a b-flat. Some people listen to music without knowing or caring about the title of the piece, others do discographies because they happen to like cataloguing. Some people have gardens, others become botanists. The botanists aren't "dealing with otherness", they're just indulging their love of nature in a different way.

By the way, the term "race" records was not meant to be dismissive - it was just a category used by companies to denote black artists, like "world" music today, another term which is rife with all kinds of connotations that people don't think about when they buy their Putomayo records. Contrary to the statements of some over-zealous writers, "race" records were not a second-class category that Bessie Smith and Skip James were "consigned" to -- they sold very well.

I don't know - it seems to me that cataloguing music doesn't spoil the music for me, but analyses of "the race politics informing the aesthetic and commercial agenda" does. To each his own.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2005


I remember John Fahey (who I admire in many ways) saying something along the lines of "The civil rights movement will be the end of blues music," which I have to admit made me look askance.

One might think he was referring to the end of racial peonage being the end of the blues. It seems more likely than that he was pining for the continuation of segregation and sharecropping.
posted by y2karl at 12:29 PM on May 18, 2005


One might think he was referring to the end of racial peonage being the end of the blues.

I thought so, too. But Fahey also loved blues music, too, so that puts him in a weird position: without black people's misery, there would be none of the music he loved. Of course, the legacy of racism was not the only source of inpiration for the form, so that does muddy the waters somewhat.
posted by jonmc at 12:38 PM on May 18, 2005


Fahey sure had a lot of blues of his own, though. The guy was living out of his car just down the street from me for a while, and after that he was at the creepiest hotel in town. I think he tried to make his life a blues song, so he could play a B-flat that was more than just a B-flat. Which he did.
posted by mfargo at 12:47 PM on May 18, 2005


By the way, the term "race" records was not meant to be dismissive - it was just a category used by companies to denote black artists, like "world" music today, another term which is rife with all kinds of connotations that people don't think about when they buy their Putomayo records.

I never implied it was, but that's a good point. For some people, it did imply exclusion (Edison himself had real issues here). But in general, it was just assumed that the market for recorded music would be as segregated as any other market. Karl Hagstrom Miller's doctoral dissertation is a good place to look into this. And by the way, many scholars are now taking on the implications of "world music." A nice place to get an overview is Steven Feld's "A Sweet Lullaby for World Music," (thoughtfully reprinted on the website of Deep Forest, whom Feld shreds in that essay) and if that don't curl your toes enough, "The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop."

I don't know - it seems to me that cataloguing music doesn't spoil the music for me, but analyses of "the race politics informing the aesthetic and commercial agenda" does. To each his own.

It isn't about enhancing or spoiling anything. It's about understanding the history of the music, which matters whether one thinks it does or not. Knowing more about that history enriches "the music" for me a lot. So does disrupting the categories we take for granted.
posted by realcountrymusic at 1:00 PM on May 18, 2005


Even those with a little disposable income had to be careful when selecting songs priced at a dollar each.
posted by mabelstreet at 1:34 PM on May 18, 2005


"race" records were not a second-class category

They most certainly were in the minds of the record label owners. Both "race" and "hillbilly" genres were totally looked down on by the snobby Caruso-lovers of the day, despite their sales.

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? by Mark Zwonitzer is a fantastic biography of the Carter Family that discusses the early years of the record industry at length. It's fascinating. Their producer, Ralph Peer, claims to have coined the phrases "race music" and "hillbilly music."

Peer really had to fight to get Columbia to release these second-class categories of records. They changed their tune a bit after hundreds of thousands of each release flew off the shelves...
posted by elvissinatra at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2005


Wardlow's article is rather telling. Yep, it ain't as safe for white boys to be walking 'round in them colored neighborhoods as it was during those tense days of the civil rights movement era. And a generation or two of folks like him, while they saved the music, set the stage for yet another cycle of ripping off the artists by folklorists and rock and rollers and German and English specialty record companies. Not to mention the old ladies who sold him Son House discs for a quarter they probably needed.

This is a bit thick. Gayle Dean Wardlow is a white Mississippian who began doorknocking in Southern black neighborhoods in the early 60s. It is a fact that it was safer for a white man to go into those neighborhoods then. And he has done yeoman's work in researching country blues.

As we touch on the question of New Yorkers and their take on this music, you occupy a pretty unique position as a Mississippian who has pursued this music very, very deeply as against a lot of people from either the northeast or even overseas that have come here to study this music...

Well, I was just a pioneer. I really am in a sense because...it kind of happened, evolved...here's the background, Paul Oliver was over here in 1959. He came to Memphis, that's where he photographed Bo Carter, come on down and was going to different places, so he was actually the first person to come and try to do a little research. The Charters book came out in `59, I read it in Jackson about `61 and I got to thinkin', well my God, if he can find things out about these Texas guys, I'll see what I can find out about the Mississippi guys. And it kind of evolved from that. And I started knocking on doors for black records, and just kind of naturally fell in to ask the questions. And I was doin' it, Joel, because, by damn, I wanted to show some of those son-of-a-bitches up east, that not all Mississippians were white redneck hicks.


Gayle Dean Wardlow - The Blues World Interview

He may be a former boy collector who still lives with his mother but he has done a lot more legwork, dug up more facts and interviewed more principals than just about anyone else in documenting rural blues.

As for his paying a quarter for a 78 in the early 60s, BFD--I buy 78s at yard sales now and I hate paying more than a quarter. I went to a sale last week and some bozo wanted ten bucks for a common as dirt Les Paul and Mary Ford 78*.... Have you ever gone to a yard sale ? If you do, do you pay what things are really worth to you or what the sellers are asking ?

*...But I did score big a month ago with a variety of early acoustic recorded 78's of various genres, including some Edisons, including the Georgia Melodians playing some dixieland--one of the rare instances such appeared on an Edison disc. My email's on my page if you are interested in getting some more information.
posted by y2karl at 5:09 PM on May 18, 2005


Ah, but after looking at your website, I see you knew all this and a great deal more...

But his perspective is very much of its time, and the essay hardly reflects the degree of self-reflexive critique necessary to historicize his experiences.

I understand your point and share some of your opinions but Karl Hagstrom Miller's is not wrong about your writing. ;)
posted by y2karl at 5:22 PM on May 18, 2005


But it amazes me how many people hear such criticism as a) extreme and b) distasteful.

Well, I didn't see any of that here, but I get your point. For what it's worth, it's great to see a new thoughtful poster here. [On preview, wow, realcountrymusic has written a book about real country music. It's now even nicer to have you in this thread, Aaron.]

And thanks, y2karl, for digging up that Wardlow interview. To be honest, I'm as intrigued by TimothyMason's point above about the ethics of the rag and bone trade in general as I am about the tricky racial ground.

Final bit: I stumbled onto the site after searching for info about Zez Confrey, a guy who's recently become one of my favorite composers. Anyone who likes piano should rush out to get the Naxos CD with Eteri Andjaparidze playing Confrey's music; it's joyful and astonishing stuff by someone who until recently has been generally overlooked by popular music fans.
posted by mediareport at 5:36 PM on May 18, 2005


[y2karl, your "yeoman's work" link is broken]
posted by mediareport at 5:36 PM on May 18, 2005


That * above was for you all in general who read this thread, btw--not you personally, realcountrymusic...

Unless, of course, you're interested in something like vintage John McCormack or the Stars and Stripes Forever by The Royal Marimba Band of Guatemala...
posted by y2karl at 5:42 PM on May 18, 2005


Thanks for the plug, mediareport. And yes, Miller has a point about my writing (though it's too bad his hat covers it). I'm an academic. I plead guilty.

As I keep saying, I appreciate Wardlow's contribution to the preservation of the blues legacy. I'm not slamming the guy, I promise.

It wasn't, of course, so safe for some white guys (and women) to walk those Mississippi streets in 1964 either. And the threat came from whites, not blacks, as Wardlow mentions. He doesn't quite confront the fact that it was often quite risky for black folks to be seen talking to white out-of-towners on their front porches either at that lovely moment in our history.

FWIW, the same kind of "prospecting" that made the careers of Ralph Peer, Wardlow, and Lomax per et fils continues today as boy collectors with tape recorders (I am one of them) fan out across the world in search of the Real Thing and make (as I have) careers out of doing so. I am calling myself out, quite as much as Wardlow and Phil Schaap. Really, I'm just trying to keep conscious of the ironies.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:59 PM on May 18, 2005


Well, these intersecting issues here having to do especially with masculinity and accumulation ironies occur to all of us music lovers on MetaFilter.

As to Chaney, Goodman and Ray and He doesn't quite confront the fact that it was often quite risky for black folks to be seen talking to white out-of-towners on their front porches either at that lovely moment in our history--Wardlow is a guy in his 50s, if not his 60s, reminiscing about what he did in his 20s. Jeez--of course those streets don't seem as safe. To me, now you're dragging in this civil rights straw man, and being rather condescending towards a white Southerner in doing so, in order to justify your initial glib dismissal of him.

I've known so many blues fans in my time who became musicians out of their love for the music. So often they would say, when they hear one of their peers play or sing blues, say Oh, he sounds so white... If I had a nickel for everytime I heard that I could buy a couple of hundred 78s at my preferred rates. Such pot/kettle chutzpah.

Your slam of Wardlow--and it was a slam--was of a piece of that to my mind. I read his interviews and he seems like a guy who cares about the music to me. He may have an ego about what he knows--he's hardly alone there--but he obviously loves the music.

Why rag on somebody who is, as you say, of his times in the first place? If you're calling yourself out, call yourself out from the git go. That said, I'm being cranky tonight--I do like your blog and look forward to your comments and posts.

Here's that Wardlow on H. C. Spier interview link, mediareport. Ironically it's about the contributions of yet another white man who loved of the blues.
posted by y2karl at 8:10 PM on May 18, 2005


the wardlow account maybe the first link, but I personally think the article on the popular music of one hundred years ago is much more nuanced and interesting.

at least it covers a period that I know less about. so thank you for posting this, mediareport.
posted by jann at 8:29 PM on May 18, 2005


y2karl, I was waiting for you to get here! What a great thread this has turned into. And rcm, I have to agree with y2karl that despite your disclaimers, you do come across as being pretty antagonistic toward Wardlow. If you really do include yourself in your critique, you might have started out with something like "Wardlow, like most of us who love and collect black music, is inextricably enmeshed in ironies that blah blah..." instead of "...old, annoying genre of boy-collector travelogue that needs to be called what it is... FLAME AWAY!!!" (emphasis added for amusement). That said, I welcome your presence and comments and will investigate your site.

I remember John Fahey (who I admire in many ways) saying something along the lines of "The civil rights movement will be the end of blues music," which I have to admit made me look askance.

Why? Isn't it a perfectly natural conclusion to draw? Just as plenty of people said "The integration of the majors will be the end of the Negro Leagues." Of course there are still blues, and doubtless always will be, but once the blood-soaked soil they grew out of is gone, they're inevitably something different. Is that not something worth mentioning? As y2karl said, surely he wasn't pining for the continuation of segregation, so what are you looking askance at?
posted by languagehat at 6:31 AM on May 19, 2005


As y2karl said, surely he wasn't pining for the continuation of segregation, so what are you looking askance at?

Maybe "askance" is the wrong word. It's more the weird paradox I mention in this comment that I was thinking of.
posted by jonmc at 6:56 AM on May 19, 2005


I personally think the article on the popular music of one hundred years ago is much more nuanced and interesting

Agreed, jann. I liked the imagery of a couple of guys knocking on old ladies' doors for records, but the articles that really sucked me in were the ones about forgotten stars and labels of days gone by, and the glimpse they offer into the pop culture churn of the time. Not to mention the obsessive level of detail about the technological changes. It's a rich collection of essays all around.
posted by mediareport at 7:58 AM on May 19, 2005


I never did say thanks for posting this interesting stuff mediareport. So thanks!
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:07 AM on May 19, 2005


...the articles that really sucked me in were the ones about forgotten stars and labels of days gone by

Oh, I do agree, and, ahem, have noted as much concerning Tim Gracyk in a recent post, myself...
posted by y2karl at 8:31 AM on May 19, 2005


Aw, y2karl, how could you bury such a great site in the *comments* underneath one of your link-o-ramas?

*tsk*

I used to like link-o posts myself, but good stuff does tend to get lost in the overwhelmingness of it all, don't you think?
posted by mediareport at 7:08 PM on May 19, 2005


Aw, y2karl, how could you bury such a great site in the *comments* underneath one of your link-o-ramas?

...Early Ragtime comes from the wonderful Tim Gracyk's Home Page. Tim is the bomb when it comes to encyclopedically informed discourse on the topic of early American popular music at the dawn of the age of sound recording--consider Barbershop Quartets on Early 78s, for example in the first comment and Tim Gracyk provides Music That Americans Loved 100 Years Ago--Tin Pan Alley, Broadway Show Tunes, Ragtime (and Related "Coon Songs"), and Sousa Marches in the second comment are two explicit mentions--two citations in the first two comments is a fairly shallow burial--which a simple onsite Google search of Tim Gracyk or Music That Americans Loved 100 Years Ago would have shown. A link in a comment is fair game for a front page post in my esttimation but I usually do search my post links so I can give props, myself.
posted by y2karl at 6:20 AM on May 20, 2005


I usually do search my post links so I can give props, myself.

Eh? First, I did search all posts since day one for Gracyk. I stopped using Google to search after it became clear there was sometimes a lag between things appearing here and things appearing there. Second, give props for what, exactly, in this case?

If you wanted to note your link-o-rama, you had plenty of opportunity above.
posted by mediareport at 8:31 AM on May 20, 2005


I try to make it a rule to check for previous links via Google, on and offsite, as a site search is useless unless the link is the first link in a post. Google onsite works unless the link is less than a day old. For that I scroll down. Or should--I've made a couple of double posts by being in a hurry. More than a day old--Google it and, bingo, there it is, much more often than not.

When I put effort into a post, whether I lead with one link or use one of several links in an initial post, I try to note where a link--or topic--was mentioned first in the blue, even if in a comment. As I did here for the topic and here, albeit a bit belately, for mention in a comment. Being gracious by finding and noting a previous mention without attempting to minimize or belittle it in any way costs me nothing.
posted by y2karl at 7:52 AM on May 23, 2005


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