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Southern Spaces
A journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US South and their global connections

Shaping a Southern Soundscape

University of Virginia
Published July 29, 2010


Grace Elizabeth Hale reviews Karl Hagstrom Miller's Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).


Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

As a scholar born in the US South who has spent much of my career teaching southern history, I have often longed for a moratorium on romanticized discussions of southern identity as much as I have hoped for at least a temporary ban on men in cowboy hats recording songs about the joys of small town southern life. This thing called "Southernness," like these songs, is by now at least a copy of a copy of a copy, with little grounding in anything material outside of the money to be made in selling Southern Living, southern literature, country music, and conservative politics. We know it is a construct, a collage of popular symbols, stock characters, song types, and genre conventions mixed with popular memory, amateur and "professional" history, the study of folklore, and decades of activism by southern "heritage" societies. We know that this thing called the South—a new generation of academics have named it the southern imaginary—runs deep in American culture. We know that it defines, ensnares, and empowers whites and blacks. We know it has tremendous flexibility and power and has affected efforts to alleviate racial and class inequality for generations. What more, I sometimes wonder, is there to say?

Among the many contributions of Karl Hagstrom Miller's brilliant new book Segregating Sound is this one: it makes thinking about the meaning of the history of this crazy section of the United States and contemporary "country" songs intellectually exciting again. If Miller is right, then both popular and scholarly conceptions of "Southernness" since at least the second decade of the twentieth century owe as much to minstrelsy as they do to rural isolation, commercial underdevelopment, African, British, and Celtic survivals in the New World, and the Lost Cause and other self-conscious efforts to create and shape historical memory.

Karl Hagstrom Miller teaches in both the history department and the school of music at the University of Texas at Austin, and his work speaks persuasively and clearly across the boundaries between academic disciplines and between this scholarship and accounts written by collectors and music fans. He begins with the simple yet profound idea that people's aural worlds in the era before recorded sound became common were defined less by who they were and more by what they heard. His story starts in the 1890s, several decades before Richard Peterson's account of the invention of "country" music and Benjamin Filene's work on the invention of "folk" music, two important earlier works that have examined the relationship between music made in the South and changing understandings of authenticity. Miller avoids the familiar approaches to the study of "southern music" in which scholars focus on a particular genre or kind of song or on the relationship of a genre to a geographical area. Instead, he traces the diverse repertoires of musicians and varied tastes of southern fans in order to write a history of how the construction of the categories folk music and pop music fractured the South's musical culture and strengthened its growing racial segregation.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century South, Miller persuasively demonstrates, all kinds of people listened to all kinds of music, from minstrel show pieces, coon songs, and Broadway and Tin Pan Alley hits to songs later placed in categories like the blues, jazz, folk music, and country music. For musicians and fans in the South, then, any music they heard or made in their parlors, on the street, in a bar, at a minstrel or medicine or vaudeville show, at the theater, or in a church was "southern." How could it be otherwise, when they sang it with their voices in their accents, performed it with their hands, and heard it with their ears? They did not use the term "southern music" in a contemporary sense because they did not understand the songs they played as an expression of their personal identities or as belonging to genres that fused particular geographies to specific sonic qualities and mostly invented "folk" histories.

Instead, musicians shared a broad, interracial musical culture and the tastes of southern working class and middle-class, black and white listeners overlapped. All musicians performed various "racialized sounds," songs and styles understood, often wrongly, as originating among either blacks or whites. In this way of thinking, minstrelsy and spirituals were black sounds, string band music and ballad singing were white sounds, and musicians, whatever their race, moved between styles and genres depending on their skills and what their paying customers wanted to hear. As the black fiddler Howard Armstrong recalled, musicians performing at dances in east Tennessee around 1920 had to be able to perform an eclectic repertory. Because everyone seemed to want them, "we had to learn to play the pop songs like 'I'm Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover' and 'Brown Eyes Why You Blue.' You couldn't play blues for whites then. If you came out there playing some low-down blues, either they'd pack up and leave or you'd pack up and run." "When we played for black people," Armstrong remembered, "it would all depend on what element we played for. Because there were the upper class, or elite, black people . . . and you couldn't play no low-down funky blues for them neither. We'd have to play basically what we had to play for highbrow white people." "Now, the regular black people you could play the blues for. That's what they'd want to hear. They'd also have square dances, and you would be surprised how close they were to the white square dances."

As Armstrong was playing dances in the Tennessee hills, however, the musical landscape was rapidly changing. Through a process Miller calls "segregating sound," intellectuals, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, industrialists, and fans in the early twentieth century created a "musical color line." They transformed what existed in aural practice as "a fluid complex of sounds and styles" into a "series of distinct genres associated with particular racial and ethnic identities." Three innovations shaped this history: the spread of segregation, the professionalization of the study of folklore in a modernizing academy, and the sale of mass produced music in the forms of sheet music and, later, recordings that could be played on the new talking machines

Cover of race records catalogue from Victor talking machine company, 1929.
Cover of race records catalogue from Victor talking machine company, 1929.

As some white southerners built an expansive culture of segregation, people living in the South increasingly divided all aspects of their lives, including the music they made or listened to, into racial categories. Segregation made it more difficult for black and white musicians to play diverse musics for all kinds of audiences. The new recording industry responded to and also played a role in building the emerging southern racial order and an increasing powerful and national white supremacy by creating racial rather than sonic categories for its products. Recordings made by working-class southerners, however they sounded, sold as either "race" records or old time ("hillbilly") records, depending on the presumed race of the musicians who recorded the music.

One of Miller's most important contributions is his discussion of how academic folklorists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in their effort to professionalize their discipline, generated new ideas about the relationship of place, history, and cultural expression that began to change listeners' perceptions of sonic authenticity. Miller understands folklore not as the expressive artifacts of isolated or otherwise historically separate communities, but as "an intellectual project, a set of ideas for interpreting culture and history that developed largely within the academy."

Despite their intellectual differences, Frances James Child, Franz Boas, and the other men who founded the American Folklore Society at the end of the nineteenth century "located a people's essence in a distant historical past in which a pure, isolated culture was unsullied by outside influences." The idea of isolation was key. Folklorists defined "the folk" as people who lived in a different world from the scholars who studied them, separated by race, culture, commerce, and history from modern American life. Folklorists, in turn, defined music they heard in the South that met their standards as "folk music" and as "authentic" southern music. Commercial songs that were popular and mass-produced and made money were not southern music.

As folkloric ideas about authenticity spread, listeners increasingly expected musicians to racially "embody" the music they played, to match the "racial" sound of the music to racial categories and accounts of the past that defined their place in society. While this categorization was never complete, even leftist folklorists advanced the aural color line when they argued that poor rural white and black southerners had developed separate and distinct musical cultures—the music of Appalachian whites or Delta blacks, for example—isolated from popular musical trends.

At the same time, the sale of sheet music and especially recordings changed how people thought about songs by standardizing arrangements and sounds. Before recorded music existed, most southerners never heard Broadway hits, for example, except as interpreted by local musicians who sang and played instruments in ways influenced by their own training and local performance styles. Most of the popular music people heard before the 1920s took the form of what we call "cover" songs today. Recorded sound, in particular, created a standard, live performance, an aural artifact that stood still and did not change with every reiteration. It helped create the idea that musical authenticity meant artists' identities corresponded to the style of music they played. In time, what Miller calls a new folkloric definition of authenticity increasingly competed with an older understanding rooted in minstrelsy. The old ideal judged the "realness" of the music on the performance—an authentic "black" sound could come from bodies of any race. The new ideal declared that "real" music existed outside the marketplace and expressed individual feelings, collective cultural traditions and beliefs, and racial characteristics. The sounds must match what listeners thought about the musicians' histories and communities. Only black people, in this kind of thinking, could produce authentic black sounds like the blues. 

Miller traces the effects of these broad historical changes through a focus on the songs and performers most popular in the South during this period, musicians like Bob Cole, Clarice Vance, Mamie Smith, insisted, "She sings jazz songs with more soulful feeling than the other girls, for it's only natural with us."

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.

Through multiple rounds of interracial and cross-class appropriations southern "folk," black and white have long made minstrelsy. Miller's book helps us understand how celebrations of small town southern life in "country music" today can be hailed by fans as "authentic" even as white singers like Alan Jackson and Kevin Chesney paint a picture that is a copy of a copy of a copy of blackface minstrel stereotypes. 

About the Author

Grace Elizabeth Hale teaches cultural history and American Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 and the forthcoming Rebel, Rebel: Why We Love Outsiders and the Effects of This Romance on Postwar American Culture and Politics. Her current research investigates the intersection of documentary filmmaking and union organizing in the US South in the 1960s and 1970s.