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Archives for May 2015

American Vernacular Music Manuscripts

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It would be difficult for most of us—even for our parents and grandparents—to imagine a time when the desire to hear music was not gratified by simply turning on a device of some sort. Consumer radios have been around since 1920, when stations first began broadcasting news, entertainment, and sports. Commercial recordings have been around a good bit longer, though it was also around 1920 that they really started to become commonplace in American homes. What, then, did Americans do for music in an earlier era?

Parlor-Music-19th-centurySimply put, they made it themselves. Since the colonial era, music making had been a fundamental part of common Americans’ lives. They sang, played, and danced, sometimes formally but more often informally. True, professional entertainers plied their trade in theaters, schoolhouses, and makeshift venues with increasing frequency during the 19th century, but these events remained rare for most citizens. At home, people had fiddles and (increasingly) banjos and guitars. More affluent families acquired pianos, which functioned as status symbols in homes of the growing middle class. Communities had church singings, fueled greatly by the old tradition of singing schools and the newer revivalist movements. [Read more…]

The Dreadnought

[My friend and noted historian Jerry Zolten is writing an article celebrating next year’s 100th anniversary of the dreadnought guitar for the Martin Guitar Company. He asked me to submit a few words reflecting on the historical, musical, and cultural importance of this iconic, now ubiquitous design. Some of this will presumably find its way into Jerry’s much more in-depth article, but in the meantime I thought these couple of paragraphs would make a nice blog post. –GR]

A Martin-built Ditson dreadnought from 1929. Photo from www.frets.com.

A Martin-built Ditson dreadnought from 1929. Photo from www.frets.com.

The C. F. Martin Guitar Company’s introduction of the dreadnought guitar in 1916, under the Oliver Ditson brand name, represents the pinnacle of trends in guitar design and usage that extend well-back into the nineteenth century. In the decades following the end of America’s Civil War, guitars were becoming increasingly popular, their uses breaking free of the genteel parlors where they flourished in the antebellum era. In these new performance contexts and with the rapid changes in American musical style during those years, guitars needed to be louder, more assertive, and more supportive of other instruments. As a result, their bracing patterns evolved (with most still rooted in Martin’s own x-brace innovation), their scale-lengths extended, their strings began changing over from gut to steel, and, most obviously, they were getting bigger and bigger.

While there were other experiments with large-bodied designs before and after the appearance of the first dreadnought guitars, it was Martin’s 1916 12-fret design and its 1934 14-fret modification that became the de-facto standard for large, steel-string instruments. The dreadnoughts offered an ideal combination of tone and power, playability and boldness, perfectly suited to a wide variety of popular styles in the early and mid-twentieth century. The coincidence of these breakthroughs in instrument design with the emergence of America’s roots-based commercial genres in the 1920s and 30s solidified the connections that still shape the sounds of popular music today. [Read more…]

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