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?
Simply 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…]