American Vernacular Music Manuscripts


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…]

Twisted Roots: Reflections on AmericanaFest

Last month I attended, for the first time, the Americana Music Association’s festival and conference up the road in Nashville. Like other music industry trade shows, AmericanaFest squeezes panel sessions, performance showcases, and the association’s annual awards show into an action- and music-packed span of several days. It also provides an important chance for industry professionals, artists, and other interested parties to meet, network, and build valuable relationships. In four days’ time I heard quite a lot of excellent music and interacted with many fine people whose musical and professional interests connect with my own in one way or another.

An industry trade show like this one, focusing an a particular genre or music marketing category, serves also to redefine the genre’s boundaries. It offers a yearly chance for those deeply involved with a particular type of popular music [Read more…]

Streaming Music: What’s Next?

I can recall with unusual clarity the day in 1976 when one of my older brothers took me (riding our bikes) to the K-Mart in Atlanta’s Broadview Plaza to buy my first LP. I had just inherited a self-contained “hi-fi” system for my room, and I was tremendously eager to have an album that was mine, purchased with my own allowance money, and not one borrowed from my brothers’ collections down the hall. The album was The Who’s Tommy,  the original double LP from 1969 rather than the movie soundtrack, though the relatively recent release of the film undoubtedly fueled my interest and enthusiasm.

Like many other budding music fans and emerging consumers, I listened to that one album many times. I developed a special connection to that music primarily because I had invested my own precious cash in it. I owned that recording, which included (in my mind) the music as well as the physical, tangible objects and corresponding information: the vinyl LPs which I cared for with the delicacy required to ensure their longevity, [Read more…]

Centering: My Vision for the CPM

In 1985 the Tennessee legislature established The Center for Popular Music at MTSU as a state “Center of Excellence,” now one of sixteen COEs in the TN Board of Regents system. This is significant in terms of funding and prestige, but it has also led me to think long and hard about what it means to be designated a center of anything.

Next year the Center for Popular Music will reach its 30th anniversary, a major milestone that I intend to celebrate with exciting public events. Indeed, there is much to celebrate about the remarkable institution which I am now fortunate enough to direct. The CPM is the oldest and largest archive devoted exclusively to the study of popular music in the world. Think for a moment about the gravity of that statement. Housing over a million items in its collection, [Read more…]

A Golden Opportunity

I first came to the Center for Popular Music at MTSU in the summer of 2010. Funded by a summer research grant from Roosevelt University (my institutional home at the time), I was in the midst of a two-week research trip studying old-time guitar styles at archives in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kansas. My immediate goals at the CPM were to examine its substantial collection of 19th and early 20th century guitar sheet music and instructional materials, and to peruse its back catalog of rare serials such as Old-Time Music.

Compact shelving installation, 2010

Compact shelving installation, 2010

That summer was a time of major transition at the Center. Founding Director Paul Wells had just stepped down after twenty-five years at the helm. Dr. Dale Cockrell, having just retired from Vanderbilt University’s musicology faculty, was taking over as Interim Director with the intent to stay on for one year; he later became Director (no longer “Interim”) and stayed for four. Just a year earlier in 2009, the Center had become [Read more…]

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