Charles McGovern

Charlie McGovern teaches American studies and History at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. He wrote Sold American Consumption and Citizenship in American Life, 1890-1945, and he co-founded the Duke University Press series Refiguring American Music. He’s working on a book on pop music, race and citizenship, along with a shorter project on Nat Cole.



"'Up in the Streets of Harlem': Black Vocal Groups and Postwar Urban Life"

Black vocal group music, sometimes known as “Doo Wop” flowered in American cities after World War II, both as a key component of black popular music, and a cornerstone of rock n soul. The cliche of the “street corner sound” quickly attached to both the music’s origins and its circulation in oldies memory. But how exactly was doo wop “urban”? This essay locates doo wop within the social geographies of postwar cities. I trace paths of its circulation within cities, the relationship of musical practices to urban social life, and the role that doo wop played in fabricating a both sense of urban modernity and a collective urban memory held by musicians and fans alike.

Using trade journals, fan publications, the black press, oral histories and contemporary discourses on cities, this essay sets doo wop in/against postwar urban geographies and histories. By examining where and how vocal group music was made and circulated, we can see the extent and limits of its permeation throughout the urban soundscape; analyzing doo wop as urban sound helps reveal the ways in which artists, businesses and listeners understood the music as urban. Finally, outlining doo wop’s brief favor as a spectral, fleeting moment in the commercial fortunes of black pop, reveals why the music has been perceived as instantly nostalgic, identified with a city that was in transition even as the music briefly flourished.