David Brackett

David Brackett is Associate Professor and Chair of the Musicology Program at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. His publications include the Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates and Interpreting Popular Music. He is currently completing a book on genre and identity in 20th-century U. S. popular music.



"Fox Trots, Hillbillies, and the Classic Blues: Categorizing the 1920s"

During the 1920s the three main categories for popular music were established that have subsequently dominated the U. S. music industry in one form or another: popular, race, and “old time tunes.” These categories implied a connection between an audience and a type of music: middle-class, bourgeois, urban, northern, and white for popular; African American for race; and southern, rural, working-class, white for hillbilly. New forms of technology, such as radio and sound recording, increased the range of ways in which types of music and types of people could be connected and played an important role in the formation of the tripartite categorical model.

Although these categories are (and were) not reducible to a list of musical style traits, and while much overlap existed between categories in terms of musical style, I will nevertheless argue that the sound of music participated in the differentiation of the categories. Building on the recent work of Karl Hagstrom Miller, I compare recordings at the boundaries of categories, such as those by Marion Harris—a singer singled out by African-American composer W. C. Handy as the only white musician who understood the blues—with those that helped establish the then new category of race music, such as those by Mamie Smith, teasing out the musical elements that marked categories at the time.

This analysis has implications for our current understanding of the fluid nature of popular music categories, and emphasizes how the etching of their boundaries is related to musical sound and technological developments as well as to struggles over the definition of group identities.


My Speakers Sessions

Friday, March 23

9:00am EDT