Meeting 2 – The Dear Old Sunny South

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Harry wanted the Anthology to change the world in some way – to bring about a world that did not yet exist. But the world from which he drew the Anthology’s music was a real world: the rural south. This week we’ll take a look at that real world and how a confluence of technological and historical events made it a veritable museum of American music, a storehouse of the old from which Harry could construct his blueprint for the new.

The rural southerners who made the music we hear on the Anthology settled there over the course of three hundred years, whites mostly from the British Isles, blacks primarily from West Africa. Each brought music with them, but began a process of acculturation almost immediately, as they adapted to their new land and to each other. The relative isolation of the south was real enough to allow the old ways to survive, but incomplete enough to allow the new to change, replace, or even stand alongside the old.

The Civil War and its aftermath both reduced this isolation and accentuated it. Emancipation scattered the newly-freed slaves, and their new social arrangements led inevitably to new forms of music, among them the blues. At the same time, exploitation of the south’s natural resources brought northerners south to work on railroads, mines and lumber camps. Here they worked with native southerners, black and white, and all listened to the traveling musicians who worked the circuit of mining towns and lumber settlements.

Northern industrialization in the early 20th century increased the mobility of black and white southerners, as they took advantage of job opportunities. These migrants took their music north and brought much of what they heard home with them, and the fast-growing recording industry made it even easier for all this music to travel.

But when radio hit, the recording industry was staggered. Sales slumped as radio gave people the music they wanted, programmed locally, at a lower cost and often with better sound. The record companies’ first response was to improve recording techniques, replacing the cumbersome acoustic horns with microphones. This innovation allowed them to build portable equipment, and to the field they went, recording local artists and giving more autonomy to local producers and distributors. The result was a recording boom that lasted until the Great Depression. The recordings of this boom times are the ones Harry collected.

Here’s a picture that for me perfectly expresses the incomplete isolation of the rural southerner – it’s the Hammons family from West Virginia, and yes, that’s a gramophone on the rightmost Hammons’s lap! See you on Tuesday!

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