Advertising Hillbillies: Genre, Authorship and Audience

Curator's Note

Can the recording industry be considered an author of a given genre? And, if so, how would we map that authorship? These questions are made trickier if we consider “authorship” to imply decisions made for the long term. Many of the talent scouts that first recorded the ancestral popular music we now know as “country” had little interest in the music beyond selling records and little sense of the music’s importance beyond a few months of sales. This rural music was long ignored by east coast record companies and was the last of the foundational genres of the early twentieth century to appear on record in any concerted way. The record companies that finally recorded this music sought out audiences and helped define the genre – making it up as they went along. Though most record industry documents are long gone, early in-house advertisements and record catalogs have survived. These documents serve as rough drafts, first takes on a musical genre at once old and new. The images you see in this slide show are culled from 1920s record company catalogs and advertisements, providing snapshots of an emerging genre. Country was initially known as “old time music” or “hillbilly,” among other terms, a commercial genre that was looking backward at the moment of its commercial inception. These were provisional terms for ephemeral music, recorded by companies who had no thought of the genre’s lasting interest or importance. And yet, the record industry was clearly creating what they believed new audiences wanted. The advertising copy of the mid-to-late 1920s reference authenticity (these fiddle players are real country folk!) or appeal to a “one of the gang” ethos (your favorite singer made these songs just for you!). In the January 1928 “Gennett Records of Old-Time Tunes” catalog, the ad copy notes that vocalist and banjo player Chubby Parker “has asked us to tell everybody that he has a lot of new songs for the new year.” Hey, readers were invited to think, he’s talking to me! For fiddler Dock Roberts, the same catalog noted, “he was raised in the Kentucky hills and has been fiddlin’ since a mere boy.” In the ads I’ve included in my slideshow, similar approaches are employed. The Okeh ad for Fiddlin’ John Carson and Henry Whitter from an edition of the trade journal Talking Machine World references both the place-bound persona of the musicians and Okeh’s proprietary pride at discovering them: “These two mountaineers were discovered by Okeh!” Why would this be pertinent information to music fans? Is this part of the record companies’ role in defining the new (old) genre? And finally: how do we explain the stubborn persistence of authenticity in the industry’s construction of this music (and popular music in general) today? A final side note: these advertisements, which date from the earliest attempts at defining an emerging genre, include many of the musicians in their Sunday best, as opposed to clothing that would later be associated with old-time, hillbilly, country, or western musics. In a short amount of time, costumes would take on added importance with the rise of live-audience radio barn dance shows like WLS-Chicago’s National Barn Dance and WSM-Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps the record industry’s improvisational authorship of the genre was further extended and solidified by radio, which in turn updated the hick and rube characters from vaudeville for a new medium.


Fascinating piece, Kyle. I am especially intrigued by the use of nostalgia as marketing strategy, which seems to give this emerging and still-in-the-process-of-being-crafted genre a coherent history it never really had. What I wonder is how did the early recording industry imagine the consumer of these records as different from the consumer of classical music, and how were they made distinct still from the consumers of race music and blues music that were also being generically constructed during this period?

It's striking how often the discourse of preservation of heritage surrounds the emergence of new media technologies. Often, the promise of a new technology is not just that it will take us into an uncharted future, but that it will give us renewed access to our cultural back catalog. These emerging technologies are marked as new in part through their ability to bracket earlier cultural/technological forms as "past", and therefore worthy of preservation. The moment of preservation is essentially a moment of death and reanimation (nods to De Certeau). I love the ways that these different posts work together to suggest a really interesting historiography of commercial media. In various ways, we're all exploring how to peer through secondary/tertiary media to try to understand the cultural and industrial logics behind their creation. are themselves part

Were the documents in your slide show speaking directly to the consumers of recordings, or were they speaking to another audience -- say, to jobbers who might have sold these records to stores, or perhaps to retailers themselves? These questions are worth asking when using any form of marketing as historical evidence. When companies "speak" through advertising, marketing, or public relations, they speak with a different voice to different intended audiences. When speaking to others within the trade, a corporation may frame the product differently than when speaking directly to consumers. In my own work, I've become increasingly aware of the number of intermediary stages that exist between the corporation, the product, and the consumer. The cultural intermediaries at each stage address a particular audience while participating in the process that converts the cultural into economic terms and vice versa. Would it make a difference if these documents weren't addressed to music fans, but to wholesale jobbers or to retail dealers? Would this be evidence of the trade (I hesitate to call it an industry at this stage) articulating various ideas about genre or region or authenticity or social class before they reach consumers? A related question: What about the recordings themselves? How do the recordings address the listener? Are there useful connections between the claims made in the marketing and the recorded performance? I seem to recall, in several of the early recordings I've heard, that performers often addressed the listener explicitly before settling into the performance -- as though to mitigate the potential awkwardness of the encounter with the mechanically reproduced facsimile of human presence.

Thanks all, for your generous comments. I’ll start with Avi’s question about how record companies might have imagined varied audiences. I think the use of nostalgia in old-time/hillbilly music is unique in that it was construed in advertising as music-of-the-past in a way that other genres weren’t – even with classical music. Classical music’s reputation for edifying listeners was used as a pitch to prospective buyers, particularly women. Victor Records gave away copies of celebrity tenor Enrico Caruso’s recordings as impetus to purchase Victrola phonographs. Race records advertisements placed in the black press by white-owned companies in the black press employed images culled from minstrelsy with alarming frequency, but also present singers like Mamie Smith with respect. A good point of comparison in race records advertising is that of African-American-owned and Harlem-based Black Swan versus the white-owned Okeh label, which used some of the most racist imagery. Michael, I appreciated your comments regarding the paradoxical urge toward preservation in the face of new technologies. Recording culture is full of what-if talk about this or that 19th century figure who died before being recorded. If only we could have recorded Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and so on. But the record industry had no interest in old-time music for the longest time. All the earliest legends surrounding recording old-time/hillbilly have this happenstance quality to their recording circumstances. In this case, the “urge to preserve” this specific music strengthens later, with folklorists like Alan Lomax deriding the hillbilly acts’ commercialism as he sought out the “real thing.” Chris, your questions about advertising and context are crucial. Some of these ads – the Okeh ad hyping Fiddlin’ John Carson and Henry Whitter, for example – were largely geared to jobbers and retail store employees (the pages of “Talking Machine World” regularly offered on advice on store displays and regional consumer trends). However, record catalogs were used by jobbers and retail workers and passed on to consumers at point of purchase or sent along with purchases by mail. The levels of mediation are further complicated when storeowners worked as scouts, musicians worked as jobbers, and so on. At all levels, decisions and discussions about audience were going on. I was intrigued by your preference for “trade” over “industry” for record companies of the 1920s. If this is a matter of scale, let me assure you that the industry had grown quite dramatically in the period 1910 and 1930. During the 1920s, labels like Victor had already expanded to countries worldwide. Even the tiny Gennett label was involved with seventy labels in the U.S. and abroad during this period. At the same time, genres were still construed as regional, though that would begin to change dramatically with radio’s role in constructing a national audience. Your memory re: the actual recordings is correct, Chris. Performers often introduced their songs, through speaking directly with listeners or through speaking with their fellow musicians at the start. I’m sure Patrick Feaster has written about this. Absolutely, I think this had to do with anxieties about mediated human presence. This shows up in radio too, through listener concerns over live radio performances vs. radio transcription disks. The ultimate expression of this kind of anxiety appears in the first of “The Big Broadcast” films in 1932, as Bing’s manager covers for his irresponsible performer as he rushes a recording to the radio studio…and hi-jinx ensues.

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