Skip to comments.Before Radio (1923), If You Wanted Music, You Had to MAKE It Yourself
Posted on 05/02/2020 8:05:47 AM PDT by CharlesOConnell
100 years ago, everyone who wasn't deaf or tone deaf, sang together, on average, at least weekly. Between 1900 and 1909, nearly one hundred songs each sold more than one million copies of sheet music. 1 million instances of "WHAT"? Page-clicks? Streaming downloads? MTV video views? Compact Disc purchases? Walk-Man cassettes? Juke-box dime drops? 45 rpm or 33-rpm store buys? Age of radio program listens? NO. Multiple 1-million sales per year of sheet music which each family's piano player in a country with 300 piano companies in the US alone before WW1, played casual-popular SHEET MUSIC sung to by another 5 or more family members and friends because THERE WAS NO RADIO and phonograph recordings were just an adjunct to brisk sheet music sales. Records an expensive novelty that didn't take off until WW2 because people's actual, practical experience of "music" was to SING IT.
Children who were daily exposed to fine singing quickly themselves became proficient at it in own their turn, in the absence of culturally corrosive social media devicesthey had to meet the Muse in the first person. Prior to broadcast media, everyday singing was the default cultural condition, a widespread social habit more ingrained than just a hobby, a full dimension of interpersonal life completely atrophied today. Part-harmonization was then the daily social habit of millions. These actors didnt need to be specially coached to sing beautifully, because they were just exercising the customary cultural habit, that nearly everyone except the deaf or the tone-deaf practiced, singing impromptu in groups, a vastly expansive music club rather than a concert. Old song film clips in classic Hollywood films are an accurate, nostalgic echo of the daily experience of the common people, casually repeated in dozens of old films, portraying the disappearing legacy of the once-routine habits of legions of real people who had actively, spontaneously, habitually made quality, casual vocal music as part of their ordinary cultural lives, in the period before the dominance of portable, transistor radios.
The social, artistic interaction of singers in an ensemble, even the most informal, contrasts vividly with the current experience of music through social media. Harmonic singers must listen closely to each other simultaneous with producing their own vocal output, maintaining their place in the key, concentrating on the implied leader, constantly moderating their volume, tempo and timbre, giving way to a temporary soloist or themselves preparing to take the momentary spotlight. (Singing in multiple, harmony parts creates distinct, expressive head-space niches that individual singers could never occupy when singing in unison. ) This constant, dynamic, artistic socialization varies starkly from the social media experience, confined to the sometimes spaghetti-wide aperture into which the internet forces users attention.
What “actors”? Take your pick. Charles Laughton singing in a bar in Ruggles of Red Gap. Gary Cooper not singing in the company of old duffers like Oskar Homolka and S. Z. Sakall (Cuddles) in the 1st Ball of Fire (1941) with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, old batchelors just casually breaking out in “Sweet Genevieve”, just using their presumed skill at singing together.
Even in the 1950s when I was a kid, music was far more important at home, church and school. I was a terrible singer and some of my first memories are hating to sing and just mouthing it. I've always greatly admired people who could sing or play instruments.
I fell squarely in this camp: "...they were just exercising the customary cultural habit, that nearly everyone except the deaf or the tone-deaf practiced."
"Tone-deaf" doesn't begin to describe my singing!
Great Depression I hit the record industry hard and killed many smaller record companies including Hit of the Week. Meanwhile, radio technology had improved, so radio listening took off as people realized that you could now hear music for free through the radio.
A fine article. My understanding however is that there were about 100 piano companies in the US at our peak, not 300. At the same time many companies had various brands.
Before radio, recordings were promoted to pick back up lagging short music sales. You didn’t need the whizz bang victrola to hear what you were already singing.
300 brands, 100 factories, 11 secret crafts per factory, 2 or more craftsmen per craft per shop, 1,000s of workers.
Records first started to become popular and fairly widespread in the 1890s. They were very popular by the 1900s, especially among the upper and upper-middle classes who could more easily afford them, but many people would have at least occasionally heard recorded music early in the century. Before then, player pianos were popular for those who couldn’t play themselves as were music boxes.
Your article would make more sense if you titled it:
“Before The Phonograph (1895), If You Wanted Music, You Had to MAKE It Yourself”
Composers used to make a living selling sheet music, and only a very few actually broke even through performance. Schubert in particular was always asking, “Take me to your lieder.” (OK, stolen from Tom Lehrer...)
Of course these days, you can program a piano to play stuff that’s not humanly possible.
So let me get this right, people would just break out in song just like they do in musicals? (Sorry, just joking.) Seriously, this is quite interesting. Maybe we need a little group entertaining in our lives and less social distancing.
To be sure, this may not apply to kiddies but, in truth, I never believed in dumbing down entertainment. Kids should be exposed to real music and not this Kids Bop twaddle.
There are (or were before COVID19...) countless live music venues with unsigned acts who'd belt it out for you if you'd drop a paltry $10 cover charge and suck down two or more sodas. Most of this is rock music but there are lots of jazz places and I bet there are even more folk etc venues if people just got off their azzez and LOOKED.
My Dad took me to live lounge lizard gigs in the 1970s. I also remember seeing a band covering Spinning Wheel by BST. These opportunities are STILL to be had. But it depends upon the parents doing their job.
I challenge everyone to go out once or twice a week to see live, unsigned talent. If you have kids, BRING THEM. In the interim, go to these venues' websites and buy a shirt or gift certificate.,,,go to a musician's FB page and watch their live stream and buy their music. Otherwise, we will collapse into auto tuned robots listening to German techno music.
That is one of the best Simpson moments ever....I love how at the end of the tune, people in the congregation hold up their lit lighters and the organist collapses. Just like the 70s, man.
There used to be a place in Center City (or as we said growing up near Philly, senner siddy) called the Borgia Cafe where you could catch unsigned jazz acts and singers. Those opportunities still exist - see my rant in this thread. We just gotta get up and DO IT.
You could also back then make a good living tuning pianos and sharpening knives.
You got that right.
Remember when movies did sing alongs with follow the bouncing ball? Then there was sing along with Mitch on the TV.
I can remember when families would gather on the porch and every family member participated in music making. There are families today doing the same thing, some even become professional groups with a following like The Petersons, all over YouTube.
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