Blanks & Postage: Kyle Barnett and the Record Cultures of Wild Midwest

Despite a plot that takes place a century ago, nearly every twist of Kyle Barnett’s new scholarly work Record Cultures: The Transformation of the U.S. Recording Industry (University of Michigan Press, $80) feels acutely connected to the present. With a big picture historical view, Barnett maps how the unsettled and undefined chaos of American music coalesced into the modern world of record labels and genres with all their racist complexities and romantic myths. Barnett finds narrative hooks in the day-to-day emergence of the music industry, as well as the archives of Gennett Records, the Indiana furniture company turned trailblazing label that made early 78s of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Gene Autry, among many others.

With granular research that shows how users turned a novel technology into a vital part of American history, Record Cultures is a story of how musicians, labels, and listeners created a space for themselves in the years before the Great Depression. It was through an extension of these same record cultures that I first met Kyle, a fellow traveler on the circuit of record collecting and independent radio, and one can see those shapes emerging even further in the shadows, too. What is impossible to see in the earliest days of the record industry, though, is any self-awareness that anybody might someday study its history, let alone a scholarly fashion, as Kyle Barnett does. (Disclosure: I was a guest of Kyle’s at Bellarmine University last year.) It is a world of ephemeral practices, blinking on the edge of folk culture and mass media.

The world of Record Cultures feels familiar not merely because of its institutions but because of its chaos. The path of the music industry through the 20th century wasn’t merely growth but a slow coalescence of norms. Though there are many differences, the slow stabilizing forces chronicled in Record Cultures also have their ghostly historical mirrors in the industry’s two recent decades of destabilization. It’s a past that continues to surprise, with Record Cultures shining new light on old sounds, and a few uncomfortable skeletons in the industry’s closet.

Why were the ‘20s the pivot to what we think of as the modern recording industry?

By 1920 or so, a lot’s gone on. There’ve been some format battles and legal cases, but some legal rights start to expire in the late teens. And there are all these new companies that hadn’t really been in the recording industry until this point. Up until then, we had the Big Three: Edison, Victor, and Columbia, these are fairly old labels. But then around 1920, a little bit before that, we start to get all these like really speculative labels, not along the east coast, but in the Great Lakes Midwest and so first they try to compete with the biggies on the east coast and they quickly realize they can’t do that. So then they start looking for niches. And that’s when it gets really interesting because they’re recording everything. They’re recording sermons and speeches and Swedish folk music in Minnesota and jug band music in Louisville. They’re recording indigenous tribes at the Grand Canyon. They’re just trying to figure out what might sell.

A lot of these companies didn’t start with making records. A lot of these companies were furniture companies, which sounds weird, but furniture companies are hugely important. First these new upstart labels had figured out that they could make money by making cabinets for phonographs, because phonographs were kind of unsightly to some people. So they figured if they stuck it in nicely appointed wood furniture that it would find a place in the home. And so they start doing cabinets. And then they say, “Oh, well, maybe we should make our own phonographs” and they start doing that. Only after these moves do they start saying “oh, maybe we should make our own recordings.”

And the music surrounding them in the Midwest is different than the music that they’d be hearing in the northeast. They’re getting this huge influx of blacks and whites from the South. And they’re arriving in the cities in the Midwest at the same time that all this recording activity starts, so the weird thing is that a lot of the music we associate with places like New Orleans or the South or wherever actually gets recorded in Chicago and the rural Midwest. One of Louis Armstrong’s first sessions is Richmond, Indiana. Like, what the hell is he doing in Richmond? But that’s where Gennett Records was.

How do you see the history of that period connecting to the present moment?

If you do media history, if you do pop music history, you start to see repeating patterns, anxiety about formats, shifting business models, like, “whoa, this thing that used to make us money isn’t making us money anymore.” In some ways, the lack of relative stability of this [present] era reminds me a lot of the era that I’m writing about.

But then on the other hand, there’s way more that is assumed and understood now than there was then, especially about genre. There was no sense from folks recording early blues, jazz, and country records that there would be any length of time that this stuff would stick around. It could last three months or six months. Pop music wasn’t a national thing in the way it is now because they’re going to record Cajun music or Pennsylvania mining songs and the sense is that they’re going to sell them right back to people in those areas. There’s not the sense that, like, anybody in Arizona wants to hear what’s happening in Maine or something.

That does start to happen later in the ’20s, but it’s a shock in the early ‘20s when something Mamie Smith’s song “Crazy Blues” for OKeh Records takes off. She was said to have gotten the gig because Sophie Tucker was sick. Like, “oh, maybe there’s a larger audience for this stuff. A lot of what I spent my time doing was going literally month to month looking through these trade journals to try and get a sense of what they were hopeful about and what they were anxious about.

Obviously, too, this is a moment when the record industry starts to adopt practices that are pretty racist.

Yes. It’s really clear, I think pretty early on, that music is happening across racial lines and racial boundaries, but that the industry to sell the music organizes it in a segregated way. I don’t think it was some diabolical plot by the record business, but racism’s baked into American life from the get-go, and [with the record industry] it’s almost done for practical purposes. You had segregated shops that would only sell to black customers from the back of the shop. On one hand, musicians are working across all these boundaries, but then the record business ends up codifying all the worst aspects of segregation in how they organize the music.

Essentially the record business recreated the social separations even though the musicians were playing together regularly. Hoagy Carmichael talks about after hours sessions with Louis Armstrong, but officially none of that was happening. And that [segregation] adds more layers of myth in some ways, because we end up [hearing] music like the blues in a weird way. A lot of ethnomusicologists were really invested in saying, like, “this is the voice of Black America,” and making all kinds of arguments about authenticity. But Robert Johnson had this broad repertoire. Jimmie Rodgers did vaudeville tunes and country dance tunes. You play for the audience that shows up.

It gets really messy. The first chapter of my book is on Gennett Records, a label that did all kinds of things in the 1920s. At the same time that they’re recording Louis Armstrong, they’re doing one of the first integrated recording sessions with Jelly Roll Morton and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a white band with a black bandleader. But Gennett also took money from the Ku Klux Klan to record speeches and music by the Klan. And so these were not official Gennett releases. There were six or so companies that did sort of one-off type releases in the 1920s, post-Birth of a Nation. Gennett, sometimes within a few days of recording African American performers at their studios, they’re recording quartets, speeches, and joke records for the Klan, which is anti-Black and anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. It’s a small part of the larger business, which I think did benefit Black cultural representation–and people of color in general–in real ways.

The labels are called, like KKK Records, or 100% Records, or America First Records. Some of this stuff sounds like it would be out of a Trump speech or a Pat Buchanan speech. They’re not racist in the way that maybe later White Power punk or metal is, but it’s definitely disturbing that this little corner of the Gennett operation were essentially taking money from these white supremacist groups, printing them up, and getting them out of the factory as fast as they could, apparently. It’s a disturbing corner of the Gennett legacy.  

I found out about [the recordings] through a jazz record collector and he and I kind of felt each other out for like a half-a-year or so. He was worried that I might be a white supremacist and I was worried he might be. It was weird. But once we kind of trusted each other, he sent me some of those recordings to study. I hope to write more about them in the next year or two.

Jesse Jarnow is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Da Capo, 2016), Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America (Da Capo, 2018), and Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham, 2012). He hosts The Frow Show on WFMU. Explore the archives of his AD column, Blanks & Postage, here

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