Music is and always has been the voice of a culture. Popular music of the thirties reflected and shaped American society and identity during a decade of economic crises and industrial development, as it resonates with the memories of events and experiences and creates a sense of self for the listener.
The metaphor of the jukebox is particularly apt to convey this sense of resonant memory. This product of industrial development, the jukebox was the technology largely responsible for saving the American music industry during difficult economic times. More importantly, through the jukebox Americans experienced music socially. With the most basic of commercial exchanges, placing a nickel in the slot, Americans chose what songs they would listen to on a given night, what songs would color their memories of an evening out, what songs best provided a soundtrack for their lives at that moment. Americans literally purchased a sense of identity from a vending machine of aural memory. The jukebox is indeed the perfect model for the systematic commoditization of music that began well before the decade of the thirties but which intensified greatly during the period.
But who put the records in the machine? Who decided on the limited range of musical choices that would offer Americans the raw materials of identity? Which artists were judged worthy of making meaning in the culture and by what process were these decisions made? In the course of building this site we have learned that the processes of an industry shaped the American musical experience and by extension the American memory and imagination. We have learned that marketing predictions, the evaluation of cultural trends, and racial and social prejudice were all a part of these decisions. American popular music was a manufactured product that sold back to Americans their own identity and memory.
The first collection of songs (from 1930-1934) featured regionally popular artists like Blind Willie Johnson, the Rev. F.W. McGee, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Amédé Ardoin, performing vernacular material. Performances recorded during the initial wave of interest in "race records," "hillbilly," and "ethnic" music by the major recording companies that led to the search for "new" performers throughout the southern and western states. The Cuban rumba song, which topped the American charts, performed by Don Azpiazu and sung by the incomparable bolero singer, Antonio Machin reflected the popularization of ethnic music.
The jazz and blues selections in this same set of songs demonstrated the emergence of significant musical forms with selections by pre-swing greats Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters represented the budding rhythm and blues of the Harlem Renaissance. The Mills Brothers foretold the coming of the rhythm and blues doo-wop vocal groups. Ken Maynard and George Olsen illustrated the history of the singing cowboys and the absorption of a vernacular tradition by Hollywood and the mainstream. Numbers by Chicago dance bandleader Bennie Meroff and torch singer Ruth Etting recalled the mood of the nation. Mainstream staple Guy Lombardo exhibited the disappearing sound of the Jazz Age. Bing Crosby whispered into the microphone in the style that made him the most popular entertainer of the decade and a model for survival during the Depression. Fred Astaire exemplified the continuing influence of the hit makers from Tin Pan Alley, New York's long standing center of American popular music publishing and the new form of the movie musical.
In the second collection of songs (from 1935-1939), Lead Belly sung an example of the sanitized vernacular expression gussied up for mainstream acceptance. Robert Johnson demonstrated the classic country blues sound. One heard the fine-tuning of rhythm and blues in works by Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Patra Brown. Masters of the stride piano style, Brown and Fats Waller served as examples of the premium on musical virtuosity that would inform the development of bebop and later forms of piano jazz.
The era came into full swing, as heard in the recordings of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Benny Goodman performed a Gershwin number from the same concert series with a swing combo that featured the brilliant vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton. Lester Young exhibited the laid back style that would give birth to the development of bebop and cool jazz from the clubs of New York's "Swing Street" district. Johnny Rodriguez gave the listener an idea of the excitement of the Latin jazz music that was a part of New York nightlife. Roy Acuff and The Monroe Brothers represented the emergence of modern genres of county music. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys brought the dynamic and culturally complex sound of western swing to the mix. Wills and his group were pioneers who welded the blues, jazz, the Appalachian string band tradition, European dance music and mainstream popular forms into a distinct and new form of American music. Woodie Guthrie's classic explanation of the blues to Alan Lomax, which is edited into a performance of one of Guthrie's Dust Bowl ballads, lent insight into understanding the spirit of the blues form. Crosby's "Sweet Leilani" shows how the American mainstream absorbed ethnic identity and musical forms. The Andrews Sisters were stars of radio and film and the most popular female group of the decade, represented here by their first of many hit recordings.
The dynamics of American music is, of course, much larger than the process by which it is mass-produced and marketed. Otherwise, it would not be as important to human beings as it is. In developing this site we discovered just how fresh and exciting much of this music is still today. We have avoided nostalgia but not at the risk of cynicism. The lives of the musicians that we have studied, their experiences and their struggles to practice their art, along with their successes and failures, are essential to understanding the American identity that their music helped to create. The music itself speaks volumes of emerging trends, of cultural assimilation, of the role of religion, of race relations and the general atmosphere of life during the thirties.