Music "Sharing" and Race in America

Almack's Dance Hall Opens in New York City

Tap Dancing at Almack's, 1842

18th Amendment Ratified

Prohibition Begins, 1919

America Enters World War I

World War I and the Great Migration begin, 1914

Cabaret Law Enacted

Dancing in NYC bars banned, 1926

The Cotton Club

Louis Armstrong, 1920

"Maybellene" Reaches #5 on Billboard Chart

Chuck Berry, 1957

Coin-Operated Jukebox

Inside of Jukebox

When we think of where—and how—one might listen to music in nineteenth century America, we might imagine a generic, brick-clad main street hosting crowds cheering on a marching band. While this fantasy of American idealism certainly occurred on some street somewhere, the noise of the Industrial Revolution had already begun to dictate just how “public” public musical experiences could be. As “unintended and unplanned reactions to this new environment”—industrial noise—“changed the concepts of music, musical space, acoustic areas, and aural architecture,” the concept of “public” spaces where one would even want to experience musical gatherings shifted dramatically. (Blesser and Salter, 103). This shift occurred alongside the changing needs of music itself—as genres grew beyond Classical orchestrations played in concert halls, through to Romantic composers who wrote delicate piano etudes easily performed in the living rooms of the middle class, into genres that sounded like nothing heard (in the Western world) before. The spaces in which music could be played and should be heard needed to be rethought.

In America, the noise of the Industrial Revolution affected the way an audience shared the experience of music in physical space, but the Civil War altered the way white Americans interacted with black music forever. In some cases, styles merged, in places like Almack’s Dance Hall, where poor immigrant whites and free northern blacks danced and drank together amid the backdrop of Lower East Side New York City. In the early 1840s, this public hall was purported to have birthed tap dancing, a combination of the black shuffle and the Irish jig. (Trapnell)

With music comes dancing, both evolving in response to each other over time. It is dancing, more often than not, that causes more consternation for the previous generation than new music, since dancing drew young bodies closer and closer together throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. When the waltz was introduced in Vienna in the late 1700s, many parents found the dance distasteful, vulgar, even. “Particularly popular with young people from the wealthy middle classes,” the waltz was “the perfect expression of a new, confident bourgeoisie, who were discarding the aristocratic customs of their elders.” (Pilar Queral Del Hierro) Wrote one French governess in 1818, “A young woman, lightly dressed, throws herself into the arms of a young man. He presses her to his chest and conquers her with such impetuosity that she soon feels her heart beat violently as her head giddily swims! That is what they call waltzing!” (Pilar Queral Del Hierro)

Particularly in America, the history of music and dance enjoyed in public spaces is also a history of racism, othering, and exclusion.

Yes, at Almack’s Dance Hall in 1842, run by a free black man named Pete Williams, located in a particularly seedy New York neighborhood, mid-century musical styles collided. The public dance hall was a medium for cultural innovation, but the private ballroom upheld courtship rituals and parental supervision of the past.

Public for only a certain set of wealthy individuals, balls in the North and the South would cater entirely to white populations (excluding “non-white” Europeans, primarily Irish and Mediterranean immigrants—at least throughout the early 20th century). Enslaved populations in the South were forbidden to congregate, keeping their music and movement secret; music that, once released into the American soundscape after the Civil War, would forever alter the relationship between music, race, and change. While the square grand piano sat contentedly in the parlors of wealthy white families, a tool allowing parents to supervise children, the late 19th century saw black composers such as Scott Joplin create entirely new genres of music like ragtime, a much more popular, or rather accessible, kind of music for the lower classes. (“Ragtime Dance”) As more free black Americans travelled North, music began to change even more rapidly.

The Great Migration co-occurred with the Great War. Beginning in 1914, millions of black Americans left their homes in the South to move into northern cities with more economic opportunity. By 1919, approximately one million black Americans had migrated north. Between 1910 and 1920, there was a 66% demographic increase for black Americans in New York City; 148% in Chicago; 500% in Philly; and in Detroit the black population rose 611%. ( Staff) This unparalleled (voluntary) migration would prove integral to the development of jazz music. With them, black Americans brought a history of musical traditions, like ragtime, that would form jazz music in the 1920s. “Joplin's single-minded determination to merge vernacular African-American music with the mainstream traditions of Western composition prefigured, in many regards, the later development of jazz.” (Gioia)

The Harlem Renaissance, an abundance of black art, poetry, writing and music, gave us artists such as Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. The latter two frequently performed in nightclubs, then speakeasies, once the 18th Amendment was ratified. During Prohibition, speakeasies were typical in urban environments, perhaps America’s worst-kept secret. While it was not actually illegal to run a club or speakeasy, or to drink liquor, even, it was illegal to sell it. How would one drink if one could not buy? Open a speakeasy, supply the liquor, and hope no one gets caught. One of the most famous speakeasies of the day, The Cotton Club, employed Louis Armstrong and his band to play—for an all-white audience. Many of these private-public spaces were run by mobsters, racist mobsters, who not only supplied the wealthy with liquor but also with jazz. Owney Madden, the owner of The Cotton Club, employed these black musicians only as spectacle, quite literally separated from the crowd by the stage, a usual feat for musical spaces, but, in this case, can and should be read through a loaded racial lens. Jazz wasn’t being shared; in these physical spaces, the genre served to segregate black Americans even further. Even the Cabaret Law of 1926 targeted black people, pretending to hunker down on illegal activity but most likely wished to shut down jazz clubs where black Americans would gather and dance. While whites systemically wielded their appropriative power over American culture, ironically—depressingly—the

“ability of African performance arts to transform the European tradition of composition while assimilating some of its elements is perhaps the most striking and powerful evolutionary force in the history of modern music. The genres of music that bear the marks of this influence are legion. Let's name a few: gospel, spirituals, soul, rap, minstrel songs, Broadway musicals, ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, samba, reggae, salsa, cumbia, calypso, even some contemporary operatic and symphonic music." (Gioia)

From jazz to rhythm & blues to rock’n’roll, black musicians were exploited by the recording industry to sell black cultural innovation to white youth, a youth that post-1945 had more purchasing power than ever before. Over and over, we see the surreptitious transmogrification from a black musical genre to a white one, where the most marketable, profitable, well-remembered artists from rock-n-roll end up white men. How is it possible that “Chuck Berry, a black man with a guitar, had been a rock and roll archetype in 1960, but by the end of the decade Jimi Hendrix would be seen as rock’s odd man out for being... a black man with a guitar”? (Matos)

Rock’n’roll (Berry) through rock and roll (Elvis Presley) became whiter and whiter, until eventually, the rock that emerged in the 60s and 70s was lead by almost entirely white artists (the Beatles, who are frequently heralded, for some reason, as the greatest rock band of all time, are a perfect example). “Ironically, record producers were banking on the idea that mostly white parents would be suspicious of rock and roll music because it derived from the Blues, sung by black people.” (Funk) They were wrong, but still, physical spaces in which black and white Americans could listen to music remained segregated throughout the sixties. Even if white teenagers were excited by black rock’n’roll, they were physically separated from experiencing this music at the same time, in the same space as their black peers. Record execs could continue to hide behind the false belief that black musicians were not marketable because white teenagers did not have to literally face the history of stolen black music in America. White teenagers weren’t expected to share rock’n’roll with anyone but their friends in their own schools, their own drive-ins, their own bedrooms.

“During the second half of the 1970s, the practices of break dancing, deejaying, graffitiing, and rapping became the focal points in a transformation of social relations between African American, African Caribbean, and Puerto Rican youth concentrated in the Bronx,” but this cross-cultural exchange was occurring between ethnic groups, not between artists of color and thier record executives. (Moore, 4-5) Perhaps the evolution of peer-to-peer music sharing, be it mix-tapes on cassettes, MP3s shared online, or the domination in the 2010s of streaming services like Spotify, made way for a more fluid, or fair, kind of cultural exchange. Perhaps as space became more and more virtual, no longer necessarily physical, it became easier to cross racial boundaries than ever before.

The difference between sharing music in (racially segregated) physical spaces and sharing music with the culture from which it originates became a staple of American music as early as 1865. With capital behind them, capital that originally resulted from the economic boom of the 1950s, the music industry would be able to repeat this process from rock to disco to hip-hop to rap, through till today.