Musical Racialism and Racial Nationalism in Commercial Country Music, 1915-1953
Parler, Samuel Jennings
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CitationParler, Samuel Jennings. 2017. Musical Racialism and Racial Nationalism in Commercial Country Music, 1915-1953. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation probes the tension between multiracial performance history and discourses of whiteness in commercial country music during its formative decades, the 1920s through the early 1950s. I argue that nonwhites were pivotal in shaping the sounds and institutions of early country music. However, new commercial technologies like radio and audio recording enabled alternative racial meanings by removing the physical presence of the performer. Industry entrepreneurs exploited this fact to profess the music’s whiteness for commercial gain. Country’s racialization as white was further consolidated through a white-coded nationalist rhetoric emerging in the 1940s, motivated by white, working-class anxieties over the genre’s cultural prestige as it aspired to mainstream acceptance. Combining multisite archival research, musical analysis, and theoretical perspectives on class, race, and nation, this dissertation overturns popular narratives which view country music’s whiteness as inherent, static, and univocal.
I approach these issues of racialization by contextualizing the careers of four early performers within broader social and commercial currents. Native Hawaiian steel guitarist Sol Hoʻopiʻi (chapter 1) inspired generations of white country musicians with his virtuosic style and eclectic repertory. However, his own recordings were consistently marketed as exotic, and he remains marginalized within country music historiography. By comparison, African American harmonicist DeFord Bailey (chapter 2) is today often cited as evidence of country music’s biracial history, yet early radio audiences tended to hear his music as white or un-raced. These performers expose the ironies of country music’s putative white identity and the ways in which new media could amplify or mask racial difference. White performers Carson Robison and Gene Autry (chapters 3 and 4) achieved commercial success in part by deflecting country’s working-class associations and reframing the genre as white and American. Robison’s anti-Japanese songs during World War II promoted racially-exclusionary politics while Autry’s postwar “pro-Indian” films advocated assimilation of American Indians. Nevertheless, both performers located country music audiences at the center of American cultural life.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140202
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