For the past four decades, social and cultural historians have actively explored popular culture and everyday life. They have analyzed the diverse mix of immigrants and black migrants, men and women, straights and queers, often mingling in dance halls, theaters, and other places of popular entertainment. They have been dedicated to understanding the contours of urban life and modern consciousness among populations that left few self-authored records. Dale Cockrell and Saidiya Hartman take on a related additional challenge, with a nod to Gayatri Spivak: rediscovering how subalterns felt, lived their intimate lives, moved their bodies, and heard new sounds, and how they understood and acted upon the sensory and affective world, with what consequences. Cockrell, a distinguished musicologist, and Hartman, a renowned scholar of African American literary and cultural history, come to these questions, each seeking to illuminate different aspects of the American experience. Yet they do find common ground. Both place marginalized women at the center of their work, read official records against the grain, and are deeply invested in recovering their stories. Cockrell’s book may be more directly relevant to readers of this journal, but Hartman unseals an imaginative space of feeling and pleasure that students of popular music may want to explore for themselves.
In his lively book Everybody’s Doin’ It, Dale Cockrell explores the making of American popular music in New York City’s underworld and demimonde. He presents the years from the 1840s to 1917 as a coherent period in American music history, beginning with the rise of blackface minstrelsy and ending with the emergence of jazz. Shifting our attention away from composers, songwriters, and musicians performing for affluent audiences, Cockrell takes us on a tour of dives, saloons, and nightspots, where uninhibited patrons, inspired musicians, riotous sounds, and sensuous dancing reigned in the shadows of the great city.
Cockrell focuses on the evolving social geography of amusement and pleasure seeking in New York, marking how music-making shaped and was shaped by plebeian spaces. In the 1840s and 1850s, mixed-race dance halls, minstrel shows, and brothels were clustered in the notorious Five Points in lower Manhattan. These establishments employed musicians to keep the patrons drinking, dancing, and swaying, often with the aim of enabling prostitution. After the Civil War, the scale of commercial entertainment grew. Concert saloons and large dance halls with bands of three to six musicians became increasingly popular. A varied class- and race-based social hierarchy guided patrons to different kinds of establishments and performance styles. At the most respectable end of the moral and social spectrum, German beer gardens offered drinking, dancing, and socializing in family-friendly settings. Lower-class concert saloons, in contrast, presented racier entertainment and “waiter girls” in abbreviated outfits. “Black and tan” saloons and dives were among the few places in New York that encouraged racial mixing.
For Cockrell, commercialized sex and interracial encounters were the vital forces in the development of American popular music. Two figures dominated the cultural scene: the prostitute dancing, serving drinks, and soliciting customers, and the musician in the corner of a bar or brothel playing wildly. One was a working-class woman, who had few alternatives to selling her body; the other a poor white or black performer who could only make a living performing in disreputable venues. Customers sought ecstatic experience in these places, and desire fed upon itself. Wild music spurred sensual dancing, which led musicians to greater frenzy; this physical and aural experience heightened sexual desire, for pleasure and profit.
Cockrell vividly paints scenes of fiddlers stirring up crowds, dancers stepping out, and couples entwined, with prostitutes circulating. He focuses on how these places, and the behaviors within them, helped produce an American popular music. A mix of tunes and styles could be heard: on the one hand, recycled traditional ballads, Scottish and Irish tunes, patriotic airs, and spirituals; on the other, new sentimental songs (“Cradle’s Empty, Baby’s Gone,” “A Violet from Mother’s Grave”), and the latest offerings from minstrelsy and music hall. Fiddlers, cornet players, accordionists, and other musicians improvised the music and lyrics, shaping their sounds to patrons’ energies and cravings.
A big change occurred with ragtime and new dancing styles associated with syncopated rhythm. Coming out of the black musical culture of the South and Midwest in the 1870s and 1880s, ragtime swept New York, and was taken up by such leading songwriters as Irving Berlin, who was unusually adept at using and transforming the sounds of the city’s diverse ethnic groups and black migrants. Ragtime—described by one composer as “a type of song treatment” (147)—encouraged the dance craze of the early twentieth century, in which two-step and wiggling movements could be adjusted for respectability or exaggerated for sexual effect. Detailed vice investigation reports of the time list some of the songs played in the lower-class dance halls and cabarets. These were largely current hits with ragtime rhythms, including the ragged minstrelsy known as the “coon song”; they had overtaken the earlier sentimental songs popular in the late nineteenth century. Cockrell spotlights the anonymous musicians employed in the vice economy who were “refining a musical language intended to heighten an atmosphere of loosened sexuality” (202). By World War I, red-light districts were shut down, and the jazz revolution got underway. Popular music performances shifted from “an intimate backroom, black-and-tan experience” to a “public, big-space, segregated experience” (202).
Ragtime music and the dance craze coincided with the explosive growth of commercial entertainment experiences, from silent films to amusement parks. Although many places were deemed wholesome and respectable, fears about sexual immorality and mixed-race interactions led to intense scrutiny of commercial nightlife. Indeed, much of Cockrell’s source material comes from investigations of prostitution and low entertainment. Censorious crusaders such as Anthony Comstock and Charles Henry Parkhurst were followed by the state-run Lexow Commission and civic-based Committee of Fourteen. Undercover investigations in the 1910s provide especially detailed information about specific styles of music and dancing as indicators of vice and prostitution. Despite their moralizing overlay, the reports were often ethnographic in nature, and they enable Cockrell to provide a kind of synesthesia, in which dances can be visualized and the music heard.
I wish he could have done even more to examine the sounds of these places and how they shaped American popular music. Observing that songs were often performed differently from the printed version on sheet music, Cockrell does an excellent job tracing song parodies and the substitution of indecent lyrics. It is harder to reconstruct how the music itself may have been played. Beyond sheet music, can the relationship between oral song traditions, recorded sound, player piano rolls, and improvisation be teased out? Just how songs were played and heard remains elusive, especially in the era before recordings. For the mid-nineteenth century, Cockrell turns to such works as George Foster’s New-York by Gaslight as a source for descriptions of dives and concert halls. “Surely Foster exaggerated some in his writings,” he acknowledges, yet “[e]ven dulling his observations a bit still reveals a New York underworld in which legions of lower-class blacks and whites danced madly to wild music-making in the search for joy and escape” (36). Such sensationalistic exposés, however, were of a specific genre, the literary slumming tour, whose purpose was to titillate and entice readers. Perhaps the wild music-making was more on the page than the stage? Cockrell does not discuss early twentieth-century recordings, including Berlin’s hit song “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now,” recorded by comic singers Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan in 1911. This recording suggests a somewhat different interpretation than Cockrell presents: the characters in the song are not people in the know, but rather wide-eyed tourists new to the world of dance halls. My students find it slow and excruciating, not a tune that leads them to jump on their feet and dance. How can we definitively assess what was described as wild music in the past?
Despite methodological difficulties, Cockrell shows us the symbiotic relationship between American music, popular entertainment, and sexual commerce. In the nation’s largest city, an underworld of vice and prostitution spurred American music-making, even as such music played a critical element in fostering nightlife. What happened in New York is part of a larger story, and attention to urban spaces should not divert us from the ways music and dance styles crisscrossed the nation and moved people. Traveling musicians, transplanted German and Irish modes of sociability, Southern and Midwestern black music: these and other developments all made their mark. Yet Cockrell points to a much less recognized influence, the myriad women who sought work and pleasure in amusement places that left them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence.
Music is not the primary focus of Saidiya Hartman’s exquisitely written Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, but it reverberates in her explorations of young black women’s sensory experiences and yearnings for free lives. She imaginatively enters their world, placing them at the center of the social upheavals in African American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They were among the flood of migrants from the South, looking for jobs, security, and self-determination, and they remained among the most disadvantaged when they arrived in northern cities. They made their way in primarily black neighborhoods, such as the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia. They frequented such places as New York’s Tenderloin, San Juan Hill, and Harlem, where mixed-race and sexualized entertainment venues thrived in largely African American districts. They socialized and danced, found work, dreamt of pleasure, and sometimes discovered it—even as their bodies and behaviors were scrutinized, regulated, and confined. Some became successful blues singers, chorus girls, and comedians. Many others found inspiration in dance halls, nightclubs, and theaters.
These women pursued their dreams even as they were trapped by sexual exploiters, immobilized by the state, and defined as a social or a moral problem by white and black reformers. Vice investigators and the criminal justice system inscribed an ideology that marked young black women as deviants and criminals. They were arrested under vagrancy and disorderly laws, classified as incorrigible and feeble-minded, and subjected to indeterminate sentencing. A police officer arrested and framed blues singer Trixie Smith merely for being on the street. Families unable to control their wayward daughters sometimes initiated cases against them. Even African American leaders, who insisted on the complexity of black communities, the harm of structural racism, and the ongoing stigma of slavery, could see young black women only through Victorian eyes. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois considered them part of a “submerged tenth” pushed down by promiscuity and broken family life. Settlement house reformer Victoria Earle Matthews thought they were better off remaining sexually pure in the South than migrating to a life of prostitution and immorality in the North. Educated and middle-class African Americans held a view of gender, sexuality, and respectability—and a fear for their own status and lives—that offered little room for young black women’s agency, intimate acts, and longings.
Hartman identifies music and sounds that convey black women’s sensory perceptions and utopian impulses for beauty and justice. Singer Ethel Waters heard noises in the tenement air shaft as people argued, suffered, and loved, and she would “sing out their woes to the tune of my blues music” (183). At Bedford Hills Reformatory for Women, where inmates could be classified as feeble-minded and prisoners were segregated to prevent interracial love, black women started “noise strikes” to protest living conditions. Newspapers covered this as an “inferno set to jazz” and called it the “reformatory blues” (284). In black and tan dives and interracial cabarets, with their embrace of ecstatic movement and African American music, the dance floor itself offered a space against racism. Hartman paints a moving portrait of Mabel Hampton, who was imprisoned in Bedford Hills on a prostitution charge but found a new life in Harlem, performing in the bronze beauty chorus in stage shows and hoping to gain stardom on the concert stage. Her female lovers and intimate friends in show business—Gladys Bentley, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Ethel Waters, and Ethel Williams—made this a queer women’s world. Together they confounded gender and sexual conformity as well as the color line; music and the stage brought them together in collective knowledge and pleasure.
Most of the characters featured in Wayward Lives, however, were ordinary and often anonymous individuals, fleetingly captured in a photograph, a prison record, or a settlement worker’s diary. For Hartman, such young black women were a vanguard of a broader American phenomenon, in which young women asserted themselves, their sexual modernity, and their unconventionality. They launched a “reconstruction of intimate life,” in a “revolution before Gatsby,” she states. “The flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl” (61, xv). Viewing action as thought, she declares them radical thinkers and experimenters, living free, despite the harsh realities facing poor African Americans. Although it is crucial to revalue these women who have been persistently defamed and stigmatized, Hartman’s claims seem more assertions tied to our own times, of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, rather than an historically grounded reappraisal. The same aspirations appeared among other poor and displaced young women, including Eastern and Southern European immigrants, including some, like Emma Goldman, who wrote manifestos on sexual and human liberation.
Hartman’s method of interpretation and writing is distinctive. She has examined records of official investigations, surveillance, and incarceration that work ideologically to justify and naturalize race, class, and gender hierarchies. She finds in those records traces of wayward black women and fragments with which to reconstruct their lives. Social surveys and the like depicted young black women as silent objects of study, as social problems, or as criminals to be restrained. Using close narration, she writes against that tendency by repudiating the usual distance between scholar and subject. She imagines young black women, their voices, motives, and responses to this world. The counternarratives she creates sometimes are right on point, when, as in the case of Mabel Hampton, she can incorporate the testimony of the women themselves. At other times, she speculates in ways that seem unchecked, as in an analysis of the Thomas Eakins photograph of an unknown black girl posed as an odalisque. Although Beautiful Lives is based on archival research, Hartman pointedly makes it difficult for readers to find the source materials on which her portraits are based; the notes rarely specify primary documents, nor are the photographs captioned on the page, only identified at the end of the book. This method projects her interest in anonymous figures, whether a woman in the shadows or a choir on the margins of the stage. Still, it unnecessarily leaves open many questions about documentation and her counternarratives’ emphases and claims.
Cockrell and Hartman closely identify with their subjects and offer moving tributes to them. Calling the prostitutes and musicians “my people,” Cockrell comments he has “come to love and admire them” (xii). Stating how much his eyes have been opened to the magnitude of prostitution, he dedicates his book “to the untold thousands of women upon whose anonymous bodies an American music was built. We must never forget” (n.p.). Hartman artfully moves close to the young black women in her study and becomes their voice. It is refreshing to read scholars who recognize how much their historical interpretation has been shaped by their own subjective experience and their perspectives on contemporary life. At the same time, this historian wanted more friction between past and present, and more recognition of the ways that evidence disciplines us, refining and limiting our claims. In the end, scholars of popular music may want to read these books not only for their insights into the past, but as an occasion to reflect upon our practices of historical and cultural analysis.