Advertising Hillbillies: Genre, Authorship and Audience
by Kyle Barnett — Bellarmine University
November 28, 2007 – 04:21
Can the recording industry be considered an author of a given genre? And, if so, how would we map that authorship?
These questions are made trickier if we consider “authorship” to imply decisions made for the long term. Many of the talent scouts that first recorded the ancestral popular music we now know as “country” had little interest in the music beyond selling records and little sense of the music’s importance beyond a few months of sales. This rural music was long ignored by east coast record companies and was the last of the foundational genres of the early twentieth century to appear on record in any concerted way. The record companies that finally recorded this music sought out audiences and helped define the genre – making it up as they went along.
Though most record industry documents are long gone, early in-house advertisements and record catalogs have survived. These documents serve as rough drafts, first takes on a musical genre at once old and new. The images you see in this slide show are culled from 1920s record company catalogs and advertisements, providing snapshots of an emerging genre. Country was initially known as “old time music” or “hillbilly,” among other terms, a commercial genre that was looking backward at the moment of its commercial inception. These were provisional terms for ephemeral music, recorded by companies who had no thought of the genre’s lasting interest or importance. And yet, the record industry was clearly creating what they believed new audiences wanted.
The advertising copy of the mid-to-late 1920s reference authenticity (these fiddle players are real country folk!) or appeal to a “one of the gang” ethos (your favorite singer made these songs just for you!). In the January 1928 “Gennett Records of Old-Time Tunes” catalog, the ad copy notes that vocalist and banjo player Chubby Parker “has asked us to tell everybody that he has a lot of new songs for the new year.” Hey, readers were invited to think, he’s talking to me! For fiddler Dock Roberts, the same catalog noted, “he was raised in the Kentucky hills and has been fiddlin’ since a mere boy.” In the ads I’ve included in my slideshow, similar approaches are employed. The Okeh ad for Fiddlin’ John Carson and Henry Whitter from an edition of the trade journal Talking Machine World references both the place-bound persona of the musicians and Okeh’s proprietary pride at discovering them: “These two mountaineers were discovered by Okeh!”
Why would this be pertinent information to music fans? Is this part of the record companies’ role in defining the new (old) genre? And finally: how do we explain the stubborn persistence of authenticity in the industry’s construction of this music (and popular music in general) today?
A final side note: these advertisements, which date from the earliest attempts at defining an emerging genre, include many of the musicians in their Sunday best, as opposed to clothing that would later be associated with old-time, hillbilly, country, or western musics. In a short amount of time, costumes would take on added importance with the rise of live-audience radio barn dance shows like WLS-Chicago’s National Barn Dance and WSM-Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps the record industry’s improvisational authorship of the genre was further extended and solidified by radio, which in turn updated the hick and rube characters from vaudeville for a new medium.
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