Decade Ends

  September 19, 2021   Read time 2 min
Decade Ends
Folk-style ballads and folk songs—ethnic, blues, hillbilly, traditional, shanties, cowboy, and the like—could not compete with popular songs from Tin Pan Alley or the upsurge of (black and white) jazz for the attention of the general public and a large share of the mass media.

Yet there was always a local interest and commercial market for such sounds, connecting past with present, but often in complex ways. Both mainstream and small labels issued numerous ethnic records, marketing to an audience eager to connect with the Old World. Victor Green has noted that “Recorded ethnic music was not the only cultural accomplishment of immigrant Americans during the 1920s; the decade was also an era, in fact a golden age, of onstage immigrant entertainment,” often including songs. The major labels—Victor, Edison, Columbia—released records for the ethnic market of Poles, Finns, Swedes, Irish, Germans, Ukrainians, and others. Columbia had a specialty ethnic series by 1928, and Victor soon followed, now including immigrants from Albania, India, China, and Jews from Eastern Europe who preferred klezmer music. There were also numerous smaller labels with an ethnic focus, such as Banner, Gennett, and Brunswick. Early radio programs also might feature ethnic performers, for example in the Upper Midwest. Radio stations in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, started in the 1920s with programs combining “ethnic Old Time with Country Music,” as James Leary has written.

The musical influence of Henry Ford, the genius behind mass automobile manufacturing and sales, was noteworthy. While Ford promoted social and technological change, he simultaneously longed for a lost, familiar, simpler, rural world. Ford sponsored a book of old-time dance steps, welcomed traditional musicians to his headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, and had square dancing classes in the Ford Motor Company ballroom. Ford car dealers sponsored fiddle contests throughout the country, topped by a national championship in 1926, won by a southerner, Uncle Bunt Stephens, who collected $1,000. Maine champion fiddler Millie Dunham used his trip to Dearborn to launch a national vaudeville tour for a few years, mixing musical nostalgia with commercial appeal. Dunham’s career captured the complexities not only of Ford’s backward look and revolutionary business skills, but also of the larger world of contemporary folk music. It both pointed to the past and headed into a commercial future.

The 1920s ended not with a bang but with a whimper. The stock market crashed in late 1929, setting off a worldwide depression that would last for another decade. Folk music would not, could not, fade away, however, as it became increasingly commercial as well as widespread in both Britain and the United States. It would take on somewhat new forms, particularly as it was picked up by those in the Communist Party and others on the Left and increasingly connected with labor unions. Collectors would continue to collect and publish their findings, radio shows would proliferate, record companies would drastically cut back their offerings, and music festivals would flourish. In the United States, more than in Britain, the federal government would become particularly involved, as the people’s folk culture, past and present, took on new meaning and importance. In both countries folk music would take on fresh dimensions.