Thursday, February 16, 2012

Record Listening in the 20th Century

Students listening to records in their dorm, 1930s. U-M Bentley Historical Library, U. of Michigan.

David Gilmour, in an interview in Rolling Stone, Sept. 28, 2011, observed that the social rituals of record listening have pretty much disappeared:
Attention spans have changed. The idea of going around to somebody else's flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on...does that happen today? (46).
Shortly thereafter, reading Keith Richards' Life, I took particular note of his account of listening to records with Mick Jagger:
It was, always, all about records. From when I was eleven or twelve years old, it was who had the records who you hung out with. They were precious things. ...Mick and I must have spent a year, while the Stones were coming together and before, record hunting. There were others like us, trawling far and wide, and meeting one another in record shops. If you didn't have money you would just hang and talk. But Mick has these blues contacts...Blues aficionados in the '60s were a sight to behold. They met in little gatherings like early Christians, but in the front rooms in southeast London. There was nothing else necessarily in common amongst them at all; they were all different ages and occupations. It was funny to walk into a room where nothing else mattered except he's playing the new Slim Harpo and that was enough to bond you all together. (80-81)
This all reminded me of William Kenney's account, in his book Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945, of jazz fans and collectors in the 1930s, including Marshall Stearns, Milt Gabler, John Hammond, Nat Hentoff, and Dan Morgenstern:
Many swing fans found meaning in the records themselves. The very act of gaining ownership of a valued jazz record became an integral part of the meaning that a fan attributed to the music. Collecting records became an enduring passion, an intellectual preoccupation, and a way of life...When at age 16 Morgenstern began collecting seriously--reading the pioneering books on jazz, comparing notes with other collectors, and finding his way to sources of records--he became adept at what he later believed to have been 78 rpm record culture. In a time before widespread record reissues, one was forced to hunt down copies on one's own. This necessity led to a a detailed knowledge of the secondhand bookstores, junk shops, flea markets, and sidewalk browser bins where the occasional jewel awaited...
This, in turn, reminded me of the phonograph society movement in the 1920s, which sought to establish clubs of listeners that would gather in private homes or public meeting halls for "phonograph recitals" and "phonograph concerts." As discussed by Tim Gracyk, phonograph societies were actively promoted by The Phonograph Monthly Review, a publication showcasing the vernacular knowledge of record collectors on, for example, how to best file a collection of 700 or more records, the pitfalls of steel needles, or the best way to listen to Beethoven (with lantern slides!).

Of course, phonograph societies were not that far from the original 1899 Edison tone tests, which themselves set up the whole practice of listening to the phonograph in one's home as one would listen to an orchestra in a concert hall:

In all, an extraordinary 20th century of people developing behaviors, values, and communities centered on listening to records.

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