Stories from Summer Vacation: Karl Hagstrom Miller on Amateur Musicians

Our next account of summer vacation comes from Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller, who discusses some research from his fascinating book project on amateur pop musicians in America:

I’ve spent my summer working on my book project Sound Investments: Amateur Musicians Make American Pop.  It rewrites the history of pop music in the United States from the perspective the millions of relatively anonymous musicians who play pop music in their everyday lives—from 19th-century parlor pianists to YouTube warblers.  This is not how we usually tell the story.

Finding evidence of amateur music making has been a challenge.  I have spent a good deal of the summer reading the first two chapters of musical biographies.

If you read enough musical biographies, you can soon predict what will happen in “Chapter Three.”  Not every time, of course.  Sometimes the moment comes a bit sooner or later in the book, but it almost always comes.  Here are some opening lines from third chapters:

“Kathy Dawn Lang found the man who would help make her a star in a classified ad in the local newspaper.  His name was Larry Wanagas, owner of Homestead Recorders, a small recording studio on Edmonton’s west side.”1

“We will probably never know exactly how Rosietta Atkins Tharpe—as she was then calling herself—made the leap from a COGIC church in Miami to the stage of the Cotton Club, New York City’s most renowned nightspot.”2

“By the early spring of 1981, Husker Du had logged upward of fifty local gigs in Minneapolis/St. Paul when they left to play Chicago on March 21 and 22.  The industrious trio pulled off two major hat tricks for their first out-of-towner.”3

“Nineteen-year-old Ernest Dale Tubb had indeed been bitten by the entertainment bug, and so had his friends the Castlemans and ‘Buff’ Buffington.  All migrated to San Antonio about the same time in late 1933.”4

“Producers’ promises come cheap, the price of drinks or maybe even a dinner tab.  Each year the Country Music Association figures, thousands of hopefuls find their way to Nashville, and for nearly every one of them there is someone who will promise, ‘I’ll make you a star’…Yearwood had heard plenty of that talk by the time she met Garth Fundis.”5

“As soon as he could, Gordy started sending Mary out to appear at theaters and clubs, first in Detroit and later all over the country.  She would continue to perform on stage for paying audiences for most of the rest of her life.”6

“I played my guaranteed two weeks on the KMTR ‘Breakfast Club’ for winning the contest, and then they hired me as a regular member of the show.  The pay was not great, $7.50 a show, but it was a paying job and I was doing what I loved—singing.”7

I could go on.  In the standard stories we tell about pop musicians, “Chapter Three” is the move into show business.  It changes the frame of the story from the home to the industry.  Opening chapters are about mothers and fathers, family and childhood.  “Chapter Two” chronicles protagonists’ initial musical exposure, growing passion, and experiences playing with family and friends—their lives as amateur musicians.  “Chapter Three” is the story of the integration into some component of the established music industry. The move is from preoccupation to occupation, from fandom to eventual stardom, from drudgery to meaningful work. It could be playing a modest circuit, a quick rise to fame, or a move to an entertainment industry hub. In “Chapter Three,” professional peers, managers, and well-known musicians replace old friends in the narrative. These new characters typically remain throughout the rest of the tale of what is now a life more than ordinary, a life of someone with talent, tenacity, and a record contract. They may have recorded for Sony or Folkways, a major label or tiny independent.  They may have been wildly successful or obscure and forgotten. They are all winners here.  They all have their “Chapter Three.”8

The scope of popular music scholarship is limited largely to the people and products of the commercial recording industry, and that is a problem.  It focuses on a miniscule subset of the people that play popular music.  It equates the culture with the industry, even as many stories are critical of the corporatism or consumerism at its heart.  Such criticisms—often expressed in terms of artistic autonomy, authenticity, or keeping it real—are always incomplete or contested, because commercial recording artists are, by definition, part of the commercial recording industry.   They are in the business of making music that pays.  “Chapter Three” tales thus conform to the narratives of progress and upward mobility, self-made bootstrapping and individual genius, deeply woven into the rhetoric of United States exceptionalism. They inevitably chart progress from being anonymous to being known, from inchoate dabbling to artistic vision. Of course, there is often a fall:  irrelevance, selling out, destitution.  But the prominence and repetition of these narratives tend to equate participation in popular music with navigating the commercial record industry and doing it well, whether that means getting rich or maintaining integrity in the face of outside demands. They reinforce the myth of the American Dream, what Alex de Tocqueville called “the charm of anticipated success.”9

Standard pop music narratives ignore musicians who did not enter show business.  When these players do appear, they are often merely prologue to the professional journey of our commercial recording artist of interest.  They are childhood chums or early influences, the basic musical protoplasm that our evolving hero will eventually transcend.  This is akin to writing an industrial labor history that suddenly, in chapter three, veers from the shop floor to follow a worker’s career after he is promoted to management.  It misses a great deal of what is going on by not remaining with the rank and file to see how its story develops.  Those who stay behind continue to work, continue to create, even as watching one of their ranks climb the corporate ladder affects their sense of what they are doing and shapes their dreams about their own futures.

This is not to say that ordinary people never make it into the scholarship on popular music.  It is just to say that they usually are not identified as pop musicians.  They are fans or consumers, listeners or audiences or aspirants.  When they do play music, authors often distinguish what they are doing from the workings of the pop music business.  They play folk or community music instead of pop.  They play art music that is immune to the infection of commercialized ditties.  They forge local music cultures that are oppositional or resistant to the corporate mainstream.  While these approaches are useful and fascinating, I am not interested in them here.  They, like the “Chapter Three” turn, draw a line between the activities of professional pop musicians and those of musical amateurs.

In my book, I want to avoid the “Chapter Three” turn as well as the temptation to identify amateurs as part of a separate culture from commercial pop stars.  Here, I am not interested in isolated folk cultures or local scenes, community choirs or school orchestras.  I am interested in understanding how pop music has functioned as a mass participatory culture.  I am interested in how ordinary people play well-known pop music in their everyday lives and how that shapes their conceptions of themselves, their society, and the pop stars whom they emulate.  Jay-Z and Alicia Keys may be very different from the ordinary folks singing “Empire State of Mind” in their bedrooms, but I want to imagine the contours of a pop music culture that thrives on their connections and resonances across that divide rather than the divide itself.

In the end, musicians who vault into the music business are the exception rather than the rule. They are the outliers.  There are millions more musicians who never have a “Chapter Three” moment.  Some may desire one.  Some may work hard to make it happen.  Almost all will fail.  The predominant experience of pop musicians is to play in relative anonymity, to enjoy music with friends and family, and to imagine the odd characters for whom music becomes a source of wealth and renown.

“In later years other members of Last Exit would sometimes look back on that strange winter and wonder at Sting’s ambition.”10


1. Victoria Starr, k. d. lang: All You Get is Me (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), p. 27.

2. Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Store of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon, 2007), p. 33.

3. Andrew Earles, Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers who Launched Modern Rock (Voyager: Minneapolis, 2010), p. 46.

4. Ronnie Pugh, Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour (Durham: Duke, 1996), p. 19

5. Lisa Rebecca Gubernick, Get Hot or Go Home: Trisha Yearwood: the Making of a Nashville Star (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 41.

6. Peter Benjaminson, Mary Wells: The tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012), p. 26.

7. Patsy Montana with Jane Frost, The Cowboy’s Sweetheart (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002), p. 37.

8. Full disclosure:  In my last book, I made the same move but saved it for later.  Rookie.  Chapter Four begins, “In 1907, as the folklorist John Lomax collected material for Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, a young white Texas singer picked up stakes and moved fifteen hundred miles to new York City.”  See my Segregating Sound:  Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham: Duke, 2010), p. 121.

9. Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford, 2003), p. 5.

10. Christopher Sandford, Sting: Demolition Man (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1998), p. 44.

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