Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum
Daniel Cavicchi takes a detailed look at 19th-century music consumers.
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Music was booming in America well before Edison's 1877 invention of the phonograph transformed it into a utility as ubiquitous as electricity and flush toilets, which took about 50 years. By 1900 there were symphony orchestras in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, opera houses in Newberry, South Carolina, and Central City, Colorado, and added to these exceptional cases were countless theaters in which music of every kind was performed willy-nilly, often on the same bill. In 1870, American strivers bought 80 home pianos daily and filled their benches with sheet music; a decade later, local brass bands were epidemic as sales of cornets and trombones skyrocketed. Yet because 19th-century America produced no opera or symphony composers of note, all this action is still ignored by a defensively snobbish American musicological establishment.
Music scholar Daniel Cavicchi isn't a musicologist and doesn't think overmuch about composers. He teaches American studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, and traces his ethnographic approach to music scholarship to the Music in Daily Life Project overseen by the seminal popular music scholar Charles Keil at SUNY Buffalo. In 1993 Cavicchi, Keil, and Susan D. Crafts published My Music: 41 interviews with everyday fans that explode the fantasy of exclusive "taste subcultures" so dear to sociologists and marketers (and critics too) just by recounting musical preferences that cross more genre boundaries than experts consider appropriate. In 1998, he turned his Brown Ph.D. thesis into Tramps Like Us: Music & Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, dominated by summaries of and longish quotes from about 100 Bruce devotees that focus on feelings and experiences while barely touching the music itself – even though Cavicchi's candid passion for that music helps ground and humanize the material.
As a critic, I have reservations about a method Cavicchi never suggests is the only way to address music. But as a democrat I welcome it. "My Music"
changed the way I think about fandom and established Cavicchi's right to write music history his way. The result is Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, a detailed look at 19th-century music consumers that at a mere 192 pages stands as a painstaking, groundbreaking work of scholarship that adds substantially to our understanding of all that disrespected action. Cavicchi's approach propels him well beyond music proper. He believes that in the context of such "cultures of hearing" as oratory and hucksterism, "music lovers," as he likes to call them, were key players in the 19th century's fundamental identity-building project. As country boys tried their luck in the city and young middle-class women edged away from hearth and home, they developed their own ideas about pleasure, leisure, and class. Transformed inexorably into atomized cultural and economic actors, they struggled to make the most of it and enjoyed themselves along the way.