The Cradle of Recorded Jazz – Gennett and The Starr Piano Company provides a detailed overview of what was at one time one of the the largest audio recording and disc production facilities in the United States.
Growing up in Southern Indiana, I often wondered how it was possible that the state had contributed such large numbers of musicians and composers to American popular music early in the century. Hoagy Charmichael is the best known example, but there were more.
It was a minor mystery, one that grew in prominence as a young adult when it became clear that the relative isolation of the state made it difficult for the cultural ferment in places like Bloomington to bloom into economic opportunity in that location for creators, musical or otherwise.
Looking back, it appeared that was not always the case; that while artists might still emigrate to the coasts in search of more opportunity, once, there had been more, back home in Indiana.
I filed that away as I split town myself.
As the years have rolled on here, I’ve increasingly come to believe that there is a distinct Hoosier sound, a sensibility that unites and underlies even the disparate work of the Indiana punk bands of my youth with both Carmichael’s elegant melodies and the frenetic oldtime music of Bill Monroe (partly from Bean Blossom, near to Bloomington), among other threads.
The links, however, were missing. As a child and youth, I felt truly isolated and disconnected from both the local culture and the larger one – the American suburban isolation, I suppose. The blank past still rankles, frankly.
This past September, I think, I heard a feature on the radio about Starr Recordings and Gennet Records, in which the Starr-Gennett Foundation and mission were described and the history of the company discussed.
(Part One of Rick Karr’s six-part “Secret History of Technology and Pop Music” for Morning Edition. Scroll down a bit to the part one link and bend an ear, it’s neat.)
I felt like I’d been cheated. This crucial part of both American and Hoosier history wasn’t forgotten, exactly – it had basically never been recognized.
At any rate, the story of the Starr and Gennett facilities helps explain several things about Indiana music history to me, at least.
First, because of Richmond’s location at the eastern edge of the state, touring artists would have had several routes to pursue on their way up from St. Louis or Cincy to Chicago, and Richmond would have been a reasonably important stop.
Second, the presence of musicians crossing the state, east to west or west to east, would have attracted the interest of people like Hoagy, and certainly others. It’s clear that that’s where “Stardust” came from, for example.
These two things provide a basis for what now to me looks like a very fertile musical soil. I just happened to grow up at a time when it was unfashionable to see, seek, or support regional diversity in music, creating the artifically depressed and oppressive conditions for working musicians that were so prevalent at the time.
Finally, I think that this sudden historical perspective allows me to understand how a regionally distinctive set of sounds could have developed – without economic evidence of practice, commerce, and cross-pollination, my hypothesis was stillborn.
Now I have a potential mechanism that might – just maybe – connect Hoagy to Bill and these folks to all the other Indiana musicians I still listen to, carefully, attentively. The Starr-Gennett Foundation has chosen to emphsize the jazz heritage of the material recorded there, but I recall hearing that all kinds of music was recorded there.
How much of Harry Smith’s Anthology might have stemmed from there, I wonder?
Now I have another reason to listen, and another thing to think about. Maybe you will too.