History Department
History Department

Karl Hagstrom Miller: Bringing Award-Winning Research to the Classroom

Mon, January 30, 2012
Karl Hagstrom Miller: Bringing Award-Winning Research to the Classroom
Photo of Prof. Miller by Martin Miller

“I live to see that look come across my students’ faces,” notes Associate Professor Karl Hagstrom Miller.  “It’s that confused smile that happens when their ears are telling them to reconsider something they thought they already knew.”  He sees a lot of those grins when he shares his research on the history of United States popular music in his undergraduate lecture courses and seminars.

Dr. Miller's first book, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke University Press, 2010), has been chosen as one of the runners-up for the prestigious Hamilton Book Award.  Sponsored by the University Co-op, the award recognizes the best books written by University of Texas faculty.

“Take Texas native Vernon Dalhart, for example,” Dr. Miller suggests.  “Dalhart was one of the best selling country music artists of the 1920s.  He helped define the new style known as hillbilly music during that decade.  Listen to one of his 1925 hits like ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ or ‘Wreck of the Old 97.’ It sounds like we think country music should sound.  There’s the plunking guitar.  There’s the fiddle.  There’s that slow drawl accent that distinguishes the singer from all those Broadway and vaudeville singers up north.  But wait a minute.  Listen to a Dalhart record from a couple of years before.  It’s full-bore Gilbert and Sullivan! He was a successful light opera singer in New York.”  The quizzical smiles emerge as students grapple with how to make sense of what their ears are telling them.  

“The easy response is to hear one record as a fake, a ruse, a humbug.  One is somehow the authentic Dalhart while the other is not,” Dr. Miller continues.  “This is easy, because we think we know about the social, historical and musical distances between opera and hillbilly music.  The more interesting path for me, and the one I take in Segregating Sound, is to hear them both as equally genuine, meaningful expressions of who Dalhart was.  Which is the fake?  His fans thought he sang them each quite convincingly. Dalhart was both the first Texas hillbilly star and a New York opera singer. That simple statement can help us reconsider the history of American culture.  It can complicate—or obliterate—the perceived differences between North and South, between up-town and down-home, between pop music and folk traditions.  The story of American music becomes about complexity rather than simplicity, movement and contact rather than isolation, routes rather than roots.”  

Segregating Sound use examples like this to re-evaluate the historical relationships among race, region, culture and commerce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It was the era that saw the emergence of southern segregation, the record industry and academic folklore.  It was also the time in which country music and the blues came to define southern music.  Dr. Miller establishes that the recorded genres packaged by the commercial music industry and marketed to specific racial, ethnic, and demographic groups bore little relation to the organic, mutable kaleidoscope of cadence and harmony reverberating through the music that was both played and enjoyed by all types of people in live performances throughout the south. Dr. Miller uses innovative theoretical and archival techniques to explain how certain types of music became associated with white rural culture and others with African American culture, how such categorical associations were then reified and reinforced by not only industry leaders but also consumers and scholars, and finally how we can question and reassess these ramifications with fine-tuned historical analysis today.  

The book is filled with a large cast of characters.  There are well-known figures such as the ballad hunter John Lomax and the singer Leadbelly, composer and activist James Weldon Johnson, the white shouter and comedian May Irwin, as well as opera cum hillbilly singer Vernon Dalhart.  Many others are far less familiar, but vitally important to the story.  It features black sharecroppers and white mine workers who tried to turn their music into an alternate form of labor, southern musicians who moved to New York City to try to make it in musical theater or the waning genre of blackface minstrelsy, and the legions of touring acts that did one night stands in small towns a cities across the land.  It charts the intellectual debates over the meaning and measure of folklore within the academy and the streams of folksong collectors who flocked to the South in the early twentieth century.  It tells the story of the phonograph scouts who learned how to record music across the globe in India and China, Europe and Latin America before descending on the American South in search of similar exotic local sounds.  Ultimately, it shows how all of these groups grappled over the intellectual, historical, commercial, and rhetorical value of race, region, and sound.

“You can’t get there without using you ears,” enthuses Dr. Miller.  “The music is a big part of the evidence.”  Recently a number of university and institutional archives have begun to make the recordings from the early twentieth century accessible to students and scholars.  “That stuff was impossible to find before. It’s exciting to introduce students to these archival finds—music that really has not been heard for almost a century. Hearing it changes a lot of what we thought we knew about the past.”

Dr. Miller received his PhD from New York University in 2002, and joined both the History and Butler School of Music faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. He is also an affiliate faculty member of the American Studies Department.  Dr. Miller has been honored with a Dad's Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship, a Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award, and a Charles K. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

He is currently working on his next book, a history of US pop told from the perspective of amateur musicians.  “Pop music is not all about professional celebrities.  From nineteenth century parlor pianists to YouTube bedroom warblers, anonymous amateurs have had a surprising influence over the sound and the business of American popular music,” Dr. Miller notes.  There is a good chance those amateurs will soon have some influence in his courses as well.

More info

Professor Miller on "Rethinking Southern Music," featured on Not Even Past:

Segregating Sound, Duke University Press:

Professor Miller's faculty home page:

"Cylinder Recordings of Popular American Songs," on Not Even Past:

"A Sentimental Ballad: "In the Baggage Coach Ahead," on Not Even Past:

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