Blacksound explores the sonic history of blackface minstrelsy (the first original form of American popular music) and the racial foundations of American musical culture from the early 1800s through the turn of the twentieth century. With this namesake book, Matthew D. Morrison develops the concept of “Blacksound” to uncover how the popular music industry and popular entertainment in general in the United States arose out of slavery and blackface. Blacksound as an idea is not the music or sounds produced by Black Americans but instead the material and fleeting remnants of their sounds and performances that have been co-opted and amalgamated into popular music. Morrison unpacks the relationship between performance, racial identity, and intellectual property to reveal how blackface minstrelsy scripts became absorbed into commercial entertainment through an unequal system of intellectual property and copyright laws. By introducing this foundational new concept in musicology, Blacksound highlights what is politically at stake—for creators and audiences alike—in revisiting the long history of American popular music.

Matthew D. Morrison, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, is a musicologist, violinist, and Associate Professor in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

What motivated you to write on this topic?

This topic began out of my dissertation and quickly developed into a passion project. I realized that my interest in the relationship between music, sound, performance, politics, and identity making was a complex one – and one I wanted to untangle. I took courses in graduate school that introduced me to critical approaches to the study of music and sound studies, Black feminist studies, and performance studies. My decision to focus on blackface as my primary case study crystallized through specific courses I took with Ellie Hisama, Daphne Brooks, and Saidiya Hartman. I realized that one of the most understudied, yet significant aspects of blackface performance was its sound, and that its sound carried resonances that continue to shape the way that music, its industry, politics, and identity are negotiated through culture. I became invested in uncovering this thread, which led to the formulation of Blacksound as the sonic and aesthetic complement to blackface minstrelsy.

How does your concept of “Blacksound” help us trace the legacy of blackface in popular music and entertainment in the U.S.? How is it a tool to help us unpack the politics of the modern music industry?

Today, blackface is mostly viewed one-dimensionally as a racist taboo practice that shouldn’t be employed, talked about, or consumed. But blackface actually functions in multiple aspects of how we make, consume, and produce music, and those cultural acts reflect and shape what’s taking place throughout politics and society.

The concept of Blacksound allows us to unpack this complex history. For example, in Chapter 4 of the book, I discuss how M. Witmark and sons, one of the founding houses of Tin Pan Alley (TPA)—along with the emergence of vaudeville—became one of the primary engines of the modern commercial music industry at the turn-of-the-twentieth century. Other types of entertainment came out of this as well: Broadway, film, radio, tv, etc. The Witmarks have a direct relation to slavery, the Civil War confederacy, and the perpetuation of blackface throughout the late-nineteenth century as an aesthetic and structural basis of TPA and the music industry.

As I mentioned before, the sonic and performance aspects of blackface are even less understood, leaving their legacies mostly uncovered. What I attempt to do through Blacksound is complicate the singular view of blackface by showing how the sounds that developed within its performance continue to resonate into our practices today, even though the blackface mask has mostly disappeared from regular use in popular culture.

What Blacksound also demonstrates is how the music industry has helped to introduce and solidify notions of racial identity and authenticity through sound and performance. In rehearsing stereotyped, racist, and anti-Black performances of blackness through blackface—while using the innovations of Black performance in the development of commercial music through systems of power and oppression—the industry is able to capitalize off of the ways we have been conditioned to think particular people should sound, look, and act based on the circulation of these acts throughout popular culture. Often, the innovations of Black people are devalued or painted as degenerate when coming from Black people, while these same practices are taken up as freeing, expressive gestures that enable people to imagine their own selves and communities, without having to be Black (and experience the oppression that Black people face).

What Blacksound also does is place the music industry among other major industries established during the Gilded Age (steel, railroads, etc.) that led to the cultural and economic growth of this nation. It shows how those in power within the racist, sexist systems that buttress the cultural foundation of the U.S. also were the primary arbiters of how music and performance circulate commercially. They were often shaped by the same racist notions that emerged during blackface and slavery.                    

How do intellectual property and copyright laws factor in?

Music property laws were established during slavery – when African Americans themselves were mostly considered property. Although some form of copyright law had existed since the U.S. Constitution, it was not until 1831 that sheet music was protected under copyright. 1831 is also just a couple of years after blackface spread like wildfire across the United States after Irish-American blackface performer T. D. Rice is recorded for his performance of “Jump Jim Crow.” This tune was published as sheet music, and it helped to push the popularity of blackface tunes in the early development of popular sheet music and music copyright in the U.S. (as sheet music was the first form of music property).

Although the sounds of “Jump Jim Crow” were derived mostly from their Irish folk heritage (as many early blackface tunes are ones from the British Isles), it was the incorporation of imagined Black performance practices (ephemeral ones – ones that could not be captured in a legible medium to be considered copyrightable under property laws) over time that led to the proliferation of popular music. At the same time, Black people during slavery and post-Emancipation remained mostly unable to claim ownership over their innovative music practices either because of racist discriminatory acts, or because their performance practices couldn’t actually be contained by the sheet music, although they were often mimicked or taken up in performance by non-Black commercial musicians and consumers. Before intellectual property (defined as “creations of the mind”) developed as a specific concept in the twentieth century, what was considered property under copyright law was already based on the written (e.g., books and maps), such that not even the sounds on a record themselves are protected under copyright law, just the container (physical record) itself.

Blacksound points out how (Black) innovative sonic and corporeal practices are central to the music property regimes that remain under the structures of power (with whiteness and maleness atop) that reinforce our everyday – ones that are considered legible according to valuing the written over the oral in our judgment of what is protectable. It’s not an easy thing to breakdown into a few words, but my discussion of ragtime in the Introduction and Part II demonstrate how ephemeral performances by Black musicians were taken up as sources of music property through sheet music, performance, and recording, without having to credit or recognize the innovation of the original source.

What is one key learning you hope readers will take away from your book?

One of the many things that I hope readers take away is that how we consume, produce, perform, circulate, and commercialize music is inseparable from the historical and political context in which music is created, and often shapes and reflects the nuances of how we negotiate our everyday lives within a capitalist-driven society. I also hope that people can see how the exploitation of Black people and their musical innovations at the base of the commercial music industry is a practice that has taken place since its invention, while Black and other marginalized people continue to face violent and virulent racism throughout the nation. Maybe this will help liberate some people in ways that give them an understanding of the challenges they face creatively and politically, or encourage others to repair and restructure the system (as producers and consumers) to be more equitable and fair.

What was the process of writing and publishing the book like for you? How did the FirstGen Program support you?

The process of writing the book was a long one. The FirstGen program came after I had a contract and a manuscript. The book itself began in my dissertation research well over a decade ago. As I discussed in the newsletter of my developmental editor Laura Portwood-Stacer, I met UC Press Editor Raina Polivka during my postdoc when I was thinking through turning the dissertation into a book. Raina was a critical part of the process, from before I had a book proposal through my submission of the final manuscript (with a transition to LeKeisha Hughes seeing the book through publication). It was both her care for me as a human being going through life while on the tenure track and her encouragement that helped keep me on track towards successfully completing the book within my tenure timeline. The support from the FirstGen program came at the perfect moment, as the resources allowed me to work along with a second developmental editor in finessing the introduction and conclusion to reach a wider academic trade audience.

As a first-gen scholar, what advice would you give other first-gen scholars hoping to publish a book?

I’m careful with “advice,” because everything isn’t one size fits all. I also had a very particular experience in publishing my book – one that was supported by a postdoc, tenure-track position, and several competitive fellowships. But my advice I think is more for first-time academic book publishers than first-gen scholars (which can mean a variety of things – I am the first in my family to obtain a Ph.D., but not the first to graduate from college and publish an academic book).

There are a couple of things I was told before writing the book that have proven to be very true. One of those tips is that it is more important to establish a relationship with an editor you trust and who believes in your project than it is to go with a press just for the name/brand, because their investment will have a major impact on the publication of your book. My next piece of advice is to seek as many resources as possible to write in community with others. I would not have completed this book if it were not for the ad-hoc, formal and informal, invited, and awarded writing groups/partnerships that I participated in over the years. Writing can be a very isolating process, and not only does writing in community help you to set and meet goals with more accountability, but it is also a space to share ideas, support, and care.

And one last thought on process – a tailored pomodoro practice was my saving grace. I often would work for 40 minutes and rest for 20 within various blocks of time (depending on my schedule). Even if I only had time to block one hour a day during intense moments of writing and work, that 40/20 helped me to see Blacksound to completion. One thing I learned during the book process – writing is hard, and sometimes, you just have to sit your posterior in the chair and do it (while taking care at the same time).