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This article was downloaded by: [Evaggelia Paraschou]

On: 23 April 2013, At: 02:41

Publisher: Routledge
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Popular Music and Society

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The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to

Jazz Age
Ron Briley

Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque

Version of record first published: 07 Jan 2010.

To cite this article: Ron Briley (2010): The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age, Popular
Music and Society, 33:1, 107-108
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Popular Music and Society

Vol. 33, No. 1, February 2010, pp. 107138

Book Reviews

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The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age

Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008
ISSN: 978-1934110188
239 pp., $50.00 (cloth)
As Jeffrey J. Noonan, classical guitarist and associate professor of music at Southeast
Missouri State University, acknowledges in his introduction to The Guitar in America,
the guitar is usually interpreted as a folk instrument, its repertoire an oral tradition,
its heroes and heroines unschooled troubadours who used their instruments, as
Woody Guthrie used his, to fight fascism, as well as racism, sexism, colonialism, and
commercialism. In this history, the guitar, an equal opportunity instrument, was a
social and cultural leveler (3). Instead, Noonan focuses his history of the guitar in
late 19th- and early 20th-century America upon professionally trained musicians who
studied and performed formally composed pieces. He perceives the guitar as a
cultivated instrument of upper-class European origins. It is a long way from guitar
hero, but Noonans study certainly broadens our appreciation of this unique
instrument which enjoys a place in the concert hall as well as around the campfire.
In the post-Civil War period, the guitar, according to Noonan, replaced the more
expensive piano as a symbol of respectable music for the lower middle class. The
status and place of the guitar was challenged in the 1880s by the banjo, although the
latter instruments association with minstrel shows made it unacceptable to many
members of the bourgeoisie. Banjo manufacturer Samuel Swaim Stewart insisted that
the banjo was an instrument for and developed by whites rather than African
Americans. Stewart also maintained that the banjo should replace the guitar, which
was old-fashioned, difficult to play, and of foreign origins. Nevertheless, many
Americans continued to perceive the guitar as the more cultivated instrument.
Manufacturers such as Stewart thus attempted to associate the banjo with the
guitar, and music publishers and manufacturers combined a trio of plectral
instruments into the BMG (guitar, banjo, and mandolin) movement. In order to
encourage this musical innovation in both the concert hall and middle-class parlor,
the music industry used trade journals, such as S. S. Stewarts Banjo and Guitar Journal
(Philadelphia) and Crescendo (Boston), to promote the BMG movement nationally
from the 1880s into the 1920s. Noonans work is based upon a detailed study of these
trade publications, leading the musical historian to conclude, Although late in the
twentieth century the guitar became an instrument of the social outsider, these
ISSN 0300-7766 (print)/ISSN 1740-1712 (online)
DOI: 10.1080/03007760903478564

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Book Reviews

magazines confirm that during the BMG era the guitar was a middle-class instrument
used to instill and reinforce the cultural and musical values of Americas mainstream
(22). The BMG trade publications consistently sought to associate the movement with
white progressivism, but many of the leading performers and composers reflected a
more diverse audience and culture. Justin Holland was an African American
celebrated for his method books, while Spanish-born Luis T. Romero captivated
concert halls in Boston.
Perhaps the most acclaimed American guitarists of the early 20th century, however,
were William Foden and Vahdah Olcott-Bickford, the grand lady of the guitar.
While the popularity of Olcott-Bickford demonstrated the appeal of the guitar to
young middle-class women, the classical style preferred by Foden and Olcott-Bickford
eventually led to a split within the BMG movement and its waning influence upon the
American musical scene. The more popular strain in the movement turned toward
amplification and jazz, while more classical players preferred the influence of
European guitarists such as Andres Segovia. Thus, Noonan concludes that the BMG
movement failed to reconcile the gap between popular and elite musical tastes.
Noonans volume is written in a clear fashion, easily accessible to the general reader
as well as the trained musician. The Guitar in America is well researched in the pages of
the BMG trade journals, and the volume includes numerous illustrations from these
publications. In the final analysis, Noonan acknowledges that his approach is greatly
influenced by the father of American music history, Oscar Sonneck, who insisted that
American music must be interpreted as the intersection between art and commerce.
While the guitar as rebel symbol seems to challenge the primacy of this relationship,
many folk and rock guitarists have attained considerable commercial success and
rewards. Noonans work certainly does not supplant the outsider image of the guitar
rebel, but it suggests that the history of the guitar is more complex than often
portrayed in popular culture.
Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque
q 2010 Ron Briley
Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America
Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2007
376 pp., $84.95 (cloth); $23.95 (pb)
Popular culture has proven to be a vexing point of reference for Asian-American
scholars concerned with the role of media in shaping discourses of identity, national
belonging, and cultural memory. Since US popular culture has been openly hostile
(although more often simply indifferent) to Asian-American subjects, much space has
been devoted to supporting the work of Asian-American artists, writers, filmmakers,