Most books about American music ask how it sounded, who wrote it, or who performed it. In his new book, Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917
(Norton, 2019), Dale Cockrell
asks a different question: where is American music? His answer is in the brothels, dance halls, concert saloons, and cabarets of nineteenth-century New York City. Cockrell tells a story of popular music created and enjoyed within a sexualized and commercial environment that featured robust and constant exchange between black and white people during slavery times and the deepening segregation of Reconstruction-era America. Weaving together material from police reports and governmental investigations, Cockrell has found a rich source of information about the life of working-class people in urban America, and in the process has uncovered a network of musicians and spaces that nurtured American popular culture. These places of unbridled behavior were sometimes sites of degradation including for the prostitutes forced by circumstance (or worse) into sex work, but also sometimes places of joy as the working class escaping from a life of hard labor and little pay, and places of safety for gay people whose lives were criminalized outside the dives where they could gather together. The book is geared for a general audience, but rests on a bed of solid scholarship and innovative research.
Dale Cockrell is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at Vanderbilt University. A scholar of American popular culture, he is known for his work on minstrelsy and The Pa’s Fiddle Project, an education outreach program centered around the music found in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In 2016, Cockrell received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Music.
Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.