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Reviewed by:
  • Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain
  • John K. Walton
Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain. By James J. Nott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xiv plus 274 pp.).

James J. Nott pursues a completely original theme in this useful book. He provides an outline of changes in the provision and nature of music and dancing in Britain between the wars, taking account of the growing impact of radio, the gramophone, the cinema and the palais de danse, and looking at the emergence, [End Page 1066] acceptance and cultural negotiation of new musical genres, especially those broadly associated with the expanding (and overlapping) categories of jazz and dance music. He mines unexpected sources (the archive of the Performing Right Society) alongside less surprising ones (Mass-Observation and the BBC Written Archive). He charts the tensions between (for example) the BBC’s Reithian mission to educate and ‘improve’ and the need to sustain an audience (and to keep hold of star performers) in the face of more populist competition from the commercial radio stations that challenged its monopoly, broadcasting from the European continent; or the ways in which commercial public provision for music and dancing expanded while at the same time the radio and gramophone encouraged listening (at the expense of music-making) in the home. He shows awareness of issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class and regional differences, and tries to address questions of Americanization and the homogenisation of popular culture. All this is very helpful, and the book will be a valuable quarry of information for future researchers. It should certainly be bought. But it is, ultimately, disappointing, due mainly to a persistent failure to look outwards from a narrow definition of the necessary reading or to engage with developments in cultural studies and related disciplines.

This is the book of an Oxford doctoral thesis, placed firmly within the empirical traditions of that university, and with the vices as well as the virtues that have become familiar. The concept of ‘popular’ is discussed at an early stage, and the term is equated, in a commonsense way, with “the most widely disseminated items in the mass media,” taking it as read that during this period what matters is commercial provision by big business. It is also assumed that the ‘culture industries’ gave consumers what they wanted, while putting a commercial agenda (which favoured ‘respectability’ in pursuit of the broadest possible markets) ahead of any possible notions of ‘social control’ or the promotion of political stability. This puts the book firmly in the conservative populist camp of Golby and Purdue, whose work is (surprisingly) not consulted.1 It also takes for granted the absolute dominance of commercial leisure provision at the time of the First World War, ignoring Gary Cross’s argument in Time and Money that the inter-war years saw the key struggle between lifestyles that prioritised the maximisation of free time and the enjoyment of relatively uncommodified leisure, and the maximisation of income together with high levels of consumer spending, a battle that was largely won and lost in the United States and Britain during the 1920s and 1930s.2 As a result it plays down non-commercial provision, treating ‘folk’ music and dancing with something approaching contempt while ignoring the literature on it,3 giving the powerfully surviving brass band movement very short shrift,4 ignoring the great traditions of choral singing in (for example) West Yorkshire and South Wales,5 paying no heed at all to the immense amount of popular music-making associated with church and chapel (still very important cultural influences, as Callum Brown argues, until the 1960s),6 and assuming a decline in domestic music-making that cannot be substantiated solely by reference to falling sales of musical instruments and sheet music, given that the gramophone and the radio might be, to borrow Peter Bailey’s words, ‘additive’ rather than ‘substitutive’ contributions to the cultural life of individuals and families.7 The absence of any use of, or reference to, oral history [End Page 1067] or autobiography, which provide the best routes into understanding domestic leisure, helps to explain these problems, while...

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