In the 1930s, the United States saw the erection of numerous modern skyscrapers, with the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930 and the Empire State Building in 1931. During these same two years, Charles Demuth painted “Four Male Figures,” a provocative painting of four naked men standing in conversation with one another. In 1938, Walt Disney released Snow White, which depicted a hopelessly innocent girl and a devilishly powerful queen. The dwarfed males in the film had to bring the girl back to life with a kiss—an act that validated the male’s ability to restore women to their rightful place. The phallic symbols above, the provocative questions of high art, and the insinuations of animated films challenged the notions of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s. Buildings, art, and film became some of the primary cultural products in the United States that manifested new questions for traditional notions of gender during this period.
The changing notions of masculinity prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s might be best understood as a backlash to the more conventional notions of masculinity during the turn of the century. In Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman describes the way in which certain Victorian ideals of self-restraint and moral rectitude were replaced with ideas of manhood as powerful, aggressive, virile, bold, and, at times, savage in the early 1900s. She examines public figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and thinkers such as G. Stanley Hall, in order to reveal how males responded to a crisis of manhood. The crisis stemmed from concerns that males were becoming weak, effeminate, and powerless as a result of urban lifestyles and new technology. In order to combat this crisis, public figures and common citizens alike, embraced a new form of masculinity that promoted physical strength, sexual potency, and aggression above all else.
The emphasis on these characteristics set in place new standards for masculinity in the early twentieth century, and the following period between 1930 and 1940 saw a subsequent backlash to these standards. In particular, new magazines such as Men Only, demonstrated a new brand of masculinity that might be defined by consumerism and fashion. Scholars Jill Greenfield, Sean O’Connell, and Chris Reid illuminate how these magazines redefined heterosexual masculinity as fashion-conscious, consumer-based, and voyeuristic of women. Men could still maintain hegemonic power and embrace a more poised, sophisticated, and refined masculinity—characteristics at odds with the more boisterous and savage masculinity of the turn of the century. In opposition to and sometimes in accordance with these new heterosexual norms, homosexual subcultures also increased in visibility during the 1930s, with a subsequent backlash in the 1940s. In Gay New York, George Chauncey demonstrates how gay subcultures influence not only gay individuals during this era but they also influenced the way in which heterosexuals considered and constituted masculinity. For example, gay identity, at times, became decoupled with sexuality, where a “straight” male might engage in intercourse with another male but nonetheless maintain heterosexual status in society. Ultimately, masculinity became more about outward appearance than sexual preference. At the same time, masculinity also had new racial connotations. Christian Cogdell’s Eugenic Design illuminates how many eugenicists felt that preserving traditional male qualities—physical strength, virility, and aggression—was crucial for progressing the white race. More effeminate or passive iterations of masculinity might threaten notions of white supremacy and the ability of the white race to progress. Many eugenicists pushed for a return to the traditional masculine values of earlier times and they also turned to other races—primary the African American race—in order to associate more primitive values with what white supremacists considered to be more primative races. Therefore, in the course of all of these trends in the 1930s and 1940s, masculinity became connected to race, sexuality, and consumerism in ways very different from the turn of the century. The once uniform notions of masculinity in fin-de-siècle America became increasingly fractured into a variety of new forms. Arthur Brittan uses the term, “masculinities,” to describe the multifaceted and changing definitions of masculinity through time and space, and the 1930s and 1940s might be considered a historical moment in which these masculinities became particularly noticeable, notable, and prevalent in popular culture.
Although the sweeping changes in masculinity during this period might be difficult to trace, popular music offers a unique way in which to examine the changing notions of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s. From the feminization of crooner artists to the hypermasculinization of black blues players, this period witnessed the growth of new musical genres, which spurned new definitions of masculinity. The past icons of popular music—the boisterous minstrel, the provocative Louis Armstrong, the affable Jelly Roll Morton, and the ritzy Harry Richman—were exchanged for new icons. New technology, the Great Depression, and World War II facilitated the rise of new musical forms and exchange across cultures and musical boundaries. Popular music offered a way in which the various traditional elements of masculinity might be altered, subverted, or confirmed. Although numerous genres explored many facets of gender, three particular genres—crooning, country, and the blues—offer insightful examples of how questions of masculinity surfaced and evolved within the realm of popular music.
This essay explores a few iconic artists and the role these artists played in reshaping notions of masculinity. It does not offer an overarching, new definition of masculinity for this time period, but instead, it demonstrates that the diversification of music genres in the 1930s and 1940s facilitated a diversification of male stereotypes in popular music. Popular music, as a commodity, became more regionalized, specialized, and diversified, and the notions of masculinity followed a similar trajectory. By examining artists within each of these three genres, this analysis demonstrates the role that popular music played in the splintering of masculine stereotypes.
In the early 1930s, the powerful stage personas of gregarious males with booming voices began to take a back seat to the crooners. The development of the microphone provided new ways to record and amplify the human voice, and singers no longer needed a loud voice that could project sounds throughout a large venue. Singers with low and delicate voices could soon fill an auditorium and transmit their sounds across the airwaves. Radio technology augmented microphone technology by enabling these singers to record and relay their voices into the homes of listeners across the country. The soft and delicate tones that grew out of the new microphone and radio technology came to be called “crooning.” To listeners, the croon manifested an intimate form of singing unlike anything else. To some, it almost sounded like a whisper, an act requiring the intimacy and closeness of two people.
However, the presence and popularity of this intimate and disembodied male voice coming through the radio threatened many males in their own households. Many feared that crooning contained erotic and sexualized undertones that could force America’s wives into fits of hedonistic pleasure. Scholar Allison McCracken illuminates the way in which insecure males launched criticisms of crooners, calling them effeminate and offensive. Many of these critics argued that crooning utilized a superficial talent that relied on technological augmentation instead of raw talent. Ultimately, crooning posed a crisis for many males who had trouble accepting the intrusion of an erotic male voice within their own homes. Although they were not the first to utilize crooning, three crooning acts particularly embody this phenomenon’s popularity and importance: Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and the Mills Brothers.
In many ways, Rudy Vallee became the apotheosis of the loathed and loved aspects of crooning for many listeners. With a handsome physique and a high-pitched voice, Vallee symbolized the suave and sweet sides of male performance. Both an instrumentalist and a singer, Vallee pioneered many core aspects of the crooning sound, and his delicate soprano voice presented gentle and warm tones that became characteristic elements of the crooning genre. Film historian Katherine Spring connects Vallee’s “breathy, soothing style” to his saxophone training, arguing that his voice manifests some of the characteristic sounds of the saxophone. The airy notes, constant vibrato, and warm tones mimic the smooth sounds of the sax, allowing Vallee’s voice to become almost an instrument itself through which Vallee might ventriloquize his emotion. On the radio, fans could hear Vallee’s sexual forwardness and sweet appeal, which was quite the contrast to the brash and booming sounds of vaudeville singers on stage. Vallee’s voice pioneered a new sound for male sexuality in popular music—a sound wrought with sensitivity, sweetness, and subtlety.
From the similarly titled musical, the 1935 song “Sweet Music” epitomizes Vallee’s vocal effect. As he sings the words, he softly fades in an out of each note, refusing to hit the notes with stark precision. Instead, he tiptoes through the various tones and his voice blends with the musical backing. The song sounds like a duet, although the accompanying singer is missing. Listeners might hear Vallee’s inviting intimacy and imagine themselves as the accompanying vocalist. The soft warmth contained within Vallee’s voice creates an emotional availability to the extent that many men felt threatened by its appeal to women.
As a response to Vallee’s popularity and perhaps in an attempt to destabilize his masculinity, critics labeled Vallee as a “pansy,” suggesting that he might not be interested in women. In addition to his sentimental appeal, Vallee also threatened hegemonic masculinity by empowering females. Many of his songs featured the male pursuit of an independent female protagonist—a woman who was free to choose her own lover. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would later hone in on this trope with tunes such as “A Fine Romance,” but Vallee helped establish a tradition in the crooning genre where independent women might be wooed through the power of the croon. By establishing crooning as means by which gentlemen might appeal to domestic women, Vallee placed himself on an intimate level with his audience, which led many to effeminize him as overly emotional and sentimental.
Whereas Vallee embraced crooning with all of its effeminizing baggage, Bing Crosby took crooning and reestablished it within a masculine tradition of performance. Crosby placed himself against the emasculated images of crooners by embracing a white, heteronormative identity. As an actor in numerous films, Crosby often played the manly role that contrasted with an effeminate “sissy” man. In film, he relates to the strong, male characters and feels more comfortable among burly men than domestic housewives. Crosby does not seek the independent woman that Vallee’s music upholds, but instead, his music features emotionally vulnerable women who long for his crooning. In contrast to the effeminate appeal of Vallee, Crosby highlights his normative masculinity through touting his strong work ethic, religious beliefs, whiteness, and emotional restraint.
One of Crosby’s signature hits, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” from the 1932 musical New Americana, exemplifies Crosby’s emphasis on these values. The song depicts a man who “built a railroad,” “stands in line,” “built a tower,” and “followed the mob.” These activities reflect a hard work ethic and rough lifestyle, indicating that Crosby embodies traditional notions of white masculinity that allowed him to transcend the “pansy” aspect of crooner identity. In addition to the lyrics, Crosby’s vocal style features a deep baritone sound, which contrasts the soprano voice of Vallee. Crosby’s style also features a bit of scatting, a style that features “nonsense syllables” that Louis Armstrong made popular. Crosby’s use of scat places him in dialogue with the masculine power that characterized Armstrong’s performances, as he would gyrate and thrust his pelvis with his trumpet on stage. In borrowing from the technical style of Armstrong, Crosby borrows some of the machismo associated with the sexual stage persona of Armstrong.
Later in his career, Crosby would marry the notions of white heteronormativity with nationalism, particularly in regards to his project with Frank Sinatra called America, I Hear You Singing. Crosby worked with Sinatra to present crooning as a national sound and the crooners as preservationists of a national tradition. By aligning himself with a national and hyper-masculine identity, Crosby rejects the effeminizing criticism that surrounded Vallee and he reveals ways in which crooning might affirm traditional masculine stereotypes.
Although white performers dominated crooning in its early stages, the Mills Brothers offered a means by which crooning might traverse into broader racial and genre categories. The Mills Brothers, a black crooning group, featured smooth harmonies, poppy rhythms, and a refined sense of dress and presentation. They frequently wore suits and presented big smiles. With a combination of crooning and jazz sensibilities, the Brothers placed the sound of the soft voices of Vallee and Crosby in contact with the swing rhythms of Nat King Cole or Benny Goodman. Although their smiles and suits might tend to conjure minstrel images among audiences, their use of crooning allowed them to transcend the rough and comic images of minstrel performers to a degree. The fact that they were a band—not a single performer—helped them reject a single, racial image. Instead, they represent a range of voices and sounds, allowing them to negotiate a more ambiguous and multi-faceted identity.
For example, their 1943 song “Paper Doll” reveals some of their sonic deviations from the more traditional crooning style of Vallee or Crosby. The song presents a deep baritone introduction that eventually gives way to a swingy harmony for the remainder of the song. One voice yields to a four-part harmony. The vocals carry the momentum of the song, without a guitar accompaniment that might place them within a minstrel tradition. The upbeat bass lines, multilayered harmonies, and fast tempo depart from the traditionally slow, soft, and simple voices of other crooners. The Mills Brothers model how crooning might sound in dialogue with the swing genre.
In addition to their unique sonic elements, the Mills Brothers also utilized unique subjects in their music, and the song, “Paper Doll,” represents an important trope in much of their music: fantasy. The song dwells on the idea of an imaginary paper doll that might enable possibilities that a real woman could not. Morris Dickstein points out that fantasy and the idea of escaping were central to the crooning tradition and Depression-era escapism, and the Mills Brothers’ ethereal harmonies and phantasmagorical lyrics offer the idea of escape and transcendence. The Mills Brothers embody a paternalistic role in enabling such an escape through their song and lyrics but they also hope to escape into fantasy as well. Their singing enables the escape of others but it also enables their own escape into a realm of where “a paper doll” makes possible a fantastic romance in a way that “a fickle-minded real life girl” cannot. Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Come Fly with Me” also traces this tradition. The male becomes the enabler of the escape and the masculine power of the singer stems from his ability to offer an escape route from the troubles of real life. Just as domestic women might listen to Rudy Vallee and imagine an escape into a romantic world of abandon, women can imagine a harmonious escape into melody and fantasy in the Mills Brothers.
Vallee, Crosy, and the Mills Brothers present ways in which individuals attempted to redefine masculinity and performance at a time when technology offered new vocal capabilities for singers. Vallee’s soft crooning found a lot of resistance but he pioneered the way in which male singers might access the emotions of a female consumer base. Bing Crosby reveals a reaction to the feminization of crooners, and he rooted his masculinity in other characteristics, such as whiteness, heteronormativity, and patriotism. The Mills Brothers represent the intersection of black performance and crooning, and their music presented a way in which crooning might transcend the domestic sphere into the realm of fantasy. Thus far, crooners have been referred to as shifting the notion of masculinity in certain ways but it would also be appropriate to consider how these artists subvert the rigid binary of masculinity and femininity. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler destabilizes binary understandings of gender, arguing that gender doesn’t have any basis in biological bodies. The crooners offer a means by which to understand how this boundary crossing might sound sonically. With the deep voices that bespeak what people have traditionally defined as a biologically male sound, crooners sing softly, quietly, and emotionally, in ways that might be traditionally associated with femininity or the female gender. The combination of stereotypical male voices and female gender qualities challenge notions of fixed sexual or gender qualities among these performers. In many ways, crooners elevate the status of women as consumers and autonomous individuals worthy of respect and consideration. On the other hand, the crooners also tend to emphasize heteronormative themes, where males must be the ones who sexually pursue women. However, in terms of the sonic elements of crooning, the genre seems to blend what might be stereotypically called “masculine sounds” with “feminine sounds,” thereby connecting soft melodies, quiet voices, and sentimental themes with handsome male personalities.
If crooning represented the smooth and poppy world of melody and harmony, then blues represented the exact opposite: the titillating world of masculine aggression, anger, and ruggedness. The Mills Brothers offer a glimpse into the way in which race and masculinity intersect in the crooning genre, but race becomes much more prominent within the blues genre. Many considered blues to stem from the legacy of black performance and slave music, and blues artists often had to fit within a certain stereotype in order to be perceived as “authentic” or credible artists—terms that undoubtedly reveal some problematic and racist assumptions about black performance during this time. Illuminating some of the characteristic elements of blues performers, Elijah Wald presents a useful list of descriptions for these artists: “raw, dirty, violent, wild, passionate, angry, grungy, greasy, frightening.” Additional characteristics might include guitar playing, vernacular speech patterns, and a criminal lifestyle. These characteristics placed many blues guitarists in the tradition of minstrelsy, with its stereotypical depictions of rough and helpless slaves whose songs were a form of escape from a harsh world. These racialized ways of examining blues players for listeners, critics, and musicians posed problems for the performers themselves. At a time when crooners explored a new genre that allowed them to rescind some of the stereotypical masculine characteristics once viewed as paramount, certain blues players became hypersexualized, masculinized, and racialized. Two blues players exemplify this trend: Lead Belly and Robert Johnson. These players reveal how black performers in the blues genre often faced challenges that other artists from other genres did not. They had to establish their masculinity by navigating through a tangled web of minstrel traditions, racial stereotypes, and characteristics commonly associated with black men in the 1930s and 1940s.
Lead Belly, or Huddie Ledbetter, represents a classic example of an individual who yearned for pop stardom but was forced into a blues stereotype. Ledbetter, who spent a large portion of his life in Louisiana’s Angola prison, caught a break when John and Alan Lomax discovered his ability to sing the blues. After arranging his release from prison, the Lomaxes brought Lead Belly to New York, where they dressed him in prison garb and placed him on stage. Although Lead Belly wanted to perform the pop tunes that he had heard on the radio, the Lomaxes felt that his marketability depended on his blues persona. John Lomax famously described him as having “no idea of money, law, or ethics”—characteristics that forced him into a criminal, minstrel black stereotype. As a result, Lead Belly had to affirm the credibility of these remarks in order to achieve success as a performer. His performance relied on pandering to a white audience in order to prove the verisimilitude of his stage persona. Offering insight into the performance of gender, Judith Butler describes the three facets of corporeality of the body: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance. In Lead Belly’s case, gender performance and gender identity become convoluted into one act of performance. In demonstrating that he had “no idea of money, law, or ethics,” he had to link his stage presence with his personal history in a way that collapsed the two into one identity for his audiences. His blues playing could only be deemed “authentic” by affirming that the blues stem from his own troubled, nefarious past.
Many of Lead Belly’s songs reveal the way in which he had to pander to white audiences, but the song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” represents one of his most revelatory tracks. He recorded numerous versions of the song throughout the 1940s, and after his death; the song has come to represent one of his most famous achievements. The repetitious first words—“my girl, my girl”—contain a haunting warning to the girl in the song, who has run away from home. Lead Belly’s quivering voice claims that she better “not lie” to him and answer the question: “Where did you sleep last night?” Lead Belly’s afflicted voice presents the tormented black man, whose unfortunate life events reveal him as a suffering mourner. Lead Belly’s fast guitar playing—characterized by finicky picking and hard down-strums—presents anger as well. Lead Belly’s demeanor, guitar playing, and gravelly voice placed him in the minstrel tradition. Fast guitar playing symbolized what some would racistly attribute to be a natural inclination t0wards musical endeavors and his image on stage placed him a legacy of poor, angry, and violent black minstrel performers of the past.
However, Lead Belly tried to subvert some of these racist notions as well. For example, he tried various musical deviations from the blues genre and at one point, he joined forces with Woody Guthrie to form the group “Woody Guthrie’s Headline Singers.” His attempt to escape and alter the blues image places him in the legacy of other black performers such as Bert Williams, who attempted to infuse irony in his blackface minstrel pandering. One of Lead Belly’s more political songs, “The Bourgeois Blues,” depicts his attempt at irony, as he sings that whites will call a “colored man a nigger just to put him down.” His music allowed him to express his powerful resentment for his situation, while also positioning him as the poor victim. Through his expression of protest and suffering, he highlighted the source of his suffering and also embodied the victimized black male persona. The black and blues stereotypes plagued Lead Belly’s career and limited his freedom to negotiate his own masculine identity. Even after his death, artists such as Kurt Cobain would point to Lead Belly’s “authenticity” and rough persona as an origin of the blues aesthetic and the downtrodden emotion that became central to the genre. Lead Belly’s rugged, brash, and violent masculine persona became extremely complicated by the racial issues that set a paradigm within black performance in popular music.
In many similar ways, Robert Johnson also grappled with many of the issues with which Lead Belly had to grapple. However, Robert Johnson’s case presents additional insight into the blues genre when considering how others viewed Johnson posthumously. After his death, Johnson’s fame revealed how many white musicians projected stereotypes onto him, revealing how these musicians sought to place Johnson within a particular lineage of black performance. In 1938, Johnson died briefly before he was supposed to perform in John Hammond’s famous “From Spirituals to Swing” program, but, because Hammond was such a big Robert Johnson fan, he decided to play a recording of Johnson for his live audience, feeling that Johnson’s music was crucial to his survey of the blues. In many ways, Hammond started what might be called a spiritual cult surrounding the mysterious Robert Johnson. Many years after Johnson’s death, Eric Clapton argued that Johnson’s voice was “the most powerful cry” that one can “find in the human voice.” Clapton went on to claim that, for fifteen years, he refused to talk about music with anyone who did not know who Johnson was. Keith Richards added to this by claiming that Johnson’s blues style represents something central to the American music tradition. Hammond, Clapton, and Richards demonstrate the sort of cult following that Johnson’s music generated. Many white guitarists were quick to associate Johnson with the source of their own musical influence, and they also describe his as an unequivocal pioneer in the black blues tradition. Sander Gilman describes how individual performers—particularly those from minority groups—become “iconographic” images that represent a class or group of people, often in terms of the group’s difference to a white, male order. In many ways, Robert Johnson became stereotyped as the token of the blues tradition. Artists such as Clapton and Richards, lend credibility to their own guitar playing through placing themselves in a lineage—by way of musical influence—with Robert Johnson. The affirmation of Johnson’s greatness and “authenticity” allows them to gain credibility by maintaining a certain idea about Johnson’s persona.
Much might also be revealed by the way in which these artists seek to elevate the qualitiy of Johnson’s music. The praise surrounding Johnson often targeted his musical virtuosity, with the guitar augmenting his masculine power and ability to manipulate the instrument into a variety of sounds. Joel Dinerstein points to the way in which African American music forms utilized “motor activity” as a form of social critique. Through a technical ability to manipulate and complicate the rhythms of the music, Johnson reveals a power over the structure of the music—a frantic, aural challenge to the steady beat of the blues. Songs, such as “Hell Hound on My Trail,” demonstrate the ease with which Johnson meanders through offbeat guitar strums in spite of the overarching rhythms of song. By humming along, he creates a vocal affect that accents the emotion behind the guitar licks. The refrain—“I’ve got to keep on moving”—accents the way in which his fingers keep moving throughout the song. Although Johnson’s ability might be truly unique and unparalleled, the appropriation of his physical ability can be highly problematic, particularly when it stems from white guitarists. The development of a mystique around Johnson’s physical abilities reveals the idea that his masculinity might be validated through physical labor and hard work. Even after his death, Johnson’s image became something that might be disputed, revered, and used as fodder for the validation of subsequent artists. Johnson’s case reveals an important facet of all performers, particularly those who might be racialized in the public sphere: The negotiation of an artist’s image transcends the artist’s life. Furthermore, what might seem like posthumous praise might contain thinly veiled racist attributions, despite the intentions of those who deliver the praise.
Both Robert Johnson and Lead Belly reveal how dominant black stereotypes posed problems for the development, dissemination, and interpretation of their identities. Many of the problems that black artists faced in other genres became compounded in the blues genre, as a result of its association with black musical traditions. Johnson and Lead Belly’s masculinity became especially rooted in racial and class stereotypes, and audiences received their music with many preconceived notions in mind. In fact, many individuals felt that these men represented the idea that black men possess a natural affinity for playing and singing the blues, and the “masculine ethos” that dominated blues music represented something resonant with black essentialism. In this way, blues music seems to have been much more conservative than crooning, in the sense that it had a tendency to recapitulate the harmful stereotypes of minstrelsy. Perhaps black crooning acts, such as the Mills Brothers, could gain credibility and eschew minstrel stereotypes through their associations with popular swing music and the white, heterosexual, and nationalistic traditions of Crosby and others. By contrast, black blues players came to be the primary representatives of the blues genre, which had origins in working-class and folk traditions. The blues tradition forced these players to assume some of the heteronormative, violent, and bold masculine traits that crooners could easily renegotiate or eliminate from their music altogether.
In many ways, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson negotiated their own identities against a racist backdrop but they also came to define the blues genre. The development of their images and significance both during their lives and posthumously posed larger questions for the blues genre, and these two figures came to define many subsequent artists in the genre. In many similar ways, country musicians have a similar trajectory, in terms of the way in which they constructed identities that became definitive markers of certain types of country music. Although country music borrows from folk, Tin Pan Alley, old time records, and minstrel traditions, Richard Peterson argues that country music generally exists in two forms: “soft shell” and “hard core.” “Hard core” represents the bucolic, rustic tradition with banjos, dulcimers, dobros, and steel guitars. “Soft shell” features a more popular and domestic tradition with smooth and more harmonious sounds. The “soft shell” tradition features a masculine stereotype akin to a Bing Crosby figure. The “soft shell” performer can explore an array of genres, woo women with his warm voice, and sing of romantic scenes. The “hard core” performer prefers a more rugged vocal quality, stoic demeanor, and conservative perspective. Two performers who helped define these two polarities are the “soft shell” Gene Autry and “hard core” Roy Acuff. By embodying different masculine traits, these two artists established the type of gender associations that would accompany each side of country music.
Very much a public figure and celebrity, Gene Autry had a long career that featured numerous movies, music productions, and radio broadcasts. Often pictured in a cowboy hat with a warm grin, Autry demonstrated his range of talent by exploring a variety of genres and sounds. His “soft shell” country music presents nostalgic glimpses of history, pastoral views of the landscape, and romanticized stories of relationships. In many ways, Autry represents a crooner-esque image equipped for the country genre. His subtle voice and wholesome persona render him in a paternalistic yet affectionate light.
His first hit in 1932, “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” became one of Autry’s signature songs, and it features delicate harmonies, subtle vocal vibrato, and light background guitars. Autry’s sentimentalized voice elicits the sounds of a croon as he savors each note. The lyrics depict a man who reminisces on a lost relationship with “dear old daddy,” who remains in a “vine covered shack in the mountains.” The song itself dwells in a nostalgic sentiment of lost relationships and a father who remains isolated in his rural environment. The singer hopes to make amends for things past and finds himself trapped in the present without the ability to “turn back the pages of time.” The nostalgic perspective becomes very important to the country genre, and Autry’s wistful reminiscence posits him as an inheritor of the past. In a sense, the song presents a reflection on old codes of masculinity, and Autry both desires to restore them and accepts that he cannot. His soft and smooth voice cannot reconcile his rugged father’s fight in the “battle of time.” Autry embodies a place in between the polished popular music of the present and the rough folk traditions of the Southern past. He appreciates the past and the traditions of the South, but he is also a modern man who can sing in an array of genres. In this way, Gene Autry establishes a tradition of “soft shell” artists who perpetuate a crooner-like effeminacy juxtaposed to notions of rugged men of the past.
The “soft shell” malleability of Autry’s voice stands in stark contrast with the raspy and “hard core” sound of Roy Acuff’s voice. Refusing to wear cowboy attire and pander to the popular dress of country musicians, Acuff maintained a rugged and stoic identity, which led people to call him “King of the Hillbillies,” “Backwoods Sinatra,” and “Caruso of the Mountain Music.” These nicknames indicate that people clearly saw him in dialogue with crooners, although they marked him as having distinctly different qualities. In “Manly Aesthetics,” Emmanuel Reynaud articulates the way in which the adornment of plain clothes for men represents a masculine power over the body, where men might assert their own hegemonic power by refusing to objectify their own bodies. Acuff’s physical appearance manifests this way of thinking. His own refusal to change his image in order to appeal others represents confidence in his “normal” appearance and the assertion that his music should supersede his image. In many ways, Acuff embodies the traditional views of male and female bodies, in that male bodies should be functional and female bodies should be beautiful. Acuff’s music upholds female bodies as beautiful to behold and he maintains his own appearance primarily in terms of its functionality in playing music. This is much different from the stylization of Autry, who used his body in more feminine terms to appeal visually appealing to his audiences.
Acuff’s singing style also differs from that of Autry. In his first attempt at performing his hit single “Great Speckled Bird,” Acuff tried to croon, much to the distaste of his listeners. After that, he adopted a more rugged and harsh vocal quality that painted him as a tough, Southern male who remained rooted in the land and the Appalachian music tradition. In his later performances of “Great Speckled Bird,” the twangy guitar slides and hoarse vocals connected the music with minstrelsy and Southern sounds. Acuff’s music abandons the melodic qualities of Autry’s voice and he does not use vibrato or elongate his notes. His tone is harsh. “Great Speckled Bird” does not represent beautiful and impressive singing, but it represents a simple vocal style. It alludes to minstrelsy through its vocals and instruments but the lyrics feature a connection to religious music. The song lingers on the idea of “God’s holy word” and ideas of transcendence. Acuff’s masculinity lies in his preacherly quality. He represents the guardian of tradition, wholesome values, and a non-commercialized image.
Whereas Roy Acuff’s rugged style reveals him as a Southern common man, Gene Autry’s smooth style reveals him as an American everyman. Roy Acuff’s music traces the conservative and rural traditions of a Southern past and Gene Autry’s malleable sound allows him to traverse many realms of popular music. These artists represent two ways in which country musicians embodied different masculine identities. Both of these men rooted their identity in the past. The “hard core” tradition seems to dwell in the past and the “soft shell” tradition seems to look fondly back at the past. However, both of these artists existed somewhere in between each polarity.
The Big Picture
This range of artists demonstrates the way in which the creation and expansion of music genres facilitated new ways for artists and consumers to think about the traditional notions of masculinity. These artists represent key figures in the renegotiation of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s, but many other figures also challenged masculine norms through popular music. The Almanac Singers introduced college-boy groups as a political force among an older generation of men. Charlie Parker presented ways in which the technical virtuosity of Robert Johnson might be taken to an extreme in the jazz genre. Frank Sinatra initiated a girl craze unlike any before his time and he established a shift from the prominence of bandleaders to single vocalists. In addition, an array of female artists challenged masculinity by redefining femininity. Billie Holiday challenged “genius” as a masculine trait. Linda Parker revealed the constructedness of gender norms within the Southern barn dance tradition. The Andrew Sisters demonstrated ways in which the female voice might combine the raspiness of Acuff and the smoothness of Autry. All of these artists defined their own identity in reference to the dominant culture, and popular music proved to be a powerful medium in which the gender norms of the past might be confirmed or challenged in the changing music of the present. As the development of blues, crooning, and country provided new ways in which music might sound in the 1930s and 1940s, popular music as a whole presented new ways in which masculinity might be constructed and perceived.
-  Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 233.
-  N.J. Girardot, "Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," The Journal of American Folklore 90, 357 (1977), p. 274-300.
-  Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
-  Jill Greenfield, Sean O'Connell and Chris Reid, "Fashioning Masculinity: Men Only, Consumption and the Development of Marketing in the 1930s," Twentieth Century British History 10.4 (1999): 457-476.
-  George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
-  Christina Cogdell, Eugenic Design: Streamlining American in the 1930s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
-  Arthur Brittan, "Masculinity and Power," Carol Gould, Gender: Key Concepts in Critical Theory (Humanities Press International, 1997).
-  Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), p. 40.
-  Allison McCracken, "God's Gift to Us Girls": Crooning, Gender, and the Re-Creation of American Popular Song, 1928-1933," American Music 17.4 (1999), p. 366.
-  Ibid., p. 366.
-  Katherine Spring, "“To Sustain Illusion is All That is Necessary”: The Authenticity of Song Performance in Early American Sound Cinema," Film History 23 (n.d.): 285-299.
-  Allison McCracken, "God's Gift to Us Girls": Crooning, Gender, and the Re-Creation of American Popular Song, 1928-1933," American Music 17.4 (1999), p. 382-384.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 378.
-  Ibid., p. 387.
-  Krin Gabbard, Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture (London, U.K.: Faber & Faber, 2008), p. 104.
-  Josh Kun, Against Easy Listening, Or, How to Hear America Sing (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), p. 37.
-  Judith Butler, "Performative Subversions," Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 49-50.
-  It is important to note that these are constructed categories. I hope to explore masculinity within these genres—not to give them rigid characteristics.
-  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 85.
-  Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues (New York, NY HarperCollins, 2004), p. 221.
-  Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 64-67.
-  Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Creating the Cult of Authenticity The Lomaxes and Lead Belly (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 60.
-  Judith Butler, "Performative Subversions," Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 49.
-  Hans Weisethaunet and Ulf Lindberg, "Authenticity Revisited: The Rock Critic and the Changing Real," Popular Music and Society 33.4 (2010): 465-485.
-  Ronald Cohen, Rainbow quest: the folk music revival and American society (Cambridge, MA: University of Massachussetts Press, 2002), p. 33.
-  Louis Chude-Sokei, Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2005), p. 205.
-  Wald, Escaping the Delta, p. 229.
-  Ibid., p. 247.
-  Sander Gilman, "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth Century," Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 392-400.
-  Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: modernity, technology, and African American culture between the World Wars (Cambridge, MA: University of Massachussetts Press, 2003).
-  Eric Porter, What is this thing called jazz?: African American musicians as artists, critics, and activists (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).
-  Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 38.
-  Ibid., p. 144.
-  Emmanuel Reynaud, "Manly Aesthetics," Stevie Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 401-405.
-  Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 145.
Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Arthur Brittan, "Masculinity and Power," Carol Gould, Gender: Key Concepts in Critical Theory (Humanities Press International, 1997).
Judith Butler, "Performative Subversions," Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 49.
Robert Cantwell, "Smith's Memory Theater: The Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music," New England Review 13 (1991), 364-397.
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
Louis Chude-Sokei, Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2005).
Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Christina Cogdell, Eugenic Design: Streamlining American in the 1930s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
Ronald Cohen, Rainbow quest: the folk music revival and American society (Cambridge, MA: University of Massachussetts Press, 2002).
Wanda Corn, The Great American Thing (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).
Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: modernity, technology, and African American culture between the World Wars (Cambridge, MA: University of Massachussetts Press, 2003).
Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Creating the Cult of Authenticity The Lomaxes and Lead Belly (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
Krin Gabbard, Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture (London, U.K.: Faber & Faber, 2008).
Sander Gilman, "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth Century," Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 392-400.
Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
N.J. Girardot, "Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," The Journal of American Folklore 90, 357 (1977), 274-300.
Jill Greenfield, Sean O'Connell and Chris Reid, "Fashioning Masculinity: Men Only, Consumption and the Development of Marketing in the 1930s," Twentieth Century British History 10.4 (1999): 457-476.
Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010).
Josh Kun, Against Easy Listening, Or, How to Hear America Sing (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).
Allison McCracken, "God's Gift to Us Girls": Crooning, Gender, and the Re-Creation of American Popular Song, 1928-1933," American Music 17.4 (1999), 365-395.
Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
Eric Porter, What is this thing called jazz?: African American musicians as artists, critics, and activists (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).
Emmanuel Reynaud, "Manly Aesthetics," Stevie Jackson and Sue Scott, Gender: A Sociological Reader (Routledge, 2002) 401-405.
Katherine Spring, "’To Sustain Illusion is All That is Necessary’: The Authenticity of Song Performance in Early American Sound Cinema," Film History 23: 285-299.
Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues (New York, NY HarperCollins, 2004).
—. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Hans Weisethaunet and Ulf Lindberg, "Authenticity Revisited: The Rock Critic and the Changing Real," Popular Music and Society 33.4 (2010): 465-485.