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Charlie McGovern

Charlie McGovern directs the American Studies Program at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. He wrote Sold American Consumption and Citizenship in American Life, 1890-1945 (North Carolina), and he co-founded the Duke University Press series Refiguring American Music. He’s at work on a book titled, Body and Soul: Race, Civics and Belonging in Popular Music, 1930-1970, as well as a project on Nat Cole.

“Singing Across the Color Line: Passing, Crossing, and Voice in American Pop 1945-1955”
In the decade after World War II American pop grew into a multimillion aggregate of businesses. As the business grew beyond radio and records to television, pop stars found increasing exposure. The emergent Civil Rights movement repeatedly questioned the color line in daily life, law, and custom; long before Emmett Till and Brown v. Board Americans were engaged in daily tests of that line. Similarly, the Jim Crow regime in music of ‘white’ and ‘Black’ described by Karl Miller began to break down; long before the advent of rock and roll and rhythm and blues, singers were troubling racial identity. Sound, style, and repertoire ‘marked’ the racial ambiguity of some white singers when they initially appeared on record. Racial crossover for some African American singers was also rooted in their vocal appeal, but these performers encountered color barriers as the visual regimes of American media limited their markets and structured their opportunities. As if to mark the end of this era, the half-buried racial subtext of performance and identity had become overt and visible: Elvis Presley became a national television sensation and Nat Cole the first African American with a prime time network television show.

Focusing on a number of singers—Ella Mae Morse, Kay Starr, Frankie Laine, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan—this paper explores the color line in song and sound. While white singers generally profited from their pan racial affiliations and identities, Black singers encountered obstacles in reaching white audiences. Their voices gained them entry to the pop world, but the acceptance enjoyed by whites was all but impossible, even for the biggest stars. With material from the Black press, industry literature, oral history, and memoir, and musical examples, I trace the shifting politics of singing white and Black across a sonic color line.

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