January 2, 2014
Guest Lucy Lethbridge
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many Americans have been introduced to the world of servants through the PBS series "Downton Abbey," whose fourth season premieres Sunday. At the beginning of the 20th century, domestic service was the largest single occupation in Great Britain. Our guest, British writer Lucy Lethbridge, has a new book about the service industry based on her review of many diaries, letters and memoirs of servants.
Her book looks not just at estates like Downton Abbey, which would employ dozens of servants, but also at more modest homes that might have a servant or two and even poorer families that would employ some part-time domestic help. Her book chronicles the evolution of service through the social changes of the 20th century and the tension between servants and other working-class Brits. She spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about her book "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times." The book is in memory of her grandparents' live-in cook.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well Lucy Lethbridge, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us an idea of how big the service industry in England was, say, at the turn of the century, around 1900.
LUCY LETHBRIDGE: Well, at the turn of the century, it was absolutely enormous, and in 1900, it was calculated to comprise a third of all women who were in the workforce. So a third of all women working were in domestic service of some kind. Fewer men were employed because service by that time had become very feminized over the 19th century.
I think being a male occupation, it had become a female occupation, but when Roundtree did his survey of poverty, he found that so multitudinous were servants that in fact he drew the dividing line between the poor and the very poor at those who possess servants.
DAVIES: So even some of the poor would have a servant.
LETHBRIDGE: Yes, I mean, not a servant in the sense that we would visualize it, a sort of mob-capped maid or a footman, of course, but it would have been some form of domestic help: child care of some kind that was paid for; maybe laundry outsourced; something like that.
DAVIES: So service was a huge source of employment in England. Was this different in France or other European countries?
LETHBRIDGE: Well yes, I think it was different - it is different in atmosphere, I think, I mean, if that's not too complicated. I think the British had a very profound sense of the idea of a sort of social pyramid, a kind of noblesse oblige. So this filtered right down through the middle classes that those who could afford to had a sort of duty of care to the working class.
And it was a form of retaining social order, and I think you see it demonstrated very clearly in the British reluctance to take up new technologies in the home far - they were far slower in taking up these technologies than families in - on the continent and certainly in America because the idea of having people in the house living with you, doing this work, was so deeply rooted in the national psyche that it seemed vulgar to have a washing machine when you could employ two girls to do your washing.
DAVIES: Now so there are all different kinds of households that had servants. Let's talk about the big country estate, the Downton Abbey-type place. Give us a sense of sort of, you know, how many people might be employed and what the different jobs and hierarchies were.
LETHBRIDGE: Well of course this is what most people think of when they think of old-fashioned service. They think of the great big country house. And indeed the country houses, the large estates, employed vast numbers of people both outside and in. But to take simply one example, before the first of - before the Second World War, at Woburn Abbey the duke of Bedford had 80 indoor staff, and that included hierarchies of staff that waited on staff. It was a form of training.
I interviewed a wonderful woman called Edna Field(ph), who had been in service at 14 in the early '30s at Woburn, and she was there for three years, and she never set eyes on the duke and duchess of Bedford, who lived there, because her job was simply to wait on the housekeeper. She never left the servants' quarters, not once in three years.
DAVIES: You write, you know, at the top of the heap, I suppose, I mean, one of the most kind of elevated positions of the service was the butler. And you have some interesting observations about what it took to make a good butler and what kind of lives they lived. Do you want to share a bit of that with us?
LETHBRIDGE: Well, I was very interested in the butler. I read a lot of butlers' memoirs, and what I found particularly fascinating was how it revealed how butlers were so butlery, if that isn't too difficult, that it was very difficult to find the voice behind the butler. And to an extent, one saw how butlers, and indeed a lot of upper manservants or men in service at that sort of - at the higher level, colluded in their own caricature.
And of course they themselves were echoing the prevailing view of what it was to be a gentleman. And so that the butler is, as it were, the sort of echo chamber of the upstairs. So in the servants' hall, he is king, and - as the master of the house is king upstairs. And there is this - there is this pater familias role that you get that...
DAVIES: And what is the caricature of a butler?
LETHBRIDGE: Well, I think the caricature is somehow who's rather pedantic, rather gloomy, very serious, extremely conservative, who echoes the conservative values of his master but is often, and this is the other side of the coin, is often a Jeeves figure, is often also rather more intelligent. That is another - that's the other caricature, with which - which is a very old one, you know, the clever manservant and the silly-ass master, the Bertie Wooster, the master who relies...
DAVIES: A man who's so refined, he can school his master in what it means.
LETHBRIDGE: While retaining an absolutely conservative sense of the sort of reticence and importance of deference. And I think this is a role which butlers appear to have played to the hilt. I mean, all the accounts of butlers suggest that they were very happy with this work. Butlers are interesting, I think, because they certainly in the first part of the 20th century, the butler is a very anachronistic figure at a time when working-class men were increasingly politically active.
And the Labour Party had made it not impossible to imagine, and in fact there are examples of this, it's not impossible to imagine, say, a miner or a former miner or a trade union official or a factory worker becoming an MP and then possibly, after the war, going into the House of Lords. And that is impossible to imagine for a butler.
Often as educated and, as it were, possessing this rather conservative, dutiful mean, as they often do, because there was something about service that stuck people with an identity. It wasn't just a job; it was a whole identity. And it was a reason why their working-class peers often looked down on servants. They were despised from up and from down, and it locked them in their place in a rather unique way.
And I think the butler is a very interesting example of that.
DAVIES: You know, service is a job that is sort of fundamentally different from any other job. You know, if we go to an office, or if we go to a factory or we go to a mine, we come home and leave the job behind. In service, you're living with your employers and, depending on your role, can, you know, have some pretty intimate contact. You see them undressed. You overhear private conversations sometimes.
And I'm wondering how that affected the social relationships between master and servant.
LETHBRIDGE: Well, I think it made it very awkward. I mean, there are - there are, I have to say, as many examples of absolutely wonderful relationships between employer and servant as there are simply dreadful examples. But I think the intimacy of the home, especially a middle-class, a sort of average-sized home, which of course is where most servants were employed, you're jostling in a small space together, in close proximity, and it is - it must have been extremely difficult.
And I found accounts of people after the second world war, when people lost their servants, saying that in fact it had been a huge relief because for the first time the family could have intimate conversations or even have huge quarrels without worrying about the servants overhearing. So there was a sense in which the life of the family blossomed when they no longer had to share their space with people who were not family.
DAVIES: And you write that in some of the bigger houses, in the estates, some servants were required, once a member of the employing family entered a room, to turn their faces to the wall.
LETHBRIDGE: Yes, I think that that was not uncommon in the large houses, that servants - servants were in this rather curious position of being both required to be highly visible and completely invisible. So the high visibility of the servant with an elaborate uniform, you know, opening a door is very much a sort of indication of status. We use it all the time as a shorthand in films and television programs, a shorthand for grandeur.
But at the same time, the wheels of the house were oiled and required to be run without any apparent effort at all. So if you passed a servant sweeping the stairs, she either had to turn her face to the wall, or she nipped behind little doorways that were often - you'll see little hidden doorways on staircases particularly or along corridors if you've got back stairs because her presence was almost an admission that the house didn't run itself in a curious kind of way.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Lucy Lethbridge. Her book is "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times." We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you've just joined us, we're speaking with Lucy Lethbridge. She's a writer who has a book about the service industry in England in the 20th century. It's called "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times."
You know, as you reviewed these diaries and letters that you describe in the book, we saw, you know, many servants who were very loyal to the families that employed them. But there was also a lot of resentment. And I want to talk a bit about some of the conditions that fed the resentment. Tell us a bit about living quarters, the kind of - what were the circumstances under which servants lived?
And I know this varied from house to house, but generally speaking?
LETHBRIDGE: Well, if you take the average home, which I would say, a sort of say this is an average quite prosperous middle-class home in a - in London or another large city, say with five bedrooms, the servants would either be clustered at the very top of the house or clustered in the basement, by where the kitchen was.
In even smaller houses than that, they would often sleep in the kitchen, where it was the warmest place, where the stove was. But servants' accounts of the sort of misery of rooms where you either froze or boiled, depending on the season, are very acute, and also I think this idea that I found lots of accounts of - in advice books of people suggesting how you should furnish your servants' rooms.
And there's an infantilizing idea that servants, you shouldn't give them too many pretty things because they won't know what to do with them. Coming from homes that are impoverished both aesthetically and financially, there's no point in giving them a nice rug or a picture because it will only give them ideas about their station.
So there's this very Spartan simplicity in the rooms that I think must have felt pretty miserable after a long day.
DAVIES: What were hours like?
LETHBRIDGE: Well, I mean, the common a servant of all was what we would call a maid of all work. So she did a bit of everything. And she would be up at 5:30 or 6 lighting all the fires in the house, and she probably wouldn't go to bed until after her employers had had their dinner and washed it - and she would then have had to wash it up, so maybe 10.
I mean, the work was unbelievably hard and onerous, and if you were lucky...
DAVIES: And what, a half-day off?
LETHBRIDGE: A half-day off a week and every other Sundays, it was usually the form. And - but you would be quite heavily curfewed. You would be expected to come back certainly before 9 o'clock. So, you know, going out for the evening would be difficult because it would be curtailed. And, I mean, kindly employers were considerate and didn't leave their washing up for you on your day off or - but some weren't.
And if you think that these girls were, on average, about 13 or 14, and if they had come from very poor, particularly urban, households, were hideously undernourished, I mean, this was an incredibly long day. And the average housemaid, it was calculated in the 1890s, carried three tons of water every week up and down stairs.
And they were tiny, these girls. They were absolutely tiny. If you look at photographs of them, they were little shrimps of girls. So it was very, very arduous work.
DAVIES: And could they have a social life, meet someone and marry?
LETHBRIDGE: Well that was the way out of that sort of service, and if you had a - if you worked in a Downton-like house, then you would have plenty of opportunity because there would be quite a large body of male servants, and there would be visiting male servants so that the chances were that you would meet someone.
If you were, as most people were, working in a middle-class house and one of, say, three young girl maids, you had very little opportunity to meet anyone except the people that were regular, like the grocer's boy or the butcher's delivery man. Margaret Pall(ph) married a milkman simply because she saw him, he was one of the few men that she had the opportunity to see every single day, and that was a way of getting to know them.
And there were clubs for servant girls, but they tended to be all women and with rather sort of wholesome activities laid on like needlework and tennis. The Girls' Friendly Society was one such. And they did very good work, but it wasn't terribly exciting and fun for young girls.
DAVIES: Were the salaries such that you couldn't really, you know, save and move and, you know, get either an education or start a business or seek some other option?
LETHBRIDGE: Well no, I think that - but the salaries were quite low. I mean, what I found is I had a look at budgets for 1900 that had been compiled budgets for people on different incomes, and what they called the 10,000 a year, which is really in today's money pretty - a great deal of money, the man on 10,000 a year who employed, say, 10 servants spent less on the wages of his servants than he did on the keeping of his horses.
The expense of servants, from the employer's point of view, was their food. But - and of course they were what was called all found, so that they lived in, and they were fed and had accommodation. So of course the smallness of the wages was redressed at the other end by the fact that they had free accommodation and free food, and food was by far the highest proportion of anyone's budgetary expenditure before the Second World War.
DAVIES: You write that they had to wear uniforms, sometimes even required to wear a certain bonnet to church so that they could be clearly identified as servants and not ladies and gentlemen. This kind of - I don't know. Was this found to be demeaning?
LETHBRIDGE: Yes, I think this is one of the most bitterly demeaning things, because after all if you can't be equal in church, where can you be equal? And if there was one aspect of service I found most bitterly resented, it was the wearing of special bonnets in church for servant girls.
I mean, this again would be something that would be part of the large estate. The Church of England and the large estate are tied. They're part of a sort of English establishment that is absolutely rooted in English country life. And the idea, for example, that you couldn't go to church at all, you might wish not to go to church, would've been unthinkable. You had to go to church. You had to troop in after your master and his family, who would take their own pews in the front.
DAVIES: So if you didn't want to endure, you know, the loss of self-respect and the difficult conditions, what were the other options for a young girl, a working-class girl in Britain?
LETHBRIDGE: Well, there were beginning to be much - many more opportunities. I think that factory work of course is the main one, and a lot of girls did go into factory work. But it was not considered respectable. And so in more conservative working-class homes, you would prefer your child to go into service, what they call getting your feet under somebody else's table, because it was a place of safety.
Factories, there was something not considered a little kind of louche about factory work. You were working alongside men. Factory girls were considered to be rather loud and brash. They were often caricatured in the press. The press took a great delight in characterizing factory girls as vulgar in order to persuade woman that it was more respectable to go into service.
The middle classes were very worried that they were going to lose their servants to factories, and indeed a lot of working-class would have infinitely preferred to work in a factory because again you had the chance to meet men. Your hours were roughly nine to five, and so you knew exactly where you were. You weren't at the beck and call of some mistress who might make you stay up to 11 just because, you know, she had someone to supper.
And it was not considered as demeaning in many circles. But having said that, it was also not considered quite respectable to work in a factory so that there is this dilemma for young girls. And there's many accounts I found, especially of young girls in rural areas say oh, the only work around the place was a factory, and I couldn't have stooped so low.
GROSS: Lucy Lethbridge will continue her conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times," I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Lucy Lethbridge, about her new book, "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times." It's based on diaries, letters and memoirs of servants. At the beginning of the 20th century, domestic service was the largest single occupation in Great Britain.
DAVIES: You know, in the early 20th century we saw, you know, there were some growing and powerful labor unions in Great Britain and a lot of movements, legislative movements, for social and economic equality.
How were these developments regarded by people in the service?
LETHBRIDGE: I think by career servants, by which, I mean people in the grander houses who were working their way up the hierarchy - like butlers, housekeepers, so on, with some suspicion. I mean servants tended to be conservative. They tended to echo the politics of their masters. Although, having said that, I did find many, many examples of servants who became radicalized by the experience of working below stairs, particularly women.
Many of your listeners will know Margaret Powell, who is the most, the best of servant memoirist really, who worked as a housemaid in the '20s and '30s. And she is a seething socialist. She can't escape from service. She has no money, only marriage offers her escape and she finally does marry. But she becomes politically radicalized by the experience.
And there were several others I found. There was a wonderful Indian servant called Razul(ph) Fazir(ph) who came over from Bangor and discovered socialism while working below stairs and various houses in Britain in the '20s and '30s. And I think, but I think that it was the working-class non-servants who gave servants a very, very hard time. They would get, people would shout flunky at them in the streets or skivvy, or slavey, and they were seen as propping up a hated class system - even though in most cases it was not their choice to go into service, it was a necessity.
DAVIES: You know, I want to talk some more about some of those particular resentments. But you write about a fascinating rally that was held when there was a campaign, I guess, in the parliament to establish national health insurance and thousands of servants turned out, no doubt, goaded by their masters to say terrible, we don't want this.
LETHBRIDGE: Yes. That is a very extraordinary thing, isn't it, that in 1911, Lloyd George's, the introduction of the Insurance Act, which required all employers of residential servants, people living in, to pay - I think it was sixpence or maybe even three pence a week - towards their health insurance. And this was to protect those servants who got thrown out when they were ill - and there were some very bad employees who would have done that. I mean servants were very unprotected. There was no pension system. They didn't have contracts. You know, it was only a very rudimentary union, which was also very frowned on by employers.
But what was so fascinating was that it seemed to strike at the heart for many employers, but also for many servants at what they called the sacred bond, which is this curious sort of mythical relationship between the classes. And again, I think this goes back to what I was talking about earlier, that this idea that there is a pyramid of order by which the leisured people at the top look after and are in turn cared for by this base of labor at the bottom, but that it is a co-dependency, a sort of loving co-dependency. And this is a very deep myth of an English Golden Age, an age that really lasted a very short time, indeed - from about 1830 to 1930. But nonetheless, it is seen as having a sort of deep and profound root in particularly rural lives and the lives of the great estates. And I think that this, the Insurance Act seemed to strike at this, it was the state and during the home. It's the state entering the home and touching on what would be considered almost family relationships, you know, an intimacy in which the state had business in meddling.
DAVIES: And yet, I'm struck by a number of women that you cite who felt embarrassed by the fact that they weren't independent because they were in service, that they were subjugated. You write of a cook who would go on vacation and just not tell people what she did for a living.
LETHBRIDGE: Yes, because it was considered certainly among the working-class. It was thought to be a humiliating copout, a sort of that you were a flunky, a lickspittle, you know, that you were sucking up to people you thought of as your betters, and that you weren't free. And I think that this also shows up a new age, you know, that this was a new age for women. And so that's servant girl saw women for the first time - women of the middle-classes - going out and going to universities, getting degrees, getting college or going to college, becoming secretaries, becoming typists, working in offices, and they felt that they were left behind in another world, a world their parents might consider more respectable. But for them themselves, that sort of world of deference was on the way out.
DAVIES: Lucy Lethbridge is our guest. Her book is called "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times." You know, it's interesting that you write that in the 20th century, in a lot of rural places, there came to be these statehouses I guess they call them, kind of new homes that were built for aspiring middle-class families and they would have servants, far fewer than in the big estates. And I'm wondering kind of how the social relations were different when you compare the big house with many servants to, you know, a small house with, you know, two or three or four.
LETHBRIDGE: Well, I think as we mentioned before, I think the proximity is a difference, isn't it? I think you have much closer contact with someone in a small house. And it's very difficult, I mean the relationship can become more intimate but, of course, it can actually become very tricky. And so I think that that was one aspect. But it was very difficult also I think in the 1930s when they were building new homes like this - the '20s and '30s - to conceive of a world where middle-class housewives would not have help because this is the, it is the conundrum of both that age and this. That if women are to avail themselves of the new opportunities opening up for them, then they are going to have to have help running the home. And this is the sort of chaffing feeling that runs through all accounts of middle-class - what we might call sort of villa life - in the, before the Second World War: How can I so relieve myself of the burden of running a home that I will be free to concentrate on the inner life that is becoming available to me? You know, free to go to evening classes, free to perhaps even take a job, unless I have a decent cook who will prepare a good breakfast for my husband in the morning.
DAVIES: You write that there were a couple of cases where women went into service specifically to write about it. One, Monica Dickens, who was actually a descendent of Charles Dickens in the 1930s goes and poses as a servant. She was an actress, right, so she could pull this off? What did she observe and what - how were the 1930s different from an earlier era?
LETHBRIDGE: Yes, so she's going in for a lark. And I think what is interesting about her - and also another one called Celia Fremlin, who also posed a servant during the same period to do some research for mass observation - is that they essentially sees service by this stage a sort of service that their parents would've known as something so anachronistic, like a sort of ridiculous pantomime that has gone on working, you know, has gone on playing well beyond its time when all the players on the stage are ancient and decrepit. And they are part - they feel themselves to be part of a whole new world, a sort of modernist world, a kind of streamlined, much more mechanistic world.
So they go into service in a sort of spirited anthropological investigation. But what Monica Dickens fines and describes actually brilliantly, is a world of sort of middle-class households, the unbelievable sort of dingy primitiveness of the average middle-class house, you know, where he still had grates that needed blacking and stoves that needed to be lit. You know, this was when, you know, most middle-class houses in America would've had electric ovens, and certainly on the continent this would've been the same and electric toasters and so on. But still, the middle-class English household went on grinding away with this, keeping up appearances, really, by having a maid to open the door, to light the fires, to keep things going. And it's a wonderful picture of the sort of inter world dinginess of certain aspects of English life, I think.
DAVIES: You know, of course, there were a lot of social changes in, brought on by World War I, and then in the '20s and '30s. But you're right that it was really World War II that really changed service forever. And it's very touching to read that some of those that had the most difficult time with the change were these experienced veteran servants.
LETHBRIDGE: Yes. I think, I mean certainly, if you had been a career servant, I think the postwar period must've been quite difficult because you suddenly found your world no longer taken seriously. And that's why it's actually marvelous that there was than this moment in the late '60s and early '70s where that world although, in time it's not all that long ago. In spirit, it seems so far away and so archaic that there's a huge appetite for the memoirs of servants. So you get people like Jean Rennie and Winifred Foley and Margaret Powell writing these memoirs of life as it was lived and it seems as distant as another world although, it was easily within living memory, and suddenly they have their moment again, their moment to tell their story and that is very moving.
But, yes, if you had lived all your life as a, in a world of deference, when suddenly that world of deference disappears, you must be left wondering what exactly your identity is, what was it all for.
DAVIES: Well, Lucy Lethbridge, it's been fun. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
LETHBRIDGE: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.
GROSS: Lucy Lethbridge spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new book is called "Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a box set of country music recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Memphis is always believed that it too should be a center for country music, and that Nashville - despite a history reaching back to the 1920s - shouldn't have a monopoly on it. When Sam Phillips started Sun Records in Memphis in 1953, he encouraged country artists. The man who discovered Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others, also produced a lot of great country music.
Bear Family Records has released a six CD compilation of Sun's country output, and our rock historian Ed Ward has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENNESSEE")
CARL PERKINS: (Singing) Now there are folks who like to brag about where they came from. But when they start that stuff I let 'em be. But it makes me feel like I wanna brag some, to know that I come from the state of Tennessee.
(Singing) Let's give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it up in Nashville everyday. Let's give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it in that old Hillbilly way.
(Singing) Mr. Red Foley came from Kentucky...
ED WARD, BYLINE: Carl Perkins was celebrated in the whole entire state when he recorded "Tennessee" in late 1955 - he ends the song by reminding us that they doubled the first atomic bomb in Tennessee, after all - but his musical examples are all Nashville country greats. There is also another thing: Perkins' picking isn't exactly mainstream country, although Sam Phillips thought of him as a country acted first.
He thought the same about another young kid who was hanging around the Sun Studios in those days, and used Jerry Lee Lewis mostly as a studio musician. Occasionally, he'd let him record by himself, as with this Jack Clement song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M FEELING SORRY")
JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) I told a little lie, baby, I made you cry. That's why I'm feeling blue. I'm feeling sorry, I lied to you. I took your little heart, I tore it all apart. And now I'm missing you. I'm feeling sorry I couldn't be true. I should've known better. I should've been truer. I know that you're blue but baby, I'm bluer.
WARD: Certainly, Sam's early ventures into country weren't very interesting. Early on, he recorded Slim Rhodes for some other labels. Rhodes had been the dominant force in Memphis' country scene for years and had his own radio and television shows to keep him visible, although his record sales weren't disturbing anyone in Nashville.
Sam thought he'd found something with Harmonica Frank Floyd who certainly knew his way around black music, thanks to his extensive performing experience with medicine shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
HARMONICA FRANK FLOYD: Ladies and gentlemen, (unintelligible) little rabbit twisters, step right around closely. I'll tell you all about a wonderful medicine show I used to work with here this afternoon. Also, we have Dr. Donniker(ph) here with us, the great medical menagerie of the world.
WARD: The trouble was, Floyd was born in 1908 so he wasn't exactly teen idol material. His recordings are a priceless look into an all-but-forgotten past, though. Once Elvis began to make waves at Sun, all manner of young men starting showing up at the studio at 706 Union. Sam had them record country, of course. This rock n' roll thing might just turn out to be a fad.
WARD: Charlie Feathers was from Mississippi, but had family in Memphis and a bout of meningitis had left him incapable of heavy labor. So he took to music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CHARLIE FEATHERS: (Singing) When the rain starts to beating all around, all I do is just sit right down. 'Cause you know I like to settle down. Woman, you know I've been running round. Just running round, hoochie-cootching around. Hey, lordy, lordy, lordy, I've done come unwound. Well, when I was young we used to run around. But since I met you I just fool around.
(Singing) But now that I'm old and getting gray, all I want to do is set around and play. Sit around and play...
WARD: You can hear the rockabilly trying to escape from Feathers' voice here, and it would on later sessions. There were others - Malcolm Yelvington with his lush baritone, another guy who at 35 and happily married, was no teen idol. There was Warren Smith who was seemingly capable of anything from rocked up Elizabethan balladry like "Black Jack David," menacing hard country like "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache," and of course his infamous "Ubangi Stomp."
He also did stuff that showed how country was changing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
WARREN SMITH: (Singing) Tonight will be the last night that I'm crying over you. Tomorrow I'm a going out and find somebody new. You had yourself a party and now it's you that's blue so tonight will be the last night that I'm crying over you. You run around all over town. You really had your fun. You broke my heart right from the start and look at what you've gone and done. You don't care whose heart you break. Go find someone like you 'cause tonight will be the last night that I'm crying over you.
WARD: On the other side of the microphone, though, Sam Phillips was in over his head as the post-Elvis mania mounted. He kept the country division going at Sun Records until the end, although he stopped recording new artists at 706 Union. But now that he'd found rock n' roll, he was determined to record as much as possible and that would result in some of the greatest records ever.
GROSS: Our rock historian Ed Ward is back in the U.S. and now living in Austin. He reviewed "The Sun Country Box: Country Music Recorded by Sam Phillips 1950 - 1959" from Bear Family Records. Coming up, our tech contributor Alexis Madrigal explains how and why Netflix divides the tastes of its subscribers into over 76,000 micro-genres. How about emotional independent sports movies? This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The rise of on-demand video content delivered over the Internet has made it possible to watch many movies and TV shows any time, anywhere. But with so many choices available at our fingertips, deciding what to watch can be a bit daunting. In an attempt to help viewers find something that appeals to them, Netflix presents its subscribers with personalized viewing recommendations. Our tech contributor Alexis Madrigal explains how and why they do it.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, BYLINE: In the old days, a movie genre was a simple communal category - Action/Adventure, Comedy, Drama. One had to locate one's self in the drama aisle in the video store and then look for just the right thing - a dark road trip movie with a strong female lead? A-ha: "Thelma and Louise." But Netflix, the movie streaming DVD rental service doesn't work like that. It recommends genres that are intensely, almost bizarrely personalized.
Netflix might tell you not just that you like road trip movies but that you like understated, romantic road trip movies, dark road trip thrillers, road trip art house movies, road trip musicals, or of course, Canadian independent road trip movies.
That's because seven years ago, Todd Yellin, a film-obsessed executive at Netflix, set out to break down every movie into data. He hired aspiring screenwriters and paid them to watch movies and rate their level of romance, gore, quirkiness, and even plot resolution. In a sense, Yellin wanted to reverse-engineer all the Hollywood formulas so that Netflix could mathematically show you the movies they knew you would like.
Now it's become one of the company's big selling points. Netflix doesn't just provide streaming movies and TV shows - it knows you. Thinking about how specific Netflix could get, I started to wonder just how many micro-genres does Netflix really have? A friend pointed out that the web addresses for the categories in the Netflix database were sequentially numbered and that I could type through each URL one by one and figure out all the micro-genres.
The first brought up African-American Crime Documentaries. The second pulled up Scary Cult Movies from the 1980s. The next was Tear-Jerkers from the 1970s. After a couple more minutes, I tried entering 10,000 just to see if the database was really that big. Japanese Horror Movies from the 1960s was in that slot. There was no way I could copy and paste tens of thousands of genre titles by hand.
So I wrote a simple script, a little piece of code, that would copy the names to a list. I set it up to run and then I waited as the script kept copying and pasting for more than 20 hours. I found that Netflix has 76,897 separate categories. To my knowledge, no one outside Netflix has ever compiled this massive data before, and now we can really understand how the system works.
The micro-genres are formed from Netflix's version of Mad Libs, an algorithm that takes all the tags in Netflix's system and combines them based on specific criteria, especially the number of movies fitting the category. Traditional genres like Drama form the center of each micro-genre but Netflix can toss in actors and directors and a bunch of descriptors, including time period, location, age level, and the squishier human words - the adjectives.
These are really what make Netflix's movie genre seem uncannily precise. Netflix's favorite adjective is romantic, which appears in 5,272 categories. Following it are foreign, classic, dark, British, critically acclaimed, suspenseful, gritty, independent, visually striking, family, violent, and feel good. But not all the adjectives are used thousands of times.
Some of the least used adjectives are telling, too - experimental, screwball, Satanic, stoner, visionary, and Depression Era. Hollywood's a popularity contest, though, so we have to ask: Which actor is the most Netflix famous? That is to say, which actor appears in the most Netflix micro-genres? The number two answer is precisely who you might expect - Bruce Willis - who has 17 dedicated categories including violent action thrillers starring Bruce Willis.
But the actor with the most categories dedicated to himself is not Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie or Jackie Chan or Meryl Streep or Clint Eastwood or Doris Day, but Raymond Burr, star of "Perry Mason." Why? I have no idea. Even Todd Yellin, who created the Netflix system, was baffled by the number of Burr categories, and that's the interesting thing wandering through Netflix's big data - only some of the logic that drives these categories feels human.
But perhaps that's exactly what we like about Netflix's recommendations. They take our taste, break it down into its constituent parts, and spit it back to us in new and revealing ways. Netflix's strange machine wants to make us happy and to do so it must know us and our culture in ways that are not always obvious to humans. How else do we explain the Raymond Burr phenomenon? That's the eye of software staring into the American soul.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PERRY MASON THEME")
GROSS: Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society. He created an interactive webpage where you can explore the 76,897 genres in Netflix's database and have fun creating new ones. The webpage includes a Netflix genre generator. You'll find a link to that page on our website freshair.npr.org.
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