A Sound History

A noisy guide to the past

Music, borders and the boardwalk in Atlantic City’s ‘Golden Age’

At the beginning of the twentieth century, walking the boardwalk of a seaside resort like Atlantic City, would have been a sensory overload. The densely packed pathway with the sea on one side, and rows of shops, nightclubs and hotels on the other, jostled with tourists and hawkers; music and megaphones. The boardwalk was also a boundary, between the traditional Victorian values of leisure and recreation, and the newer, more progressive ideologies of the modern world.

Exterior of the Traymore Hotel, Atlantic City Boardwalk, c. 1923. Source: Creative Commons.

The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Atlantic City is memorialised in HBO’s mammoth Boardwalk Empire, where these old-fashioned values are challenged by violence and vice. The city prospered under prohibition. It was perfectly located to host rum-runners and bootleggers, docking their supplies of illegal alcohol from across the border in Canada, and from across the pond in Ireland. A welcome drink awaited you at boardwalk venues like The Irish Pub and Babette’s Supper Club. Their prime location was a powerful message by those in charge of the city’s tourist-based economy: to ‘provide whatever was needed to make the visitors happy.’

Despite its progressive attitudes towards alcohol and gambling, racial segregation and prejudice remained, with the majority of the city’s black residents confined to the neighbourhoods of the Northside. Tucked away from Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk, black residents and visitors were relegated to a comparatively tiny stretch of sand between Missouri to Ohio Avenues. ‘Chicken Bone Beach’ was named after the picnics, brought by visitors to the shore, after many were shunned by the (theoretically) unsegregated restaurants in town.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. photographed on ‘Chicken Bone Beach’, 1956. Source: Temple University Libraries.

In Boardwalk Empire, the Northside is the home of Albert ‘Chalky’ White, an associate of Atlantic City kingpin Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson. The two share a complicated relationship; pragmatic and business-minded but rooted in what appears to be a genuine mutual respect. This is tested when (spoiler alert), Chalky proposes a business opportunity: the Onyx Club. Excited at the prospect of a prime boardwalk nightclub, where black performers are the stars of the show, Nucky cuts him off: “There’s a dividing line. Why is that so hard to understand?” The exchange is one of the most poignant of the series; Chalky’s ambitious, idealistic push for change stands in direct opposition to Nucky’s matter-of-fact acceptance of what he sees as both realistic and attainable. Chalky eventually gets his club, on the painful condition that its audiences remain strictly white-only.

The Steel Pier, Atlantic City Boardwalk, 1930s.

Clearly, Atlantic City’s boardwalk was much more than a boundary between land and sea, and it would take something with a universal appeal to attempt to bridge these borders. A few blocks behind the boardwalk, four clubs proudly catered to audiences of all colours; Club Harlem, Grace’s Little Belmont, the Wonder Gardens and the Paradise Club, all on the Northside’s Kentucky Avenue. Between them, they played host to the likes of Count Bassie, Billie Holiday, B.B. King and Sammy Davies Jr. (and later, the whole Rat Pack), while also nurturing new talent.

Exterior of Club Harlem, Kentucky Avenue, Atlantic City.

As their popularity grew, the clubs began offering a full day’s worth of shows, from Club Harlem’s breakfast, to the afternoon matinees at Grace’s Little Belmont. Now, white and black audiences could escape the same midday heat, from their separate beaches, by cooling off indoors at one of these daytime performances.

Of course, the clubs were far from an idyllic vision of equality. Some acts were more appealing to white audiences, such as the Paradise Club’s gyrating dancers and African drummers, who, as Bryant Simon writes, performed as ‘the natives in a Tarzan movie’. They did, however, give an important platform to artists who were prohibited from performing in many of the all-white venues on the south side of the city. Music, in particular, was a canvas on which the hypocrisy and futility of segregation could be played out. While black and white performers and patrons were united under the same roof, the four Kentucky Avenue clubs offered a brief glimpse into what might be possible, if, like their audiences, people were prepared to listen.

Future Nostalgia: soundscapes of Italian futurism

Umberto Boccioni, Riot in the Galleria (Rissa in Galleria), 1910. Oil on canvas. Pinocoteca di Brera, Milan. 

Every day each of us lives through history. However mundane or ordinary our actions may be, each thing we do stacks up to form a picture of a place, a community, and a society. Over the last few weeks, almost every article, advertisement or social media post I have seen has referenced the ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unprecedented’ times we currently find ourselves in. We are more aware than ever before, of our daily contributions to a period that will be scrutinised for years to come. Increasingly, people are looking to the past for comfort and reassurance on how humans have adjusted to restrictions that for many of us are strange and unfamiliar; memories of Soviet-era constraints; accounts of historic quarantines, or the make-do-and-mend attitudes of war-time testimonies.

Boccioni, The City Rises ( La città che sale), 1910. Oil on canvas. MoMA, New York City.

It’s hard for us to imagine today what an impact sound would have made to those living in the early years of the twentieth century. For the Italian futurists, the clamorous sounds of modern life heralded in a new age, while loudly eradicating what they saw as Italy’s ‘static, stultifying … long dead cultural heritage.’

In a largely agricultural nation like Italy, the draw of rapidly industrialising cities like Milan – the centre of the country’s rail, motor and banking industries – would have seemed a world away from rural traditions that had remained largely unaltered for centuries. Noise signified movement, which in turn pointed to progression – a constant, machine-like forward motion towards a more prosperous new era.

Marinetti’s distinctive futurist poetry

The word ‘futurism’ first appeared in a 1909 manifesto by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and was quickly adopted by a group of writers, composers and artists united in the triumph of man over nature, and the dismantling of so-called ‘outdated’ cultural institutions. In The Art of Noises, Luigi Carlo Filippo Russolo attacked the Western, formalist musical tradition. Music, he argued, had lost the power to excite and inspire audiences who waited for ‘the extraordinary sensation that never comes’. He encouraged composers to look towards the cities for inspiration, using ‘ears more sensitive than eyes’, abandoning conventional instruments and a musical language that had been in place for centuries, to create ‘noise-sounds’; a conversation with the cacophony of everyday sounds.

In Risveglio di una Città (Awakening of a City), Russolo’s score calls for eight different intonarumori (noise-making instruments) specially created to imitate the ‘crackles’, ‘growls’ and ‘rumbles’ of the everyday. As with futurist literature, this was a language which gloried in the speed of the modern world. Anyone who refused or was unable to keep up in this march towards ruthless progress, would be trampled underfoot.

Violence punctuates futurism.  Russolo’s performances incited riots – at one of them, he punched a critic in the face – while Marinetti’s manifesto lists war as ‘the world’s only hygiene’, in the battle to purge society of the mistakes of previous generations. It was language that ran uncomfortable close to fascism. Indeed, many prominent futurists embraced fascism, and were instrumental in Mussolini’s rise to power, propping up a nationalist ideology that merged the exciting potential of the young nation’s socio-economic growth, with a nostalgic, Utopian vision of a united, Imperial past.

A good (futurist) boy: Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (Dinamismo di un Cane al Guinzaglio), 1912. Oil on canvas, Albright-Knox, Buffalo

From the first hums of human interaction, to the roar of the jet engine, the idea of progress is so often defined by noise. While we may look on the futurists’ attitudes towards the modern world as – at best, eccentric and outdated; at times, abhorrent – their diagnosis of a ‘healthy’ society, marked by many of the sounds that much of us are now adjusting to life without, still rings uncomfortably true.


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