Nott, James J.

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Nott, James J.


Education: B.A., M.St., D.Phil.


Office—School of History, University of St. Andrews, St. Katharine's Lodge, The Scores, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9AR, Scotland; fax: 44-0-1134-462927. E-mail—[email protected].


University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, lecturer in British history; University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, lecturer in history.


Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to books, including The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002; and New Dictionary of National Biography, edited by B. Harrison, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2004.


James J. Nott is a lecturer in history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In the course of his research, he has focused on some areas that have previously received very little attention. His most notable contribution has been to the subject of popular music and dance halls in early-twentieth-century Britain. Some of the specific aspects of that subject on which he has focused include women and dance halls; the social and cultural history of dance halls in twentieth-century Britain; reactions to jazz and dancing in Britain during the 1920s; and the ways in which popular music and music halls were affected by a larger social culture that was becoming evermore cosmopolitan. The author utilized his knowledge and insight into the subject in order to write his 2002 publication Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain.

In Music for the People, Nott "fuses social and business history to fill a significant gap in the history of leisure in modern Britain," stated Andrew Davies in the American Historical Review. Davies commented that although there has been a great deal of material published concerning the growth of the movie industry and radio broadcasting in the twentieth century, including the effect that these developing industries had on their culture, there has not been comparable attention paid to the evolution of popular music, or the growth of the popular-music industry. "This scholarly and highly readable study thus makes a welcome contribution to the field," stated Davies.

Nott believes that for various reasons, during the 1920s and 1930s, music reached a greater level of popularity among the British people than it ever had before. The spread of the gramophone and recorded music was a major factor in this trend. In 1930, for example, 780, 000 gramophones were manufactured, along with almost sixty million gramophone records. Record sales dropped sharply during the economic depression of the early 1930s, but the gramophone had already become a fixture in many homes. Record companies with ownership, or part-ownership, in the United States began to actively promote American dance music and jazz. These styles did catch on, changing the musical tastes of many British citizens. Even those homes without a gramophone could hear popular tunes on the radio. Dance music was also popularized by the many popular musical films that were released during that era.

Britons had long had a tradition of private music making. Playing piano, another instrument, or singing had provided entertainment at home. The advent of radio and recorded music quickly altered that tradition. People rapidly became listeners rather than performers, and the culture of home music making declined dramatically. Sales of pianos slumped, although sheet music sold well, as did other instruments; this was probably because there was a sudden need for semiprofessional musicians. Public performances of music mushroomed, and the dance hall became a mainstay of public entertainment. Young, single, and lower- and working-class people were most likely to be found at the dances. The author points out that these dance halls were respectable, attractive places. While dancing in public marked a new acceptance of freedom for young women, the halls were nevertheless very orderly places, "with intense concentration on dancing prowess and little overt sexual promiscuity," noted Davies. The reviewer felt that Nott's book "will become a standard work of reference for historians of leisure, and deservedly so." Music for the People was also praised by Stephen Banfield, in the Journal of Modern History. He described it as "a model of intelligent and reliable exploration of primary sources." The author's source material includes government records, back issues of periodicals such as Melody Maker, and the archives of the Performing Rights Society.

Nott devotes the first chapter of his book to the rise of the gramophone, and the second to a discussion of the invention's role in society. The third chapter covers radio and cinema, particularly commercial radio. While the BBC, the official broadcasting company of Great Britain, drew a lot of attention, commercial broadcasters from overseas—whose signals were able to be picked up by transmitters in England—drew huge audiences with their broadcasts of big-name singers and bandleaders. The second part of Nott's book covers dance halls and the bands that were popular between world wars; Banfield commented: "I doubt whether this phenomenon has ever before been properly treated by social and economic historians, and this study is welcome." A third part of the book, consisting of just one chapter, discusses popular styles and repertoires, and their meanings. Nott also discusses the rise of the Mecca Corporation, which eventually boasted control of some three hundred dance bands that played the dance-hall circuit. "At no point does Nott fail to draw strong inferences, facts, and conclusions from his researches," said Banfield.

"Nott's study is largely about the winners in inter-war popular music," reported Matthew Hilton in an article for the English Historical Review. "Despite a rather tortuous defining discussion of the ‘popular’ in the introduction, this book is essentially about commercial culture and there is little room for those musical forms in decline: community singing, folk, the brass band. He also sensibly shies away from making the sort of bold and brash analysis of music that has seen other scholars herald punk as the birth of postmodernism."

Music for the People "fills a gap in the scholarly literature and will need to be read by anyone interested not only in the popular music but the popular culture of interwar Britain," stated Jeffrey Richards in a review for Albion. Richards commented on the statistic that by 1938, some two million people were going to dance halls each week. Those going most frequently were young, working-class women, who were also the most likely to go to the movie theater. "Nott recreates their experience by surveying the venues, the dance steps, the patrons, the etiquette, the whole social, sexual, and cultural significance," wrote Richards.



Albion, March 22, 2004, Jeffrey Richards, review of Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain, p. 176.

American Historical Review, February 1, 2004, Andrew Davies, review of Music for the People, p. 255.

English Historical Review, April 1, 2003, Matthew Hilton, review of Music for the People, p. 546.

History: Review of New Books, January 1, 2003, Benjamin J. Lammers, review of Music for the People, p. 64.

History Today, December 1, 2002, Peter Martland, review of Music for the People, p. 56.

Journal of Modern History, September 1, 2004, Stephen Banfield, review of Music for the People, p. 687.

Journal of Social History, June 22, 2004, John K. Walton, review of Music for the People, p. 1066.

Media, Culture & Society, March 1, 2005, Paddy Scannell, review of Music for the People, p. 310.

Times Literary Supplement, August 22, 2003, Paul Smith, review of Music for the People, p. 16.


University of St. Andrews Web Site, (May 23, 2008), author profile.