Friday, 12 December 2008

Lt. Rudder

Under-the-counter recordings of erotic material – referred to as either “blue discs” or “party records” – have circulated since at least the 1930s, but attained a new degree of cultural visibility in the 1950s and ‘60s, when they were often intended for a culture of male hi-fi aficionados. Many American men developed an interest in high fidelity audio equipment after World War II, in part because of the extensive electronics training they received in the armed forces. Risqué records provided a means of bringing frank discussions of sex and the rough language traditionally associated with men into the home. Military themes are prevalent on postwar party records, from Fax’s series of “Wild Service Songs” albums to blue discs that dramatized the experience of American soldiers. For example, a record from the late 1940s entitled “Lt. Rudder” features a routine that circulated amongst soldiers during the final years of World War II. The routine was described in a 1945 Associated Press article:

Someone got weary of reading the honeyed accounts of America’s returning air warriors and wrote a parody account of the homecoming of such a gay, cocky, young flier that has half the European theater of operations in stitches. The pilots, themselves, think it is wonderful, because they think the acclaim that greets their exploits is sometimes false and foolish and smacks of mock heroics.

The newspaper article could only reprint what it called a “heavily censored” version of the routine, with apologies to the original anonymous author, “in whatever pub or opium den he lies dreaming.” The under-the-counter recording of the routine however, was free to unleash Lt. Rudder in all his gay, cocky glory.
The “Lt. Rudder” skit articulated soldiers’ ambivalent feelings about re-integrating into civilian life, where very different social rules held sway than in the homosocial context of the military. The record begins as an elaborate send-up of radio: following a fake commercial, we hear an earnest announcer declare that he is taking us to LaGuardia Airport for a special broadcast to welcome home Lt. Ronald Rudder, one of “America’s leading aces” overseas. Listen to the two sides of the record here:

The “Lt. Rudder” record mocks the platitudes and clichés of “false and foolish” accounts of male wartime experience – accounts that are associated both with feminized domestic life as well as broadcasting. Unlike radio and television, bawdy phonograph records such as “Lt. Rudder” and “In Hawaii” (a blue disc that dramatizes the adventures of two “lovable Marines” on leave in Honolulu), could present the rough, frank talk of soldiers, while also providing a means of virtual escape from a postwar domestic space increasingly devoted to family togetherness.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Doing the Bard

American improvisation comedy is typically traced to Chicago’s Compass Theater, formed by David Shepherd and Paul Sills in 1955. The Compass encouraged an interactive and spontaneous relationship between performer and audience akin to European cabaret. The two most famous practitioners of the Compass school of improv were known to the American public in large part though LP records: Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Nichols and May were not the first Compass graduates to find success in the record business. Shelley Berman got his start as an entertainer at the Compass, where he was often teamed up with Nichols and May. Berman set out on his own as a stand-up comedian, and his much-imitated telephone monologues were part of an act that helped to invent what is now called “observational” comedy. Berman’s LPs, which were soon followed up the charts by the albums of Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart, marked the beginning of the comedy LP’s economic and cultural renaissance and helped to tip the industry balance toward the LP market.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May also began at the Compass, and like Berman, set out on their own in the late 1950s. An important break came when they appeared on the television show “Omnibus” in 1958, doing skits that they had developed on stage at the Compass. Though it was a television appearance that rocketed them to celebrity, the duo maintained a low profile on television even at the peak of their success, putting their creative energy instead into stage shows, radio appearances, and the release of chart-topping LPs. Not only did they concentrate on other media forms, but Nichols and May were known for a somewhat critical stance towards TV, and even turned down potentially lucrative network development deals. When they appeared at the Emmy Awards in 1959, May praised the men who “year in, year out,” were “quietly producing garbage.” Nichols played the winner of the “Total Mediocrity” award, and assured viewers that “no matter what suggestions the sponsors make, I take them”. The popular team was scheduled for a return performance at the 1960 Emmy Award show, but the sponsor, Proctor and Gamble, rejected their sketch just hours before the broadcast, and Nichols and May refused to replace the censored bit with old material. The sketch was to have featured Nichols presenting May with the “David Susskind award for contributing to the maturity and dignity of television.” After vigorously denying charges that television was controlled by advertisers, May was to remove a wig and make a plug for a home-permanent application. NBC and Proctor and Gamble found the bit to be “inappropriate,” particularly as it was to be immediately followed by an ad for the sponsor’s Lilt home-permanent.
Similar barbs at TV sponsorship can be found on a “Monitor” sketch called “Doing the Bard,” on which we hear Nichols recite a soliloquy from Hamlet until he is interrupted by May, who plays the representative of a beer company sponsoring the production.

Critiques of network sponsorship like the one found here, and their well-publicized experiences with the Emmy Awards show how comedy LPs could function in the 1960s and ‘70s as a potent medium for television criticism.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Cinderella, and A Trip to the Circus

It can be argued that the history of the children’s phonograph record begins with the history of recorded sound itself, since the oft-repeated “creation story” of the phonograph has Thomas Edison reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his tinfoil recording device. Phonograph historian Patrick Feaster has suggested that this heart-warming anecdote is quite probably a re-write of history: given Edison’s penchant for salty humor, the first test was likely to have been quite different. Nonetheless, from the very beginning, the phonograph was cast as a device with a certain affinity for children’s entertainment. In fact, one of Edison’s earliest intended uses for recorded sound was to make children’s dolls that could speak. In 1890, Edison outfitted his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory as a production line for dolls containing tiny phonograph players. The dolls did not sell well, and the company folded in 1891, by which time the market for entertainment phonograph cylinders had begun to take off. Though the phonograph would not speak to American children through dolls, the major phonograph companies actively marketed their wares to children as early as the 1890s and 1900s.
“Juvenile records” were made by performers such as pioneer recording artist Len Spencer. On his Columbia 1899 recording of “Cinderella,” we hear Spencer say, “Now children, draw your little chairs near the Graphophone Grand, and Uncle John will tell you the story of Cinderella and the glass slipper.” At the end of the tale, Spencer says, “there now, wasn’t that a nice story? Run off to bed now little ones, kiss Uncle John ‘good night.’”

Gilbert Girard was the premiere vocal mimic of the early phonograph industry, and frequently applied his talents to making records for children. On titles such as “A Trip to the Circus” (Victor 1901) and “Auction Sale of a Bird and Animal Store” (Edison 1902), Girard and Len Spencer presented animal mimicry, auctioneer performance, and broad jokes: a range of offerings that could appeal to both children and adults. “A Trip to the Circus” (Victor 1901) is introduced as a “descriptive selection for the little folks,” and then we hear Spencer announce, “Now children, hold tight to my hand, and don’t get too near to the animals.” “Oh, see the elephants,” Spencer declares, and Girard provides a loud trumpeting sound.

We tend to think of the widespread introduction of television as the turning point in the marketing of media products to children because of the way in which it allowed advertisers a more direct link to children. But these records indicate, along with other recent scholarship on the history of children’s consumer culture, that children were seen as an important part of home media consumption decades before Disney, television, and even radio.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Flogging Scene From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Crushed Tragedian

Early phonograph records are a wonderful resource for understanding the acting styles of the turn of the century. Acting on the English and American stage before the late nineteenth century has frequently been described as featuring a “presentational” style with formulaic poses and gestures that were tied to specific expressive meanings. As the actor’s body was ostentatiously displayed in codified expressions, so too was the voice. Voice instructional manuals from the 1890s charted out connections between specific pitches and timbres of the voice and their meanings on the stage. In one manual from 1891, we are told that a “Bright” tone of voice relates to “Cheerfulness or Vitality,” a “Pure” voice to “Beauty,” and a “Gutteral” voice to “Hatred”. Performances found on some phonograph recordings from the turn of the twentieth century provide examples of how a voice trained in this manner might have sounded. Consider two recordings featuring Len Spencer, one of the most prolific phonograph artists in the 1890s and 1900s. A remarkably versatile performer, Spencer recorded comic skits, songs, as well as famous speeches and dramatic scenes. An example of that last category can be heard on Spencer’s “Flogging Scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Edison 1904), which also features a stark contrast between a “pure” and “gutteral” vocal style. The record begins with Tom’s low, rich voice slowly intoning, “I’ve come at last to the veil of shadows. My heart sinks and the tears roll from my poor old eyes.” Spencer then quickly shifts to a high-pitched, raspy sneer for the cruel overseer, who tells Tom, “Quit that howlin’. So you’ve made up your mind to run away, huh?” For the rest of the record, Spencer alternates between these two characters and their starkly defined vocal styles.

Spencer’s vocal performance of each character is steady and consistent: the patterns of the voice do not so much adapt themselves to the meaning of particular lines, as represent the unwavering moral nature of the characters. One might even say that, in some regards, the lines become superfluous, or, as Simon Frith has stated in regard to the singing of popular music, the words function primarily as the “signs of a voice.”
By the turn of the century, this presentational approach to acting was in the process of being eclipsed by a more modern style and vocal training was one of the primary ways in which a shift in the acting styles of the late nineteenth century was understood. The new representational style of acting featured an attempt at a more “natural” style with fewer gestures, posturing and raised voices. The kind of vocal training outlined above would have been inappropriate for the psychological, drawing-room dramas coming into vogue at this time. Another record featuring Len Spencer can illustrate that the conventions of the stage voice were becoming outmoded by the early teens. Some of Spencer’s most famous work was done in conjunction with Ada Jones, one of the first female recording stars. In “The Crushed Tragedian” (Edison 1911) Spencer plays a pompous actor named Richard Chatterton who encounters a street-smart city girl played by Jones.

The girl’s distinction between acting on the stage and in films nicely demonstrates how the status of motion picture performers at this time was unclear. Chatterton becomes a laughable figure to the extent that he has fallen in love with his own voice, as can be heard by his extravagantly rolled r’s and grandiose tones. Those affectations are thrown into stark relief by Jones’ comparatively natural Bowery dialect. This record suggests that the vocal conventions of the histrionic stage were becoming all too audible as conventions to many listeners: a stylistic shift in which new media like cinema and the phonograph were playing an important role.

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Last Laugh

Many recordings of prank phone calls hinge on the pleasures of impersonation. The telephone allowed the user into spaces and interactions that could or would not be broached in person. Even though people make most of their calls within the neighborhood in which they live, there still exists in the telephone the potential to transcend spatial boundaries within towns and neighborhoods and to interact with those who live “across the tracks.” That is, the phone can be used to infiltrate the spaces of economic or ethnic “Others.” The ability to cross social boundaries is taken up by phone pranksters who infiltrate the homes of people whose ethnicity, race or class might typically have prevented a face-to-face interaction. The infiltration of space on prank calls is often achieved through the vocal impersonation of ethnic, racial and class types. Impersonation was relatively easy to achieve on the telephone, a context where signs of class and background that would be obvious in face-to-face exchanges were, in Carolyn Marvin’s words, “disturbingly invisible.”
One prankster who utilizes gender impersonation is Brother Russell, whose victims are the hosts of ultra-conservative Christian radio call-in shows. Russell often impersonates an elderly Christian woman, and on a call titled “The Last Laugh,” he poses as an elderly woman named Emily and asks for a prayer for “her” wayward nephew. After the prayer is performed over the radio, she and the radio preacher exchange bursts of ecstatic laughter. The title of the track becomes clear when, just as the stirring background music swells, Emily’s laughter becomes both maniacal and clearly male.

Brother Russell subtly reveals his act of impersonation and the depth with which he was able to infiltrate the show’s religious proceedings. The call features a remarkable vocal “sleight of hand” when the impersonation is suddenly revealed. The sound-only environment of the telephone allows for this stunning technique, a performance somewhere between quick-change slapstick comedy and the digital morphing of 1990s cinema.
The play with morphing flexible identities through vocal performance suggests how telephone interaction might be compared to other recent media practices. Scholars writing about new digital media have often described how identity can become fluid and flexible in the virtual space of the Internet. Much of the academic analysis of race and gender on the Internet has stressed the virtual, fragmented nature of online identity. Examples of prank and obscene phone calling reveal how a similar flexibility existed in the virtual space of telephone talk. But race tends to assert its presence on the Internet nonetheless, in the language and graphic images users employ. Similarly, the fluidity of identity heard on prank calls is not used to eliminate social or racial hierarchies, but instead to bring them into even sharper focus.

Cohen ‘Phones For a ‘Phone

This is the first of two entries on recordings of prank phone calls: a fascinating amateur comedy entertainment based on secret recording.

Though anxieties about telephone misuse existed at the turn of the century, anonymous prank calling would have been difficult in an era of operator switchboards and party lines. During the first decades of the century, telephone service involved routing calls to a central office where the caller would speak to an operator who would manually connect the two parties. Operator switching made anonymous calling difficult if not impossible since the operator knew the source of any incoming call. Further, it was widely believed that operators eavesdropped on conversations. Operator switching would also have made evident the way in which the phone exchange represented a modern technological and social network or what Tom Gunning, in his analysis of how the telephone functions in the films of Fritz Lang, describes as a “technological web”.
A genre of popular phonograph records recorded in the first decades of the twentieth century illustrate some ways in which the social and technological network of the phone was experienced at this time. “Cohen on the Telephone” was a popular comedy skit that was recorded by numerous performers and record labels between 1910 and 1930. “Cohen” records are an example of the ethnic stereotyping typical of the Vaudeville stage and heard on much of the early output of the phonograph industry. Cohen is a Jewish immigrant whose comic monologs are motivated by telephone conversations in which he is unable to accomplish his goals, most often due to misunderstandings based on his thick European accent. On the majority of Cohen records, we hear only Cohen’s side of the conversation: a technique for motivating a comedic monolog employed more recently by performers such as Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart and Lily Tomlin. An interesting variation on that form can be heard on a record featuring Joe Hayman, a performer credited as the originator of the Cohen character. Note how, on “Cohen ‘Phones for a ‘Phone” (Columbia), we are presented with a more complex range of characters in order to suggest the “technological web” of the telephone network.

The expanded cast is used to represent the social network of the telephone as tangled, confusing, and overwhelming. We laugh at Cohen’s difficulty in navigating through a bureaucratic telephonic space where visual cues are absent and standards of social status and decorum become uncertain.
Cohen makes clear how not to behave on the telephone, demonstrating Jonathan Sterne’s assertion that “early telephone conversation was a learned skill,” and enacting a cautionary tale for an immigrant population struggling to learn the codes of modernity. But Cohen is not presented solely for ridicule: after all, he has the best lines and his sardonic wisecracks and asides work to forge a sense of camaraderie with the listener. Indeed, part of the popularity of these sketches, presumably with immigrants very similar to the hapless Cohen, can be traced to the way in which Cohen’s failures can be due as much to the deficiencies of the telephone as to his inability to cope with modernity. Either way, the Cohen sketches demonstrate how telephone service with operator switching was experienced as an entry point to, and reflection of, larger social networks of the modern city: the phone is Cohen’s connection to his landlord, the phone company, the plumber, the health department, and the gas company. “Cohen ‘Phones for a ‘Phone” also illustrates another reason why anonymous calling would have been difficult at this time: party lines. One might never be sure when “some guy on the wire” might “butt in,” or simply listen in to a personal conversation. Cohen records represent telephonic space as a confusing urban grid as well as a crowded modern street.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Okeh Laughing Record

Besides Steve Porter’s “Laughing Spectator,” a lot of laughter can be heard on early phonograph records. One of the most successful examples was the “Okeh Laughing Record,” released in 1922. This recording did so well that it was quickly followed by two sequels called, not surprisingly, “The Second Laughing Record” and “The Okeh Laughing Dance Record.” In the most prevalent model of the laughing record genre, a recurring, elementary narrative frames the laughter. The record begins with a very solemn performance of a musical solo (often a horn or a vocal performance). The introductory music on these laughing records establishes a classical performance with a one-to-one relationship between the musical performer and a listener. This performance is then punctuated by a fluff of some kind, an audible (sometimes barely audible) mistake that interrupts the smooth flow of the musical solo. Immediately following the mistake, a woman is heard to break out laughing. As the recording develops, the musician nobly tries to continue the instrumental solo, but the laughter of the woman in the audience proves so unsettling and infectious that the performer “cracks up” as well, revealing his identity as a man. What follows for the rest of the record are waves of laughter from both the man and woman, each one’s guffaws stimulating and encouraging the other’s, interspersed by short-lived attempts by the man to return to his performance.

The main purpose of these recordings seems to have been the incitation of the listener’s infectious laughter, a project in which they were successful far beyond the scope of their local cultural origins. Early gramophone producer F.W. Gaisberg wrote that Burt Sheppard’s “Laughing Record” was “world famous,” and had sold “over half a million in India alone.” He provides this brief description of its reception: “In the bazaars of India I have seen dozens of natives seated on their haunches round a gramophone, rocking with laughter, whilst playing Sheppard’s laughing record.” It seems to me that laughing records helped to ease anxieties about a potentially disturbing new medium. Laughter served as a kind of suture between the rigid and the flexible, the social and the individual, the mechanical and the human. The incitation of infectious laughter in the listener would work to remove anxiety about interacting with a machine, making the phonographic apparatus appear more “human.” The ability of a mechanical recording to “crack up” helps it to emanate a sense of authentic presence and humanity. Laughing records, then, were important ways of establishing the credibility and authenticity of early recordings, alleviating the anxiety of hearing a disembodied, recorded voice.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Laughing Spectator

Hello, and welcome to this new blog: Vocal Tracks. Each post will include a sound recording and some of my comments on it. The first several entries will be recordings that are discussed in my book, VOCAL TRACKS: PERFORMANCE AND SOUND MEDIA (University of California Press 2008). After that, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on whatever wonders of the century of recorded sound have most recently captured my fancy. I’m starting out this month with the record that I use to begin my book: Steve Porter’s “The Laughing Spectator” from 1908. It’s a record that was released in only the second decade that sound recordings were mass-marketed for entertainment. Made at the dawn of an era of mass media, “The Laughing Spectator” demonstrates the remarkable versatility of the voice as an instrument of performance.

In the course of little more than two minutes, we have heard a spoken announcement, a comic dialogue, the laughter of an audience, and singing. Porter’s voice is more versatile than it might at first appear, since he is performing the parts of both Mac and Reilly. In this, Porter was part of a phonographic tradition in which performers would play multiple parts of a dramatic routine. Such an act often had to be specifically identified on record company promotional material to be fully appreciated, and the brief opening dialogue with the “Professor” (“Say, Mac, where’s your partner?”) is meant to cue the listener to appreciate the full dimensions of Porter’s vocal achievement. This is only one way in which performers took advantage of how the modern media separated them in time and space from their audiences. But of all the voices we hear, it is the performance of the laughing spectator himself that fascinates me. We hear an individual performer emerge from an anonymous, undifferentiated audience. As we recognize that goat-like laughter as a performance, the laughter of the crowd is made to seem “real,” even though the sounds of the audience are every bit as constructed a performance as the other sounds we hear. But the “The Laughing Spectator” can also illustrate how the sound media have gravitated toward the voice at the limits of language. Consider how the wordless vocalizing of the eponymous hero is able, through his unrestrained and unmistakable laughter, not only to distinguish himself from the rest of the audience, but eventually to join the performers onstage: the voice that functions as an index of the body in the throes of raw, unrestrained emotion upstages a comic performance built on wordplay. Modern media technologies have been adept at capturing expressions such as this, and in the process have redefined what counts as performance and allowed us to hear the voice in new ways.