Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Tippy Toe Bubble Book

In 1914, Ralph Mayhew was working for Harper & Brothers on a children’s book of verse in which he planned to have “a child sitting blowing bubbles which ascended and burst into the little pictures and nursery rhymes.” Mayhew struck upon the idea of incorporating small phonograph records in his Bubble Book, and was eventually able to convince Harper & Brothers and Columbia Records to back him, with the first edition of the Bubble Books pressed in 1917. The first Bubble Book – which contained three single-sided 5 ½-inch records featuring musical versions of traditional children’s verses and an accompanying package with illustrations – met with immediate success, and subsequent editions were released through the early 1930s. The Bubble Books were the first book and record hybrids marketed to children, and so represent a pioneering instance of cross-media synergy between book publishing and the record industry. As we can hear on this example, the Bubble Books consisted of a repackaged oral tradition of children’s nursery rhymes and songs.

Forms of children’s entertainment like nursery rhymes were well-suited to the time limitations of early records: with only approximately four minutes of recording time per side, it was difficult to develop longer narrative forms. But nursery rhymes also helped to associate these mass-produced records with oral traditions of parenting. In fact, the rhetoric of Columbia’s ad campaigns connected Bubble Books to a timeless matrilineal oral tradition, and at the same time attempted to upstage that tradition by arguing for the supremacy of the modern media: records could stockpile and reproduce all the old familiar rhymes, and with accompanying pictures lovelier than anything available in the past. Further, while mothers were portrayed as the vehicle of a beloved tradition, ads imagined a future in which her role was replaced by the phonograph. Note how a 1918 ad in Ladies’ Home Journal presents “Tom the piper’s son,” who asked mothers, “Let me sing to your child…I’ve always wanted to tell those children of yours my story, and to sing them a song – and now at last I can do it.”
We find here the substitution of the phonograph for the mother’s voice and a tradition of oral nursery rhymes. Bubble Book ads were aimed at mothers as the “middle term” in the chain of family consumption, but implied that the phonograph could “cut out the middleman” between oral tradition and the child; the middleman being the mother, who was reminded of her parental responsibilities even as her role was threatened. Bubble Book ads took part in a larger tendency of advertising copy of this era to address feelings of regret at the loss of earlier traditions, and to offer consumer goods to assuage anxieties about the passage to a culture of mass consumption. Such ads suggested that the modern consumer could simultaneously enjoy both the modern and the traditional via the product, and so, in Roland Marchand’s words, civilization could be “redeemed.” Bubble Book ads claiming that traditional characters like “Tom the piper’s son” wanted to speak directly to children may have made their media products more innocuous to parents, but that rhetoric also reveals some of the underlying anxieties that parents were feeling concerning their children’s consumption of mass produced media. It was of course, the record companies and Harper & Brothers, not “Tom the piper’s son,” who were looking for new ways to speak directly to children.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The Clyde Beatty Show

Clyde Beatty was the most famous circus lion tamer of the 1930s. Beatty’s act showcased a particularly American style of animal training, one that depicted a suspenseful struggle between man and beast, and featured snarling animals, cracking whips, and pistols ablaze with blank cartridges. Beatty began his career with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, but it was national press coverage of his recovery from a lion bite in 1932 that elevated him to a new level of renown. By 1933 Beatty was famous enough to publish his memoirs and have them made into a Hollywood film entitled, The Big Cage, the success of which helped him to achieve a remarkable degree of celebrity: he graced the cover of Time Magazine in March 1937, and formed his own organization, the Cole Bros. – Clyde Beatty Circus, which opened the 1937 season at Madison Square Garden, something that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus had done every year since 1909. Even during the declining years of the American circus, Beatty maintained a long career that straddled the circus and the modern media: he appeared in feature films, film serials, and a radio drama series, “The Clyde Beatty Show” (1949-1950). Below you can here some excerpts from an episode of “The Clyde Beatty Show” called “Crisis on the Set,” which dramatizes Beatty’s trip to Hollywood to make a film of his act.

At several points in the narrative, the episode makes reference to problems faced by early twentieth century lion tamers who sought to make the transition from circus big cage to film studio: animals had trouble interacting with large film crews; it took hours to get the animals in position for the cameras; the glare of the lights and sudden flashes had the potential to disorient and agitate the animals; and early motion picture studios often had limited space. In addition to those challenges, there was a long-standing belief that animal training and acting were inherently incompatible since, if the trainer took on a role or outwardly changed his persona for even a moment, the animals might not recognize or obey him. This sonic depiction of Beatty’s act found here also indicates how the spectacle of the big cat act was equally balanced between sound and image: we hear the snarling of the animals, the crack of the whip, Beatty’s sharp commands, and the explosion of blank cartridges. In fact, the lion became a kind of quintessential test subject in the linking of sound and image in the form of one of the most iconic images in the history of film: the roaring lion on the MGM trademark. That iconic logo also stands as a succinct reminder of the extent to which the cinema “remediated” the spectacle and thrills of nineteenth century entertainments like the circus lion tamer.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Uncle Josh Buys a Victrola

In his phonographic “descriptive specialties,” Cal Stewart played the role of a gullible Yankee rube named Uncle Josh Weathersby from the fictional town of Pumpkin Center. Alongside Uncle Josh’s comical encounters with modernity in New York City, Stewart’s records also featured descriptions of everyday life in Pumpkin Center: a rural, northeastern town populated by a recurring cast of rustic characters. Stewart’s Pumpkin Center stories illustrate what Raymond Williams calls a knowable community: “a whole community, wholly knowable.” Williams argued that in literature, such a community was often set in the past, in a country village that was held up as an epitome of “direct relationships,” as opposed to the opacity of the city. When placed in their turn of the century context, we might say that Uncle Josh records addressed what Richard Terdiman has called the “memory crisis” of the modern era: listeners got a lesson in how to navigate the “newly disquieting lack of transparency” in a New York City bus or department store; and at the same time, were provided with a reassuring representation of a traditional society in which people carried “their pasts and meanings openly,” a past still tantalizingly knowable through the community of Pumpkin Center. Uncle Josh records are keyed at exactly the spot where past and present; modern and traditional; rural and urban intersect; and Stewart’s performances function to define those distinctions through the voice of the Yankee rube. Stewart’s records were pioneering responses to a crisis in memory caused by the dislocations of modernity, responses that took the form of products of the emerging memory industry. On “Uncle Josh buys a Victrola” (Victor 1919), our Yankee protagonist brings a new phonograph player to Pumpkin Center and “in less than no time” the entire town has gathered in his house to listen to it. Uncle Josh plays religious records for Deacon Witherspoon, opera for Hank Weaver, “Silver Threads Among the Gold” has “the womenfolk pretty nigh crying,” and later they play jazz records over the telephone to neighboring Hickory Corners. At one point, Uncle Josh plays a rather strange record to the assembled villagers.

This depiction of Pumpkin Center convened around the phonograph, listening to records about themselves, is a striking moment of media reflexivity, as well as an early instance of product placement, but it is also emblematic of the modern media’s emergence as a central force in the forging of collective memory and identity. The knowable community of Pumpkin Center that had served as a reassuring embodiment of the past, now consumes itself in the form of a product of the “memory industries.”

Monday, 6 April 2009

New Years at Old Trinity

[Taken from a forthcoming article co-written with Patrick Feaster]

Film scholars have typically taken film editing as the primary gauge of measuring narrative expression in early cinema. Dramatic routines heard on early phonograph records reveal sonic analogues to some much-discussed cinematic editing techniques. In the case of the Haydn Quartet’s New Years at Old Trinity (Victor 1904), a group of young men are heard to gather outside a church in downtown New York City in the moments before midnight on New Year’s Eve. One of the men addresses the group: “Say boys, I’ve got a good story to tell you,” he says, “you know that Jones girl with the black eyes?” He is interrupted by one of his friends, who jokes, “who gave ’em to her?” The group laughs, and the conversation stops as we hear the sounds of revellers in the background. After a moment, a voice announces, “Hold on boys, the chimes are going to play.” We hear the sound of the church chimes, and the young man returns to his story. Before long, he is interrupted again, this time by an Irish policeman who says, “Move along there, don’t block up the sidewalk.” Later the men are narrowly missed by a passing car that hits a dog, and then by Columbia University students singing their school song. “Say, will you ever finish that story?” one of the men asks. The answer is no, as after the group sings “Auld Land Syne,” the record ends with the sound of the church clock striking twelve and the eruption of noisy celebration at the arrival of the New Year.

The young man’s never-finished story becomes a unifying narrative theme joining together disparate bits of ethnic humor and scenic interest, but note how the shifting back and forth between multiple scenes can be heard as a sonic analogue to crosscutting or parallel editing: editing which moves between simultaneous events in separated locales. The impression created by the intercalation of the young man’s storytelling and the various events surrounding and interrupting it is not so much that these events are unfolding in linear time as that they are different, virtually simultaneous events taking place in a larger contiguous space. Like crosscutting, the sonic narrative technique heard here provides a heightened sense of suspense, since it builds the listeners anticipation of hearing the end of the young man’s story, as well as the arrival of midnight. The richness and diversity of audio story-telling techniques heard on early recordings captured in a “single shot” suggests an over-reliance on editing as the guiding consideration for narrative development in the modern media. Phonograph records such as New Years at Old Trinity, Night Trip to Buffalo, Trip to the County Fair, and Muggsy’s Dream were developing their own complex and compelling narrative language for depicting multiple times and spaces, as well as various subjective states.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

1942 Lifebuoy radio ad

One day in the late 1930s, Gilbert H. Wright was shaving with an electric razor, when he noticed that “queer sounds came out of his mouth” when the razor passed over his Adam’s apple. He soon discovered that by silently articulating words with his mouth and lips, the sound of the razor was formed into speech. From this initial observation, Wright developed a device that he dubbed the Sonovox, whereby a sound recording was fed into two hand-held speakers that would be placed on each side of the throat. Whatever sounds were on the recording were transmitted to the larynx, so that they came out of the throat as if produced there, and could then be shaped into speech by articulating the desired words. Sounds could thus be made to speak, or as a 1939 Time magazine article put it: “a grunting pig, relayed through the human voice-box, can be made to observe: ‘It’s a wise pig who knows his own fodder.’” What practical applications could be found for Wright’s bizarre invention in the early 1940s?

The Sonovox found one of its most lucrative implementations in the field of radio advertising. Wright’s Sonovox made its broadcasting debut in September 1941, a time when the radio industry was debating the role of spot advertisements. A widespread radio advertising technique of that time was the musical jingle. Advertisers had learned from market research that the repetition provided by jingles was an important form of brand identification. The Sonovox was thought to provide some of the same sonic attributes and benefits, and Wright’s brother-in-law, James L. Free, who worked in radio advertising, actively shopped the Sonovox to the industry. The Sonovox’s distinction in the field of radio advertising, one article stated, was that it could “make a vacuum cleaner talk.” On radio ads of this time, Wright’s invention sometimes made musical instruments speak commercial messages: in a Shell ad, an organ said, “Stop at the sign of the Shell”; a Colgate ad featured a Novachord playing the tune of “Good Night, Ladies,” which was made to say, “V-E-L, my hands feel so soft and smooth with Vel. Vel swell, ladies.” The Sonovox also made objects speak: “pots and pans…sang that they just loved to be washed” in an advertisement for dish soap; a chugging locomotive became the words, “Bromo Seltzer”; and a car horn was made to say, “Better Buy Buick.” A 1942 radio spot for Lifebuoy soap begins with two long blasts of a foghorn.

Sonovox spot ads spurred the imagination of writers and advertisers who described a world of the not-so-distant future in which brand name goods would speak to consumers at every turn: one article gushed that a day would come “when sound will talk and sing on every side – not merely in the movies and on the air but all over the place, with bus horns proclaiming the name of the bus company, delivery trucks calling out their wares as they honk, and train whistles announcing the name of the train. Once it would have been regarded as exotic if milk trucks could moo. Thanks to Sonovox, they can now moo the name of the dairy.” Such fantasies may not have materialized, but Sonovox radio spots were certainly precursors to well-known animated television ads of the 1950s that depicted square-dancing Lucky Strike cigarettes, marching Rheingold beer bottles, and singing Muriel cigars. In his famous description of the commodity fetish, Karl Marx offered the image of a table that, as soon as it becomes a commodity, changes into a thing that “stands on its head, and evolves out of its brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.” The Sonovox seemed to provide commodities the chance not only to come to life, but to articulate some of those “grotesque ideas” directly to consumers.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Silent George(s)

Rudy Ray Moore, who just passed away last October, is best known for his starring role in the “Dolemite” blaxploitation films of the mid 1970s, but he first achieved media notoriety as the creator of a series of party records that featured recitations such as “The Great Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey.” Some of Moore’s records were re-makes of earlier under the counter “blue discs” or “party records”. Consider Moore and his collaborator Lady Reed’s version of a blue disc entitled “Silent George.” The source text of Moore and Reed’s adaptation was released anonymously on a 78 rpm record circa the 1930s, and begins with a man’s half-whispered voice.

“Silent George” stands out among pre-1950s blue discs because of its female narrator and breathless performance of passion. But equally notable is the record’s subsequent appearance in African American culture. Swing bandleader Lucky Millinder released a musical version in 1950, and Rudy Ray Moore’s version of “Silent George” was released on the album “The Rudy Ray Moore House Party Album, The Dirty Dozens, Vol. 1” (Cherry Red Records). Moore and Reed stick closely to the earlier version of “Silent George,” but Moore’s remake does more than duplicate the blue disc. Note that it is Moore in the role of Clotia, narrating the sexual action in an exaggerated falsetto voice: both an instance of female impersonation and vocal whiteface that “signifies” on white performance. Meanwhile, Lady Reed complicates the listener’s engagement with the interaction between George and Clotia by making sardonic comments as she secretly watches the amorous couple.

By simultaneously presenting a recording of a past era and Reed’s sly commentary on it, Moore’s “Silent George” feels a bit like an audio version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” But more than nostalgia or cynical irony, Moore and Reed’s performances send up mainstream white erotica, and by extension certain white sexual preoccupations. For example, blue discs typically only provide verbal descriptions of female bodies. Recall the introductory framing material on the blue disc version of “Silent George,” in which a male speaker colludes with the audience and asks that we visualize “a beautiful young girl.” Lady Reed’s commentary on “Silent George” displays an open and unabashed appreciation of the male body: it is Lady Reed who colludes with listeners and encourages us to visualize George. Where the blue disc of “Silent George” ends with Mary Jones’ calls for her “Daddy,” Moore and Reed’s record returns to the introductory narrative frame, as the two friends leave the lovemaking couple to walk back to the party. This framing narrative depicts a platonic male – female friendship that contrasts with the ridiculously empurpled George and Clotia, and so broadens the scope of the routine beyond the heterosexual couple. To put it another way, Moore and Reed’s revisions make us hear blue discs such as “Silent George” in a considerably whiter shade of blue – that is, they make us hear the white, middle-class origins of much “blue” material.