April 07, 2008

Two Unusual Musical Career Paths From Two Centuries

Freezepop.jpgSetting up a MySpace page for your band is all well and good but to make the leap from the long tail to the short head, you still need a helpful leg-up. And if you don’t get it from the industry, the music press, mp3 blogs, or a massive groundswell of fans, what other options do you have? Well, how about getting a job as a music director for a video games company?

Back in 1999, Freezepop had just started out as an electro-pop outfit in Boston when one of their members, Kasson Crooker, signed on as a sound designer and composer at Harmonix, a games house devoted to vocal/instrumental “karaoke” games. In the years that followed, Harmonix released a series of well-received games of this sort and all the while, Crooker was there, inserting Freezepop songs into many of the projects he worked on. Then, in 2005, Harmonix (and Freezepop) hit serious paydirt with the outrageously successful Guitar Hero. As the franchise grew into a phenomenon, Freezepop became a band with a million fans who not only heard their music but played along with it.

(Ironically, this band - who became the catalyst for a million masturbatory guitar-god fantasies - contains no guitars and even revels in that most “unrock” bastard child of the guitar – the keytar…)

Here’s an 8-bit remix of Freezepop’s first video game outing – Science Genius Girl

Jewface.jpgIf you were an aspiring Jewish songwriter in New York in the first decade of the 20th Century, then your first port of call was vaudeville and this would invariably mean writing Jewish minstrel songs. Just like their “black” counterparts, these songs were parodic riffs on contemporary stereotypes of Jews. Unlike them though, they were written by Jewish songwriters for a Jewish audience. And they weren’t just a fringe activity – one of the greatest American songwriters of the early 20th century, Irving Berlin, started out penning songs like “Cohen Owes Me $97”, a minstrel ditty about a Jewish businessman on his deathbed who is obsessed about the money owed to him by one of his debtors.

In addition to providing amusement to a Jewish audience, these songs were popular with the gentiles who perceived them as pandering to their anti-Semitic tendencies. Probably for this reason, they remained largely concealed for much of the latter part of the 20th century and have only really come to light with the release of the Jewface compilation in 2006 (which jokingly refers to itself on its cover as “Perhaps The Most Offensive Album Ever Made”.) And here, from that album, is a 1908 tale of inter-racial love in the Wild West.

Edward Meeker – I’m A Yiddish Cowboy

Posted by Warren at 09:36 PM

March 29, 2008

The World's First Recorded Song

PhonoAutograph.jpgThis 10 second recording of a woman's voice buried beneath a blanket of static and distortion may not seem that momentous, but it is in fact the earliest piece of recorded music.

It was originally recorded back in 1860 by Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville using a device called the phonautograph that traced the soundwaves out on a piece of blackened paper. At the time, however, there was no way of playing back the recording. The fact that we can hear it now is thanks to the work of the First Sounds project who created a "virtual stylus" to translate Scott de Martinville's 148 year old etchings into sound.

The song that the woman is singing is Au Clair De La Lune. (via SMH & Metafilter)

Posted by Warren at 03:11 PM

February 28, 2008

People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs

People_Take_Warning.jpgLong before there was tabloid mass media (or indeed any mass media at all), the public taste for sensational tales of calamity and murderous iniquity was slaked by ballad writers who made a living by hawking the sheet music for their overwrought takes on these public tragedies.

In the early twentieth century, when gramophones became commonplace, these sheet music sales were supplemented by recordings and, in no time at all, the murder/disaster exploitation song became a mainstay of the recording industry; a position that it maintained well into the late 1930’s. (After that, its popularity waned as people gained greater access to more immediate sensationalism, courtesy of radio and newsreels.)

Although the genre could extend to any event that aroused public horror, sorrow or outrage, the ballad writers were most commonly inspired by train wrecks, floods, fires, boll weevils, murders of pregnant women by their lovers, and the sinking of Titanic… Or, at least, that’s impression one gets from People Take Warning, a comprehensive 3 disc survey of this once thriving genre that came out last year on Tompkins Square Records.

Musically, the collection traverses just about every “folk” genre that was being recorded in the States in the first three decades of the twentieth century – old-time, blues, country, Gospel, Cajun, and even a Yiddish lament (one of the half dozen songs devoted to the Titanic). And the treatment given to their uniformly grim subject matter is no less varied. Take the following three tracks as examples.

The first one is the aforementioned Titanic-inspired Yiddish lament, a wailing evocation of grief that’s almost visceral in its intensity. Contrast this with Barbecue Bob’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”, an unintentionally comic piece of disaster-ploitation in which Bob bemoans the fact that the Great 1927 Mississippi Flood has swept all the womenfolk away. As a result, he can’t find a “sweet mama” to “shake that thing with [him]”. (Historical note: Bob wasn’t even in Mississippi at the time of the flood. According to the liner notes, he was “more than likely in Georgia or New York”.)

Finally, there’s Bob Miller's ode to a 1930 Ohio Penitentiary Fire, which killed 322 inmates. Despite its apparent sincerity, the song is a complete (if entertaining) dog’s breakfast; which combines an incongruously jaunty melody with clunky doggerel, a mind-bogglingly overwrought vignette centred on a distraught mother identifying her son’s charred remains, and a final touchingly humanistic homily that reminds the listener that prisoners are people too.

El Mole Rachmim (Fur Titanik) - Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt
Mississippi Heavy Water Blues - Barbecue Bob Hicks
Ohio Prison Fire - Bob Miller

This wonderful collection comes with eloquent, deal-sealing liner notes from Tom Waits and can be purchased from all good online record emporia.

Posted by Warren at 10:30 PM

April 13, 2007

Watch 78Man Spin Quite A Few Discs...

78Man.jpgWhen 78man decided to make his vast collection of old 78’s available online, he came up with a rather novel way of doing it – instead of just posting mp3s of the audio, he pointed a video camera at his records while they played on his gramophone/phonograph and uploaded the resulting videos to YouTube.

So far, he's done this to 378 crackly old discs which were released between the 1900’s and 1950’s. The collection encompasses most of the major styles of the time – blues, ragtime, music hall and big-band swing, just to name a few – and even includes some genuine oddities such as a recording of nightingales from the garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison (more on that in an upcoming post), a guide to dancing to "Knees Up Mother Brown", and a couple of laughing records.
(via nickyskye of metafilter)

Posted by Warren at 08:23 PM

December 13, 2005

Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows

Medicine_Show.jpgIn the days before broadcast mass media, one of the few venues that gave ordinary working folk of rural America a chance to hear professional non-local musicians was the travelling medicine show. Although they only served as the entrée to the serious business of hawking dubious cure-alls, the musicians in these shows were often highly accomplished performers who worked in such diverse genres as folk, country, blues or minstrelry. (On the country side, for instance, such icons as Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams all cut their teeth performing on the medicine show circuit.)

And now, the work of these musicians has been compiled on Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937. As you might expect, the songs they performed were largely rollicking, good-time ditties designed to soften up the rubes for the arrival of the good Doctor and his miracle remedy. Here’s just a small sample of them:

The Gypsy by Emmett Miller & His Georgia Crackers
Miller was a blackface minstrel who worked during the final years of this offensive musical tradition. He has acquired a lasting fame, though, for his ability to fuse hillbilly music with jazz, and his recordings went on to influence artists like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. This track is one of his more whimsical outings, which basically consists of a comedy routine about a scamming spiritualist set to music.

Beans by Beans Hambone and El Morrow
This is a garbled reworking of a vaudeville standard in which the lyrics are forgotten and Hambone wanders off on a ramble about the omnipresence of beans, while some form of homemade guitar is plucked in the background.

Nobody’s Business If I Do by Tommie Bradley
Finally, here’s a 1932 version of the song that launched Bessie Smith’s career, which we played on the show on Friday. (Historical trivia: the song was written in 1922 by Porter Grainger, who was an open homosexual. Kind of gives a new resonance to lyrics like “If I dislike my lover / And leave her for another”.)

And there are another 45 tracks on this jam-packed compilation which comes complete with a highly informative 70 page booklet and can be purchased through Amazon or Forced Exposure.

Posted by Warren at 09:18 PM

November 15, 2004

Laughing And Crying Records

Presenting one of the more perplexing oddities from the early days of audio recording… These crackling old platters, which came out in the first decade of the twentieth century, begin unremarkably enough with an instrumental or vocal performance, but this is quickly drowned out by the sound of its audience of one erupting in hysterical laughter or tears

Just why these recordings were made, and what purpose they were meant to serve is a mystery. The Geocities site, where low quality Real Audio streams of these recordings are posted, speculates that they were early attempts at comedy records, but the emphasis is on the response rather than the "joke"… And what about the crying record?

Maybe that period was characterised by starchy parlour room gatherings where open and relaxed exchanges were only possible with help of emotionally histrionic ice-breaker recordings… We can only wonder...

Posted by Warren at 07:14 PM