Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Dear catnappers,

My first semester in college, in an effort to stymie all academic progress, one of my suitemates unveiled an aging Nintendo console along with a cache of video game cartridges. Mind you, this was 1999, at which point the original Nintendo—a not-very-sexy gray box—was decidedly outdated. It was hardly unusual, for instance, to walk into the common room and find a friend hunched over, blowing into console, then the cartridge, then the console, as though giving mouth to mouth, just to get the damn think working again. Despite these low-tech troubles, however, I think we all felt a nostalgic thrill playing games like Castlevania and Super Mario Bros, sort of like revisiting your old elementary school (“I can’t believe how small everything is!”) Most things I remember from early childhood tend towards the traumatic—my first visit to the hospital, my first day of summer camp—but I can vividly recall the marvel I felt the first time I saw someone play Nintendo. And still I don’t quite understand how that Duck Hunt gun works.

The Internet, of course, was practically invented for nostalgic pleasures like these. So it’s no surprise to find a wealth of Nintendo-related material online. For starters, there’s the Nintendo Game Archive where you can view screenshots of everything from A Boy and His Blob to Zombie Nation Samurai. You can even view the game boxes, like this one from Zelda II.

Even more evocatively, you can listen to music from countless Nintendo games at the Video Game Music Archive. Just listen to the victory music from Super Mario Bros and tell me your heart doesn’t race just a little bit.

Not all Nintendo touched turned to gold, of course. Long before the Wii, there was the power pad (Dance Aerobics anyone?) and, this ad reminds me, a robot that, as far as I remember, did nothing.  (YouTube’s Irate Gamer offers a more nuanced historical view on “R.O.B.” as he was known .) My mother and father deserve credit for buying us only the most basic system.

Before Nintendo, my brother and I did manage with another game system—our beloved Atari, which was, in its own way, groundbreaking. How groundbreaking you ask? Groundbreaking enough to warrant its own magazine, now digitized over at Atari Age. The graphics, needless to say, looked nothing like those pictured on this cover. But we were skilled in the art of imagination! And where else could you find answers to questions like these? “Dear Atari Club, I have learned that on Space Invaders if you hold down the reset button at the same time as the power switch is being turned on, your laser cannon will fire double. My question is, will this hurt either my space invaders cartridge or my Atari console unit?” (The answer: it would!) New York magazine on the other hand saw fit to ask this question, “Can Atari Stay Ahead of the Game?” (The answer: it couldn’t!)

Alas, I have left video gaming behind, but the memories linger on. And my hand-eye coordination is better than it might otherwise be.

Yours playfully,

Stephen

P.S. Check out videos from the Nintendo-“inspired” cartoon series Captain N the Game Master.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Dear iTunes addicts,

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Jack Hamilton, a fellow PhD student in Harvard’s American Civilization program. He is currently at work on his dissertation titled ‘Rubber Souls’: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, 1963-1971. Before coming to Harvard, Jack was a contributor to Rolling Stone and Paper, among other publications. You can catch him these days playing keys in the Abbie Barrett Band.

We have met dark days; the catalog of present horrors and dire morrows is so familiar there’s not even any point in running through it again. It may be a copout, but people will do almost anything now to escape from the pall. The (first) Age of Anxiety gave way to the clammy retreat of the Fifties, when every citizen kept a tight bomb shelter, then to the sense of massive change in the Sixties, but the passing of that agitated decade has brought a new Age of Implosion, yesterday’s iconoclastic war babies siphoned off en masse, stumbling and puking over each other at the festivals which were celebrations such a short time ago. Tying off their potentials and shooting them into the void in bleak rooms.

-Lester Bangs, “Bring Your Mother To the Gas Chamber”, CREEM, June/July 1972

It’s both thrilling and vaguely embarrassing that a renowned rock critic once opened a two-part(!) profile of this band with such an overheated cop of Ginsberg’s Howl, much as it’s both thrilling and vaguely embarrassing that, once upon a time, people wrote about rock and roll music this way in the first place.  But indeed they did, and a surprising number of them, as even a cursory journey through the tantalizing and frustratingly incomplete online archives of pioneering publications Crawdaddy! and CREEM reveals.

Established by Swarthmore College undergraduate Paul Williams in 1966, Crawdaddy! is widely considered to be the first American venue of serious rock and roll criticism.  Although the magazine existed well into the 1970s, its online archive is limited to 1966-1968, a sadly incomplete selection that nonetheless offers a glimpse into the unruly first steps of a significant cultural institution of the 1960s.

And what intriguing steps they were.  The first two years of Crawdaddy! feature names that would become storied in music criticism (Richard Meltzer), the music industry (Sandy Pearlman, producer of Blue Oyster Cult and the Clash), and, in at least one case, both (Jon Landau, who transitioned from Crawdaddy! to Rolling Stone to a gig as manager for an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen).  Perhaps the most eye-catching recurring byline from Crawdaddy!’s early years is that of Samuel Delany, the esteemed African-American science fiction writer who holds forth here on artists from Janis Joplin to Randy Newman, whom he favorably compares to Igor Stravinsky in the June 1968 issue.

While CREEM’s archive is even more sporadic than that of Crawdaddy!, the magazine’s pedigree among rock snobs is probably unmatched.  Audaciously declaring itself America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” and wielding its iconic, R. Crumb-illustrated “Boy Howdy!” logo, CREEM persevered from 1969 to 1989 and boasted many of rock criticism’s most storied names on its masthead: Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and of course Lester Bangs himself, who assumed editorial duties in the early 1970s.  CREEM spent its heyday as a sort of unruly, black-sheep stepbrother to Rolling Stone, the West Coast behemoth that was always three steps ahead in terms of money and publicity but could never quite shake its comparatively “establishment” reputation.  Much like the Stooges, the MC5 and other bands it championed, the Detroit-based CREEM wore its rust-belt chip on its shoulder with a bravado that might have been cloying if it weren’t so raucously fun.

Now, about those archives.  Crawdaddy!, as mentioned before, is sadly incomplete but wonderfully preserved, replete with page-scans of entire issues that allow for such nifty finds as a full-page advertisement for the debut album of a young Joni Mitchell only a few pages away from Delany’s encomium to Randy Newman.  The interface through which one views the scans is admittedly cumbersome, though not enough to deter the curious browser.  CREEM is even more selective about its online content and has declined to make page-scans available (excepting an impressive gallery of covers), but there are good reads to be had, and as traffic increases one hopes the online collection will as well.  It’s also worth mentioning that substantial portions of these and other publications are available at the predominantly subscription-based Rock’s Backpages resource, although RBP’s own collecting criteria are maddeningly opaque and their archives difficult to navigate.

It’s not a lot, but it’s a start, and while CREEM and Crawdaddy! may never enjoy the slickly-packaged, completist DVD-ROM treatment that Rolling Stone has recently received, to be able to peruse two of the more noteworthy theaters of late-20th century cultural criticism, even in severely abridged form, is a welcome experience. In closing, dear reader, and as a bookend to the opening of this post, I leave you with another piece of vintage Bangs, from a 1979 essay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.  It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.  It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie.  Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

While the charming effusiveness of Crawdaddy! and CREEM might occasionally make us embarrassed that people once wrote this way about rock and roll music, passages such as this should make us wish they still did.

Until we next say “Boy Howdy,”

Jack Hamilton

Read Full Post »

Dear seventh-inning stretchers,

With President Obama’s high and wide pitch, baseball season is officially upon us. So I turned to Matthew Mugmon to dig into the archive for signs of the pastime’s past. Matthew is a graduate student in music at Harvard, whose dissertation looks at the relationship between American modernism and the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. And when you’re done reading his musings about baseball, check out his recent guest post on Gershwin at Amusicology.

Warm weather, the smell of hot dogs and stale beer, the sound of summer songs blasting from car radios, and the sight of too many Jonathan Papelbon jerseys all make me think about one thing: baseball.  I’m the first to admit that it’s not a perfect sport.  Actually, let’s face it — baseball is about as interesting as NASCAR.  Nothing happens for 10 minutes, then the batter calls a timeout, then the infielders meet on the mound, then the manager calls the bullpen, then a kid runs out to get the relief pitcher’s jacket, then…  Maybe this is why baseball has so much ephemera.  We need a real way to pass the time while consuming America’s painfully boring “pastime.”

There’s no better way to get into the baseball mood than to think about what music you might hum to yourself while you’re at the game waiting for something to happen.  And so to get ready for the new season, I browsed the Baseball Sheet Music Archive, one of the digital collections of the Library of Congress’ online Performing Arts Encyclopedia.  Among other things, these scans from the late-19th and early-20th centuries shed light on an innocent time, an era when baseball moves hadn’t yet developed into a kind of crude code for specific kinds of sexual activity.  Take the song “Base Ball Game of Love” by Edith Barbier and Arthur Longbrake, whose cover is pictured.  After some corny lines that we might imagine A-Rod telling Cameron Diaz (“When first I gaz’d into your eyes, Your image made a home run to my heart,/ I tried to tag the feeling which into my heart was stealing,…”), things get racier to modern ears, especially with the chorus:

I was on first and you on second,

Cupid held the third base down,

He coax’d me to lead off and catch you,

But you saw me start I found;

And as we two reach’d third together,

Cupid gave me such a shove,

That we both slid for the home plate,

In our baseball game of love.

Nice.

And from the cover, Monroe Rosenfeld’s “I’m on the right side of the right girl at the right time and place,” would seem to have nothing to do with baseball.  But only a few seconds in, it starts to sound like a high-school cafeteria conversation:

I have been as far as Third Base,

That’s as far as I ever got;

It’s a Home Run this trip,

I’ll take care not to slip,

It means winning or losing a lot!

And that’s all before the chorus.

If music isn’t your thing, you can always chew gum during the next string of 30 foul balls.  And if you’re like I was as a young Baltimore Orioles fan, you got some of that sugar-coated, rock-hard gum in packs of baseball cards that you bought to make you forget that your heroes made absurd salaries for standing around spitting and doing other unsightly things with their bodies for three or more hours a day (except for Cal Ripken, Jr., the greatest player of all time).  As a kid, Senator Richard B. Russell had a similar idea, but his cards seem to have gotten him into smoking, not gum-chewing.  The late Georgia politician’s collection of American Tobacco Company cards from 1909-1911, “Forgotten Heroes of the Dead-Ball Era,” resides online at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Science at the University of Georgia.  (By the way, it’s called the “dead-ball era” because the games — believe it or not — were even less exciting than they are today.)

Here, I perked up my hometown spirit by searching for John McGraw, an early Orioles legend who shared a nickname with me: Mugsy.  As the archive’s section “It Aint’ Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught” notes, Mugsy — who in this card looks a bit like George W. Bush — “routinely cut inside bases, impeded baserunners by blocking them or pulling on their belts, and maddened umpires and the opposition with his short fuse and sharp tongue.”  Russell’s six McGraw cards depict Mugsy as manager of the New York Giants.  Mugsy’s antics as manager, we find out from the archive, apparently got him ejected 131 times.  If only Mugsy’d had access to the Library of Congress’ baseball sheet music collection, he could have sung “Let’s Get the Umpire’s Goat,” by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth.  Or maybe Mugsy secretly wrote the song.

Sadly, in the years of Russell’s collection, my Orioles were a minor league team.  The modern pro Orioles would migrate from St. Louis in 1954; the previous pro Orioles had moved to New York in 1903 and eventually became today’s New York Yankees.  I can’t imagine collecting minor-league cards, but it wasn’t so ridiculous in Russell’s day.  Aside from players on teams you’ve probably never heard of — like the Southern Association’s Nashville Volunteers — I found nine Orioles in the senator’s stockpile.  This includes Jack Dunn, shown here because it’s one of those unusual cards that shows the subject actually doing something baseball-related.  This guy ran the Orioles and was responsible for having sold the great Babe Ruth from the O’s to the Red Sox in 1914.  (For a nice account of this disaster, see Kal Wagenheim’s Babe Ruth, pp. 24-25).  So here’s to you, Jack, for starting an Orioles’ tradition — acquiring and then getting rid of good players.  The baseball sheet music collection has a few Babe Ruth songs, but you can bet Mr. Dunn never reached first base with any of them.

Baltimoronically yours,

Matthew Mugmon

Read Full Post »

Dear dawdlers,

Forgive this lazy scholar, returning after a prolonged sabbatical. Not that I have not been working, researching, and blogging, too—albeit on another site. (You can read some of those less lazy dispatches on Post-Post-Jew). I even watched the entire first season of Heroes. So you can tell, I have been productive. But I’m happier still to return to these pages and to you dear readers, for another semester of academic detective work, uncovering even more ways to get work done without leaving home.

Bringing education and entertainment to audiences where they lived was also a chief goal of the Circuit Chautauqua, the subject of today’s post. The University of Iowa library hosts Traveling Culture, an incredible collection of brochures and recordings from a local outpost of the Circuit Chautauqua, which brought performances and lectures to small towns around the country from 1904 to 1932. (Read a great introduction here). The digital collection is a remarkable window into American popular culture at the start of the twentieth century before movies and radio took off, ranging from a production of Les Miserables (decades before the musical) to Israel Zangwill’s Melting Pot.

And so many all-male quartets!

Be sure to listen to some of their 300 sound recordings, including bird impersonators, dialect comedians, and singing preachers. It’s a little like watching an episode of America’s Got Talent.

You can also read more about the origins of the circuit in The Chautauquan monthly magazine, digitized on Google.

Yours in pedagogy,

Stephen

Read Full Post »

Hanukkah Caroling

Dear holiday lovers,

In case you’ve lost track of your  candle-lighting, tonight’s the sixth night of Hanukkah—a.k.a. the Festival of Lights, a.k.a. the Jewish Christmas, a.k.a. an excuse to eat oily, fried foods. Hanukkah sometimes felt like a hard holiday to get into as a kid. I loved the eight days of presents and the chocolate coins, but I didn’t understand the whole Maccabees story and not-so-secretly coveted our neighbors’ Christmas tree. There was, of course, no Charlie Brown Hanukkah special, with a misshapen menorah in place of that scraggly bush. Even in my elementary school choir, we were forced to sing “We wish you a happy Hanukkah” to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas,” trading figgy pudding for potato latkes. Honestly.

Of course, Adam Sandler long ago called everyone’s attention to the derth of good Hanukkah tunes. Little did he know there was a veritable smorgasbord of Hanukkah songs just waiting to be sung poorly. Thanks to the wonderful Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, now you can listen to two albums of the 1950s Tell Me About Chanukah! and Hanukkah The Feast Of Lights. Check out their full listing of Hanukkah albums and their holiday mix. (Click the covers below to listen!)

Not to be outdone, the wonderful Idelsohn Society (your source for reissues of the Barry Sisters and offensive “Jewface” recordings) has their own Hanukkah mix, with tracks by Milton Berle and Woody Guthrie. You can see the full album listing here (scroll down…) and listen below.

And last but not least, don’t forget about Tom Lehrer’s kitschy classic, “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” sung here by Lehrer himself, here by Brandeis U’s Jewish Fella A Capella, and here by a glee club.

Yours in Hanukkah cheer,

Stephen

Read Full Post »

Dear searchers of lost time,

Some of you might know that I have an odd fascination with the state guide project commissioned by the WPA during the Great Depression—a series of guidebooks detailing the history, customs, and sights of each and every corner of the nation. The guidebooks vary widely in quality, yet they remain intriguing for me precisely because of their diversity, written at a moment before a national media fully took hold and initiated the long process of homogenizing American culture.

The effort to resurrect the state as a vital component of American identity is what has long charmed me about the singer Sufjan Steven’s 50 States Project—a half-joking vow to record an album of folksy, glockenspiel-rich songs for each state. So far he’s only gotten around to Michigan and Illinois, though some songs have touched down in New York and Arkansas.

But how did, and how does, the American state exist in popular imagination? In an effort to answer this question, I’d like to introduce a new ongoing feature of these dispatches: The Divided States of America. Many digital archives are, in fact, limited to individual states (as are many historical works), so it seems to make sense to identify some archives particularly useful to a scholar of, say, Wyoming. Plus  I’m curious to see whether Missouri ultimately has a different vibe than Utah. Consider it a road trip, without traffic or smelly rest stops.

Today, I’ll head south of Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. I’ve been there only a few times in my life—once to Philadelphia, once to Pittsburgh, once to Sesame Place (I was four!), and once to Scranton for a wedding (plus the thrill of The Office connection). Villanova University‘s library has a small but impressive “Pennsylvaniana” collection, including a book of Pennsylvania poetry. Here’s one verse you might not have learned in grade school: “Hail Pennsylvania!/Noble and strong,/ To thee with loyal hearts/We raise our song./Swelling to Heaven loud,/ Our praises ring;/ Hail Pennsylvania!/Of thee we sing.”

Or check out the delightful illustrations from the 1875 book, Philadelphia and Its Environs (here’s one image on the right). Or a portrait album published by Philadelphia’s own Puglistic Publishing Company.

Also be sure to visit the (somewhat clunky) Life in Western PA photography and film collection, including the Stephen Shore-ish shot to the left of a 1970s ice cream shop.

U. of Pittsburgh’s library also has some amazing digital collections including one of Pittsburgh Public Schools. Take a look at these two spectacular images: on the left, the 1969 Westinghouse High School Ninth Grade Fashion Show; on the right, a teaching moment at Kauffman’s department store in 1972 (click images for more info).

Forecast and Company - ED Mag Fashion Show at Kaufmann's

That’s all for today. Look for two holiday posts later this week!

Yours in local pride,

Stephen

Read Full Post »

Dear die-hard dilettantes,

Some of you know that I’m a teaching fellow this semester for a popular course at Harvard called, “Gender and Performance,” taught by the extraordinary Professor Robin Bernstein. This week’s all about Bertolt Brecht, an artist I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ever since my freshman year encounter with Mother Courage.

Lotte LenyaI’m a bigger fan of The Threepenny Opera, the operetta Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill in the late 1920s. You can get a taste with this clip from this 1966 TV broadcast of Lotte Lenya recreating her role as Pirate Jenny from the 1954 off-Broadway production, with a translation by one of my all-time favorite queer, Jewish socialists, Marc Blitzstein (you can hear songs from his Brecht-inspired Cradle Will Rock on the Internet Archive). Feel the alienation!

The Lenya clip comes from the spectacular website BlueGobo.com, which recovers videos of musicals from the 1930s to the present, as were broadcast to national audiences on the Tony Awards and other TV specials. Where else would you find a clip of the great Zero Mostel performing “If I Were a Rich Man” from Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof? Or any clip at all from their lesser-known Fiorello! about the rise of, yes, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

DeLariaTwo more favorites: Chita Rivera singing “All That Jazz” on Sammy Davis Jr.’s variety show (you’ve never seen jazz hands like these, people!). And lesbian comic Lea DeLaria performing “I Can Cook Too” from the underappreciated Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical On the Town.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, for now.

Musically yours,

Stephen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »