Plain talkin' orator Heuy "Kingfish" Long, never finished high school but cheated & fast-talked his way into peerless political power to improve social conditions for the poor. Rural radio (1920's to 30's) was instrumental for this rabble-rousing out-spoken worder. Rising to possible presidency, he was murdered; last words: "Don't let me die, I have so much to do!"
gettin' busy with the words
from re-action to re-creation
The spoken arts era we call "Industriots" occured during America's transition into the 20th century, so, the late 1800's up through the 1920's. This spoken arts era makes America analogous to a young oak tree growing under the strain of a whirlwind. Cataclysmic weather isn't necessarily bad for trees, though. This young oak twisting & bending in the gales of change only made it stronger. America took on a tough outer bark, strengthened its roots, stretched its limbs, and broadcasted thousands of acorns that seeded global assertion. The Industriots Era was a season that germinated the "American" national identity.
Artistic activity during this time gave shape to some new spoken art forms that would come to be seen as originally American. It is also a time when the importance of preserving some oral traditions would be paramount. We drolly name this era Industriots— "Indust" for industrialization and "riots" for the reactions & artistic innovations that sprung from social stratification & a rushing to modernization.
After the Civil War, America was focused on Reconstruction, a term used to describe the so-called rebuilding of the South. Ironically, it was the North that saw phenomenal growth as bankers, investors & railroad moguls built factories & formed some of the first monopolies. Corruption & abuses of civil rights soon riddled America. Laborers suffered horrendous conditions. Even mid-west farmers resented domination by the railroads and the last of the western wilderness became some city-slicker's real estate. The genocide or confinement of Native tribes was pretty well cinched up. Blacks were still being lynched in the South but in the North they were amassing into the great "Black City" called Harlem. Prohibition was a ridiculous cat & mouse game. Abuses of child labor & corporate pillaging would be brought to light by new progressive political parties. All this, and topped off by women demanding the vote (and that shirtwaist fashion wasn't going away with the ladies even smoking in public)! America fought two more bloody, bloody wars (the Spanish-American & WWI) which earned her the reputation of a world super-power. Population rising, urban crowding & the complexities of assimilating large numbers of European immigrants appeared ominous to the magnates of power. This eclectic influx of people (and subsequent exploitation of laborers) forced Anglo-Americans to examine the meaning of social justice. Public demonstrations (riots) would be measured in hefty numbers.
And if this wasn't enough for any average citizen(!)—being up to their ears in tumultuous, socio-political change— Americans were trying to absorb a string of one experimental, technological invention after another. The shift from muscle to steam power had already occurred, but now, a combustion engine? Automobiles were spooking horses right off the road… and two guys down in Kitty Hawk actually flew around in a heavier-than-air craft! Radio telegraphy & telephony (wired messages & wireless) were in development & electric lights were commonplace; wondrous methods for the recording of voice & music found a way into peoples' homes. (The magical glamour of radio drama & moving film was only being slowed by patent litigation, censor boards & disagreements around government control of the airwaves. And no one could agree about whether the public would tolerate those chatty radio spot commercials.
And speaking of resistance… Science was pushing the boundaries of reality. There were a lot of crazy, wavy ideas going around. So Hertz had found an "ether"… that's what Edison said, too, but changed his mind— call it radiation or radio waves then. Marconi got the best patent, but Tesla was still waiting for a go-ahead while working on a world wide web of transmission systems. And there was that fetish-ed Freud & dreamy Jung and that witty, fuzzy-headed atomizer named Albert Einstein! Atoms? Those are wavy, too?
Intellectuals & theologians had to scramble to reconcile spirituality with all the new scientific discoveries— people needed help reassessing the concept of reality and therefore, morality. Our focus here will show the Spoken Arts played a central role in shaping how people would cope with this period of culture shock. Spoken word artists put things into context.
Spoken word artists put ideas & feelings into words people could understand. Spoken Word artists used conventions of performance to convey the words. Great leaders throughout history have understood the importance of mastering Spoken Arts. The Spoken Arts can incite, inspire or provide comfort, and people just plain need entertainment. Entertainment gives personality to the voice— there's a real person behind those words, a person who is part of the community, who is a role model for the young, someone who is affirming the values of the group. Music, stories, poetry, drama— people constantly need & want new art to affirm their lives, especially when the world is changing fast. Real fast.
During the Industriots Era, American Spoken Arts gave character to a country ripping at the seams of contradiction & hypocrisy. Whether it was in the theatre, in a poets' circle, on a soapbox, in the jukes, or in the streets, artists were toastin' & freakin', reading out & shouting, lilting, chanting & ranting, churning & cooking up something special in a big melting pot of words. The art of Spoken Word— the deliberate crafting of a vocal message for an audience— served to fuse the national spirit. The Spoken Word helped to shape & balance two primary common values, two ideas which might have otherwise seemed contradictory— American Individualism and Freedom & Justice for All. What a concept! And word-ers have been esposing it ever since: Individual freedoms & oportunity are only really available (& protected) in reguard to a deep consideration for the greater good.
An amazing example of the power of words was demonstrated during the Civil War. To ease the pain & horror of battle, military surgeons resorted to mesmerizing their patients with hypnosis! War-torn soldiers only had the salve of a doctor's voice. This miraculous method of suggested healing was also used in WWI for shell-shock & post-traumatic stress but, by then, was generally viewed as ineffectual. This is because Sigmund Freud discounted the procedure as quackery. Apparently, Dr. Freud could not master a critical technique of hypnosis, the building of rapport with the patient (hmm, maybe it was that smelly cigar!), so he denounced all hypnotists to be charlatans. Freud's ideas became enormously popular with American doctors who would lead the world's Psychoanalytical Movement and who made sure Hypnotists were forced to either give up the practice or flee to the stage! Consequently, the mystical allure of hypnotism became one of the most popular Variety Theatre acts of the period.
Another connection between mysticism (spirituality) and the power of words can be found in the literary movement called Imagism (1910). Artists & writers from America, and from all over the world, congregated in the great cities of Europe (Paris, London, Vienna…) hoping to formulate a new artistic vision. They came with open minds, interested in eastern spirituality, the classics, anarchy… open to any ideology that had centered on a search for truth & valued simplicity of meaning. They hoped to put together an ideology of their own, one that could define a more modern art. The goal was to smash the old bourgeois boundaries they believed had choked the very essence out of art.
This exuberant time was a socio-cultural, political, spiritual & artistic movement called Modernism and Imagism was the first, organized, Anglo-American literary movement of Modernism. On this website, we call Imagism a "spoken" art because, though it was a published, literary form, the style paid close attention to the rhythm of language & the sound of words; particularly, it was (and still is) a choice literary style for reading aloud. Some renowned American Imagists are Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), John Gould Fletcher, William Carlos Williams. We can not forget the eccentric diva Mina Loy (who, actually, married into America). Other writers who were dramatically influenced by the Imagists include British-American T.S. Eliot and American Modernists such as Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane & ee cummings. (Most of these writers & poets are studied today in high school and college lit classes and they are popular choices for performance in Readers Theatre & a Speech Communications class called "Oral Interpretation").
Though the artistic excitement in Europe got interrupted by WWI (1914-18), the avant-garde spirit persisted. Chicago poet & magazine publisher Harriet Monroe had already been promoting the "new poetry" (Imagism) to American readers since before the European catastrophe. And, by the late 20's, radio broadcasting was finding thousands of listeners tuning-in to transmissions out of Detroit, Chicago, NY, Pittsburgh, Madison, San Jose… There was a need for literature conducive to being read aloud. It needed to be as direct & luminous as the magical medium on which it was to travel. The Imagist delivered this kind of spoken clarity! They became American idols of early radio; they were the first, massively popular rhyme-busters, the first reality-ripping, pop culture performance poets in America history!
Another spoken form was taking flight and it was drifting out of a rapidly growing African-American subculture— Jazz Poetry. Jazz music was already the heartbeat of Harlem in NY City. Harlem was a thriving social, intellectual and artistic mecca for Blacks migrating from the South. They were coming north in astonishing numbers because of the failing southern agri-business, because of discrimination & violence against rural Blacks and they were following the northern industrial boom. More importantly, there was an attractive rumor about a "Black capital" where the "Negro was in vogue" (Langston Hughes said, from his autobiography The Big Sea).
Many cities already supported a thriving jazzy nightlife left over from the speakeasy underground of Prohibition. There was a strong subculture with venues for dancing, "loose" morals & Black-White relations. But the huge migration to Harlem of Blacks (and many West Indians) in the 20's (numbering well into 200,000 by the 1930's) is what created the critical mass of political energy and artistic activity which became The Harlem Renaissance. This cannot be emphasized enough as being a massive and uniquely American political/artistic movement. The Harlem Renaissance was rooted in the desire of many citizens to achieve the visibility of a distinctly African-American heritage.
Jazz Poetry is long-lived then, and is a major spoken art associated with The Harlem Renaissance. It is most closely associated with the names of Langston Hughes & Carl Dunbar who both strove to create a Black voice easily distinguishable from White poets. Jazz Poetry is a collaboration between words & jazz music; it can also be poetry standing on its own but reflecting the rhythm, sound & improvisational nature of jazz music. This music-based form of spoken word performance was later revered & maintained by the counterculture poets of the Beat Generation (40's-50's) and wonderfully morphed into the hip-hop music & poetry slams of today.
Other spoken word genres rooted in ethnicity have been critical to the magnificent fruition of the American soundscape. War-torn Europe & the American promise of a better life fueled a huge migration of mixed culture into US & Canadian cities. The Immigrated Forms of American Spoken Arts are numerous; each tradition expresses a unique brand of storytelling, folk ballads, theatre & poetry. The Irish & Scots brought their twinkle-tongued lilting, Italians had Basque language tellers, Slavs & Germans were noted for their fantastical folklore & fairy tales.
Asians were not permitted to immigrate until after WWII, yet Haiku was incredibly popular in America as early as 1905 and was a huge inspiration to the Modernists & Imagists. The Asian-American Theatre we enjoy today preserves the ancient eastern forms of Noh, Kabuki & Kyogen, and after the Vietnam War, Asian Pacific Island talent (playwrights, actors, poets, directors) made the San Francisco Bay Area a thriving center of performance art. And there is a rich history of spoken arts (poets & plays) from a range of Hispanic cultures & the indigenous Telling Roots of Chicano history (Mexican Americans).
We praise the Industroits, the spoken word performers of a time when America was grinding & polishing itself new in the dust of growth & the riots of social change. We recognize many kinds of poets flourished during this time— Visionaries, Anarchists, Populists, Progressives, Imagists, Jazz Poets and Picket Line Poets. Many Yiddish language dramatists & poets are associated with the political & labor poets, for they were seen as ultimately intellectual, sentimental & "special interest" writers. But they were traditionalists, more accurately, maybe too "old school" for a progressive category; they were primarily concerned with keeping the ancient language alive.
However, there was a rogue group of young Yiddish language writers who were in keeping with the Imagists and, Oy veh!, they did stir a lot of controversy in the Jewish American community with the new, meditative style called D'Junge (the Young Ones). One of these bold writers was Halpern Leivick (author of the famous play Golem) recognized today as one of the most acclaimed Jewish playwrights in American history.
Inspired by D'Junge, a genre followed called Inzikist (Introspective) that gave a very personal tone to human suffering. Whether a poem, play, or novel, these works emphasized the natural rhythms of Yiddish speech and found free-verse to be the best style. Content is emotional, ballad-like and often makes use of a biting sense of humor while still being able to portray the horror of decimated villages, concentration camps & the insanity of Nazi ideology.
And so, we conclude: The American Spoken Arts is not limited to spoken English. And, the American Spoken Arts has origins in the rich oral traditions of Native American tellers but each of the immigrated forms also carries complex symbolic tales of the origins & histories of its people. Today, there are looming stacks of scratchy records & musty pamphlets that are packed with passionate labor slogans— archives of the Industriots— and there are thousands of oral history interviews & radio news programs showing great diversity of style, ideas & experiences. One thing that really rings out— audible words, honest, emotional & free are incredibly illuminating.
The next logical idea for the Industriots was to spread the word— "spread those acorns" we say on the SpokenOak website— broadcast. So radio technology expanded and Spoken Word became far-flung. The next Spoken Word era is called Sound Waves and addresses America's obsession with sound technology from the 1920's through the 60's.
|What came before Industriots?|