The show that gave birth to satellite TV was the experimental Intelsat space transmission of Out of This World, 1965, live footage from across the globe featuring a Houston heart operation, a Barcelona bullfight, Russian soldiers singing & live words by Martin Luther King, Jr. & Pope Paul VI.
the revolution of elocution
spreading out & speaking up
The 20th century had a far-flung effect on the spreading of words. We dub this era "Sound Waves" for the enormous social currents generated by this hyper-sonic hundred years. It overlaps other word-ripe eras perched on our Genre Tree. Curious events, borderline obsessions & outright blunders gave shape to Sound Waves, and this inventive period in American spoken word history bloomed out of the strange buzz about electromagnetic energy.
In the mid 1800's (our Early Traditions era) Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of a wave-like ether. The brilliant mathematician Maxwell had already defined it in a theorem but the observation of it, the scientific proof of an invisible force was akin to discovering another dimension. The force was moving— it pulsed & permeated the air, passed through our bodies & in things all around! It undulated in waves—continuous & measurable— it was capable of conducting particles called electrons. This took inventors on a zigzag, spark-n-ticking journey of rolling trends & fantastic imaginings.
Visionaries brainstormed ideas for exploiting the ether. If it traveled in predictable cycles and energy initiated & sustained the motion… and sounds traveled in harmonic waves that produce a single frequency… sound could be isolated, manipulated, burned into soft materials & played back. Mid-air, it could be broken & released in a kind of spark-gap code. You could transmit signals (even vocal messages) along a wire! Possibilities were endless! Here comes progress. Here comes profit. The age of radio & recording was born.
In a flash, the patent office was swimming in a sea of newfangled machines. By the end of the 1800's (our Industriots era) the industrialized world was up to its ears in the electro-forced contraptions: the vibraphone, the telegraph, telegram, telephone, phonogram, gramophone, ah, & the phonograph, everybody wanted that. There were tele-typewriters, dictaphones, photophones & whaddaya do with that— an electro-motograph? There was a furious flap & flux about what to do next. Should we get more wired… or go wireless? And on & on & on it went.
While many historians recognize Nikola Tesla as a major visionary, inventor & promoter of wireless radio, Guglielmo Marconi (gee GLELL mo Mar CONE knee) ended up with the exclusive patent. We find rumors of dirty politicking in that story.
Whoever got rich or rooked, we thank all the pioneers of electro/radio technology so a broadly banded vocality was impressed on the soundscapes of today… and new media ripples into anyone's guess for Futurwurds. Today, we broadcast Spoken Word like the planting of seeds— we get behind the mic, expand the audience, travel the globe at the speed of light— our voices soar on wondrous currents of innovation.
Who was the first spoken word performer to broadcast on the newly discovered radio waves? Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. We know, funky name. But he was a colleague of the prolific inventor Thomas Edison, and Thomas called him "Fezzy", so we will too.
Fezzy was a weather station manager, a professor, inventor & brilliant electrical engineer. He had a crazy inkling to see radio go wireless & to reach an expansive audience in multiple locations & to spread it out in audible words! (Really, that Morse code tick-n-clatter was sooo slow & dispassionate.)
Fezzy went on the air Christmas Eve 1906 & again on New Year's. He broadcasted out of his weather station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. The performance was brief. But it was thoughtful & it was the first, so don't knock it. He played phonograph music, live violin (badly, he claimed) and dramatically read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke— "…on Earth peace to men of good will". He & Mrs. Fezzy, Helen, signed off with some improvised chatter wishing everyone a very merry x-mas.
Who was the audience for the first radio talent show? Well, let's just say no tickets had been sold to these astonished souls— the weather station masters that heard Fezzy's program— all along the coast reaching to Norfolk, Virginia, and, there were quite a few shipper-men out in the Atlantic (salty telegraph operators called "sparks") as far away as the West Indies. Imagine how they did spark! First, slumped at their stations in a melancholy stupor about having to sail away the holiday, then… music & voices! Whuz-zat?— angelic voices echoing in the headphones instead of Morse code!
People were familiar with voices over telephones in 1906, but those were connected with wires. Fezzy had gone wireless! (The first wireless cell phone?) More astounding, he used it for entertainment, a very cutting edge idea considering entertainment radio would not become commonplace until a few decades after the infamous "Fezzy Holiday Show"!
What took so long? First, the vacuum-tube had to be perfected, then, sorting out the frequencies. Some guys devised plans for jamming frequencies because you can't just let anyone go around tangling up the waves(!) but once the electronic parts were easy to snag, there were hundreds of amateur radio-heads. Patent questions… new laws needed … government committees had to outline a system for licensing. (And we all know how slooow those committees can be.)
It was all so costly. Was government going to pay like they were doing in Europe? Wouldn't that restrict programming? This was the land of free speech, after all; who would decide on appropriate content? Maybe radio could be "subscriber-only" (which was the first inkling of the idea behind today's cable networks). But how do you keep people from eavesdropping on channels? Is there an American aural aesthetic? Is commercial advertising okay? Isn't it patronizing to tell someone what brand of pickles to buy?
This is what finally played out: Four horsemen rode out on the air waves— AT&T, General Electric, Westinghouse & RCA— "the patent allies". They were confident someday they would trample smaller companies out of business. Didn't happen. The inventors' patents had fine print clauses to protect "amateurs". And, competition was fierce due to listener loyalty & patrons for the independent programs. Long live the public broadcast system we say!
U of W in Madison aired the first lengthy oratory on WHA in 1916 (though no one remembers who delivered it or what it was exactly). The first radio news program was broadcast out of Detroit in 1920 by unlicensed 8MK (today's WWJ). The first publicly targeted, licensed radio station is credited to KDKA Pittsburgh. The list goes on & on of radio stations laying claim to being the first to air this & the first to air that. But the crux of this bantering illustrates the radio free-for-all.
There was a recording boom, too, because the public loved having wide access to music, music, music & they didn't even mind a little jabber of words. The public soaked up the sounds, always primed for the next interesting auditory experience sooo…
Companies cranked out the products— records & players, radios & programs— anything that could spin was selling anything from soaps to boats. The recording industry used radio to promote performers; in turn, the artists did spots to promote the radio & their sponsors. Many spoken word-ers & musicians worked on-air for free at first, caught up in the glamour of this new medium. Over the coming decade, radio talent would expand from newscaster/hosts (who showcased classical musicians) to a variety of genres: commercial voice-overs, jingle-ers, soap opera stars, readers theatre actors, poets, sound FX artists, folk-tellers & joke-tellers.
Humor, yee-haw! People craved comedy as much as music. The huge market for comedy became apparent after the antics of a showman named Rudy Vallee. Initially, the typical 20's radio format was formal— symphonic music & dance orchestra stuff— and was sprinkled with praise-pattering about the sponsor. But band leader Rudy was manically energetic & terribly funny & put together a genius eclectic, folk-y program. Radio evolved into a kind of air-born Variety Theatre.
This change was a saving grace for stage performers that had been laid-off when vaudevillian theatres switched over to motion-picture houses. We guess it was just more fun for audiences to gape at glamour gods & goddesses on a magical screen than to feel pity for live-show actors who (in comparison) looked alluva-sudden paste-y & sometimes flubbed a line.
Radio gave new hope to the old spoken word-ers. Even during the worst of times (the Depression), they felt radio was at least something solid. All the world really was a stage, a platform of job security… all through the 30's & 40's.
One comedian who was able to coat-tail off Rudy Vallee's success was Eddie Cantor. He became the most famous, solo, American comic of early radio. He already had a long performance history in theatre & film, and he sold a mountain of phonograph records. The SpokenOak site names Eddie the absolute first multi-genre superstar. We see that his work developed conventions that instructed many comedians who followed.
Eddie's three biggies were using an in-studio audience to amplify authenticity, perfecting the straightman-stooge bantering & the running gag. The running gag is called a hook— the repetition of an absurd idea or a bumbling routine shows the audience an "inside joke", so they keep coming back to see if the joke is ever resolved.
We wonder if the suspenseful feature of the running gag may have birthed a whole new format for radio— serial programming. This is suspense-based drama which airs in continuing episodes. This idea kicked off with a show out of Chicago called Empire Builders (1929-31). It was gripping, extremely well-acted & made use of innovative sound FX played live in studio. It inspired a flurry of crime shows. Sherlock Holmes, The True Story Hour, Dr. Fu Manchu & others. We suppose these were the techno-shock & plot-thick CSI stories of the Depression era.
After syndicated shows became commonplace (shows that are pre-recorded & sold to other stations), the dominant program of the Depression years was hosted by flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The showcases were Oral Histories on the lives of World War I Medal of Honor winners. Here, the hook was the heart-wrenching sound of a soldier's own words— droning or choking back tears— young voices revealed miraculous tales of pain & valor.
The show that always gets mentioned as being representative of early radio is Amos & Andy, a long running, ever-evolving, serial drama/comedy. It extended even into the television format. Industry historians herald the "quality" of writing & performance and emphasize the fact that it reached tens of millions of households. But, conscious people today note the ugly racial epithets & stereotyping of African Americans. The shameful tone of the show garnering such widespread approval exposes the callous, commonplace bigotry rooted in America's history.
This is a good place to highlight the enormous responsibility a spoken word-er carries. There is power in the skillful use of language. Through content & style, every performer shares a stage "attitude" which contributes to the shaping of the social attitudes of listeners. This fact is controversial today when people discuss the impact of mass media on culture, especially youth. How powerful is Spoken Word? What is the meaning of free speech? Should there be a performance ethic?
Spoken word with images— moo-ooooving images— here is a major crest in our Sound Waves. The syncing of sound with photography— framing images, movement & light— this works magic on the mind. The invention of movies created an American obsession with film stars, but the birth of television, which is "movie-radio", was (& still is) more controversial. Probably because it was clear from the start that by the 40's & 50's television could become the hearth-fire of Everyperson's reality.
The convenience & illustrative beauty of TV appeals to most everyone, no matter what age, intellect, race or locale. It provides news, relaxation & a window into popular culture. It is the most loved & most hated electronic toy in America today. (Though, video games seem to be gaining ground.)
It wasn't hard to assimilate the new TV technology. It operated on existing radio frequencies & easily flowed into existing networks & business plans. The audience was ready-made— the old radio fans faithful to the familiar radio stars & shows that made a smooth transition into a glowing, pixel-face showcase.
It would seem that old-school radio was on the way out. But the migration of talent only tweaked the radio format back to a focus on music & chatter… and advertising. Mr. Ford saved radio, too, by stuffing them into the thousands of cars rolling out of Detroit on the way to every American driveway.
By the mid 50's there were 32 million TV sets being watched seven nights a week. Revenue for TV broadcast surpassed radio by $everal million & climbing. American icons were cranked out from spots on The Ed Sullivan Show. Stand-up comedy flourished. Westerns, soaps & cop shows were tops until the smash hit called the game show came along. That craze took off after Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren won a whopping $129,000 on the quiz show Twenty One. (Rigged, by the way.)
So, television was all about mainstream modern living. (Alternative, special interest cable & independent films would come along much later). So where were the alternative artists of the 40's & 50's? Jazz clubs & jukes were still the favorite haunts of "freaks" & the downtrodden, and a literary sub-culture was gelling at Columbia University, NY. (What is it with that school?) A few years before the game-y, trivia-packed professor found stardom, there were these off-beat poets, also brain-y guys, but they were pretty wild compared to Charlie Van D. It was 1943 and they found a darker game to play— the Beat Generation was underway.
The undergrads & cronies forming the core of the early Beats were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso & William Burroughs. Burroughs was the oldest, a Harvard-grad following some friends from Chicago… dumb friends, leading into an ordeal of jealousy, weirdness & murder… after that, the group preferred writing poetry, taking drugs & kicking around for existential enlightenment. Neil Cassidy (from Denver) joined them & became their psycho-cowboy mascot. (Rumor was he stole 500 cars before the age of 21 but read books rapaciously to ease his boredom.) There were women, too, artists, writers, friends, lovers; some became wives & mothers of little baby Beats.
So, contrary to the now dreary, eternally-sexist myth that The Beat Generation (the official name for this literary/philosophical movement) was exclusively a men's movement, it was not. The She Beats (our label) were writers & artists in their own right. The short list includes Edie Parker, Joyce Johnson, Ruth Weiss, Joan Vollmer-Adams, Eileen Kaufman, Hettie Cohen-Jones, Carolyn Robinson, Anne Waldman, Janine Pommy-Vega & the now often mentioned Diane DiPrima. We recognize they are the foremothers of the feminist circle poets who would come along later in the 60's & 70's.
The Beat Generation was largely centered in artist/writers colonies in Greenwich Village (NY), Venice West (Los Angeles) & North Beach (San Francisco). There were other hotspots, rarely mentioned today— Witchita, Kansas was a central hub, and jazz clubs in Chicago & campuses across the nation were the bloodbeat of this thriving cultural coup.
The philosophy was about visionary enlightenment, sometimes found in drug use & risk-taking equivalent to today's "jack-assing". The difference is, though it was about living the gritty street-life, there was a pride for & a focus on artistic sensibility & creating a new literary style. The writing was characterized by free-flowing stream of consciousness & an uninhibited use of language.
The San Franciscan rebel poets gained momentum over the Newyorkian group into the late 50's. Though the west coast had Beats, there were distinguishing characteristics that set them apart. Though still swimming in drug-use, the members were not so nihilistic. (Like reaching for the hash instead of the heroin.) This groovier movement was called The San Francisco Renaissance, which helps distinguish it from being just another camp of Beats. The accent can be placed on its longevity, for it flowed seamlessly into the next generation of 60's hippy-dom. Memorable names here are William Everson, Robin Blaser, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Spicer, Michael McClure, Madeline Gleason & particularly Kenneth Rexroth, whose home was a regular hangout for readings & philosophizing.
The spoken word experiments of the San Francisco Renaissance seeped into the American mainstream as "flower children" & the "Age of Aquarius" became powerful national symbols. West coast youth culture "happenings" & "sit-ins" came to epitomize the discontent over Vietnam & rampant government deception. Renaissance members who enjoyed wide-spread notoriety include the Grateful Dead, Sly Stone, Ken Keesey & the Zen-poet Gary Snyder who was the important poet who helped seed the concept of deep ecology into American consciousness.
The intellectually & emotionally-driven poetry about peace, solidarity & conscious living was reflected in a major folk music revival in the 60's. This was promoted in the sophisticated lyrics of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary… and the beat goes on…
Some common themes of the 60's counterculture were the rejection of middle-class values, the need for protest & the value of experimentation for achieving enlightenment. Transcendental attitudes translated to gurus, lots of gurus… lots of drug use, too. No one brought these two things, drugs & spiritualism, together so brilliantly (& we should say meglomaniacally) as Timothy Leary, the charismatic Harvard professor & leading spokesperson for Psychedelica and the LSD-laced lifestyle.
Timothy Leary was a brassy, talented orator. He has also been described as vain, mentally-damaged & self-aggrandizing. We believe he was all of these, but a brilliant showman no less. His life story reads like a thrilling, sleazy, out-of-control legend & it is up for debate whether he poisoned or empowered the generation with his mantra "turn on, tune in and drop out". Leary invented some of the first interactive video games in the 70's, but his most amazing stunt was dying online, which he espoused immortalized his spirit— wavering words & psilocybin nerves eternally interfaced with cyberspace!
Backing up to 1966, in the New York Bowery, Lower East Side Manhattan, another guru of sorts was drawing a crowd— Paul Blackburn organized the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. There was already a flowering coffeehouse poetry scene & though we imagine café readings were happening all across the country, Paul was determined to document his readers series. The line ups were impressive with Beats as well as members of other writers groups, like the New York School, Umbra, Deep Imagists, Patarealists & the experimental college poets called the Black Mountain poets.
Black Mountaineer Joel Oppenheimer later became the Project's first official director, turning The Project into the major east coast center for alternative poetry. Blackburn collected miles & miles of readings on tape and also held writing workshops (with Alice Notley & Bernadette Mayer) which were probably some of the first poet-run classes ever for wannabe poets. Here lay the roots to upcoming trends— circle poets, slams, def jams, the stand-up network, urban storytellers, performance poets, independent monologue actors— all, spoken word genres that would be open to non-academic newcomers. And, it is commonplace today for professional to hold after-show workshops for novice word-ers.
The final splash we take in Sound Waves involves a sudden flux of electronic sound. (Here we go again, experimenting with electrons.) By the mid 60's, rock-n-roll had evolved into rock. There were lots of genres of rock; the bass guitar-driven melodies fused well with different multi-ethnic sounds & rhythms. But all rock shared one predominate characteristic— a wall of sound— a fully spread-out background sound— something you could really hang some words on! Technology was changing things in the mixing room, too, which allowed words, content(!), to be mixed to the forefront. In 1968, the Moog synthesizer showed up & the wall bloomed into one big mosaic of heady sound & heady words.
Digital gear for recording evolved, so did stage electronics, making the 70's an exciting time for word-ers to go mixed & multi-mixed. Anyone willing to improvise, risk a little feedback, or take an unexpected high volt-ed shock became a performance artist. Experimentation with the newest sampling device, effects box or computer-interfaced keyboard became the trend for cutting edge word/sound artists.
Artists got monocular over finding technical solutions for their new toys. Some performances seemed overwhelming for most audiences, chaotic, incomprehensible, sensational, or over-done. The art world (including the underground) scrambled to inject some integrity back into the art. There needed to be some new direction, a philosophy, but what? Luckily, an art movement called FLUXUS (with European roots back to the 50's) stepped up. This would save the American audience from the empty multi-gadgetry gone out of control.
Avant-garde ideas (neo-avant-garde) came out of the American FLUXUS community. The movement resonated with many formally trained artists, musicians & writers. The late 60's & early 70's sound experiments of John Cage, Robert Wilson & Morton Feldman are in this category as are Elenor Antin's films, the "happenings" of Allison Knowles (performance-sound-text installations) & David Antin's talk-poems.
We find David's talk-poems most intriguing. These are provocative, quirky presentations combining the genres of lecture, stand-up comedy, storytelling & poetry. This format brought attention to the need for a new label, intermedia, which helped to describe (& therefore validate to the public) the confusing overlap & melding of interdisciplinary creations. Now technology could make "an assist" instead of "a mess". A cadre of solo (monologue style) performers using multi-media (video, music, sampled sound, movement, visual art) hit theatres across the country. These new artists were viewed as the reputable ones for they helped us recognize the value of creating art from clearly defined philosophies. We praise FLUXUS for saving us from our technically-enamored selves.
By the late 70's, after the re-routing of art, which was the re-wiring of media to live performance, something extremely significant was happening in the inner-city dancehalls. There was some energetic plundering & scratching going on. Black DJs were pulling in a lot of white college kids & MCs were hip-hopping a new way to play with rhythm & words. Some people wanted to mooove & Rap was about ready for the attack.
The new music & word/sound experiments found huge support with the electro-savvy youth culture of the 70's. They were the wired ones, the ones who opened channels into the 80's. The children of the computer age (our Postmodern era) were coming down the pike, and things were pretty well shored up when the PCs got bought up— a gargantuan wave of digital words was about to sweep the world.
|What came before Sound Waves?|
^^ New Release!
^^ NEW! by the famous "femelectual"