Day 5: Finding your focus

For homework, I asked you to focus on one recording and use your 4th blog post to start pulling out some important research and facts about your song, artist, or subject. However, when I looked earlier this afternoon only two people had done this. So let’s start by reviewing and extending what we did on Wednesday and build from this with some research strategies.

Finding your focus: an example

As you listen to and raise questions about your recordings, you’re also probably trying to imagine a particular focus for those 90-seconds. The homework should help you do that as I’m asking you to begin focusing in on a track and tell its story. How do you tell a story? Let me give an example.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself interested in recordings that have geographical connections, especially those that allow me to learn more the role New Jersey or Philadelphia played in the development of recording technologies. Hence, I used “New Jersey” and “Philadelphia” as search terms in The Great 78 Project, sorted the results by year, and saw that the earliest recording from my “Philadelphia” search was from 1896: “Star Light Star Bright” a song from Victor Herbert’s opera, Wizard of the Nile. 

Here’s the listing in Great 78:

Screen capture of Great 78 listing for “Star Light Star Bright”

I know nothing about opera, but the listing raised several questions.

  • First, I’ve heard variations of “Star Light Star Bright” in many other forms my whole life, through Disney, the obvious nursery rhyme, and perhaps my favorite Madonna chorus. So is this the first iteration of the music “Star Light Star Bright,” or were there others that came before it?
  • Who is JW Myers and why is the reviewer on this site, Spuzz, making fun of him?
  • Who is Victor Herbert and what is the significance of The Wizard of the Nile? What place does this song have in the work?
  • Spuzz also says that this is “another one of these songs you’re not sure why they chose the singer.” Was it common for singers like Myers to be recorded even though they weren’t very good?
  • Why was this recording made in Philadelphia on a Berliner disc? I know Berliner founded flat disc recordings, so what was happening with that technology in 1896?

So here’s what I found out based on an hour of research:

—According to the Wikipedia entry for “Star Light Star Bright” the song is considered an American nursery rhyme that originated in the late 19th century; although that’s when this recording was made, it’s hard to tell if this was merely reflecting that influence or the source of it.

—According to its Wikipedia entry, The Wizard of the Nile was considered a “burlesque operetta.” Not knowing what that means, I search for “burlesque” and get this definition: “A burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects.” Given this genre, perhaps JW Myers is singing that way on purpose, trying to sound ridiculous; if “the chorus becomes a laugh riot,” as Spuzz notes, that’s likely the whole point.

—Looking up the Wikipedia entry for Myers confirms: he was the most famous baritone at the time and recorded hundreds of times for big companies like Edison, Berliner, and Victor so one would assume he was deliberately chosen for this recording. Allmusic called him “probably the most important singer in the first decade of the American phonograph industry.” Indeed, they also go on to say that he was important because his voice was both excellent and powerful at a time when technologies made listening especially difficult.

—Here’s an interesting tidbit: he left those big companies to start his own in 1896. Although this recording was done that year, his company — the Globe Talking Machine Company — is not listed here. While Globe didn’t last, according to Allmusic Myers also tried his hand at starting another cylinder company in 1909: U.S. Everlasting Cylinder Company of Cleveland. Interestingly, he never recorded for them.

—As the listing notes, the music for this song was written by Victor Herbert’s The Wizard of the Nile, which was Herbert’s most famous Broadway musical according to The Opera Research Center. It debuted in November 1895 and running until February 1896 — closing roughly 2 months before this recording was made. Herbert is also known for composing the music for the musical Babes in Toyland, which Disney famous made into a film in the 1960s.

So far I two possibilities emerging from my script:

  1. I’m doing a story about JW Myers. And what’s interesting about him is that he is a successful artist turned failed entrepreneur. Perhaps there are other contemporary examples of this. Jay-Z and Tidal?
  2. I’m doing a story about “Star Light Star Bright” and what’s interesting about this song is its place in time in American folklore.

Using sources when soundwriting

As part of the final requirements for this module, you will create a brief bibliography — a list of sources you consulted when writing your script — which you will put in your IWA Google Docs folder. Still, when it comes to listening to research, there isn’t a convenient way to actually cite academic or “nonhuman” sources. Think about it: it would be awkward for speakers to spit out citations in the middle of every idea, and it would be frustrating for listeners to keep track of them.

For that reason, in part, it is important that you write using your language — not the language of your sources. Put another way, while the information that comes from sources like Wikipedia, Allmusic, or various websites help you focus on a story to tell, you have to write and create that story using your own words while still remaining faithful to the truth. How do you do that? Let’s look at an example.

  1. Read this snippet, taken from the first two ¶s from Allmusic entry for J.W. Myers:

Let’s say, then, that I wrote the following sentences from this source. Are these acceptable or problematic? How might you rewrite those that are problematic?

-Welsh baritone John W. Myers was probably the most important singer in the first decade of the American phonograph industry.

-In this clip, you can hear him sing “Star Light Star Bright,” from the burlesque opera The Wizard of the Nile, a popular comedy that ran on Broadway from November 1895 to February 1896.

-This song was recorded the following April, the same year Myers was starting his own runaway cylinder company, the Globe Talking Machine Company.

-It was likely he got involved in this venture knowing of the imminent breakup of North American, but Globe Talking Machine foundered soon after, well before Edison went into bankruptcy in 1897.


Homework for Day 6

  • Writing for the ear is really different from writing for the eye. Listen to this podcast from Howsound called “Sounding Like Yourself” to get a sense of what this means, and generate some principles for approaching your scriptwriting, and practice talking them out as you write the story.
  • WordPress Post #5: Write a 250-word script for your podcast that is attentive to the ear. Include a bibliography of all sources consulted at the bottom of your post. (By consulted I mean this: you might not cite them in the draft, but you definitely used them to better understand your recording. Please use MLA 8th edition.)