Task 3: Making stuff with digital archives

In the first two weeks of this module you learned how to use three examples of new media that help writers compose digitally: Audacity, SoundCoud, and WordPress. This week we begin to focus on how we might use new media to revisit old media — media that has been digitally and publicly archived — in order to publish our writing on the web through The Phono Project.

Monday, April 12: The Phono Project & Sound Beat

The idea for The Phono Project is modeled after Sound Beat, a 90-second radio program produced by Syracuse University and syndicated on NPR stations all over the world. Here’s an example of a typical show that wrote about Johnny Cash’s song “25 Minutes to Go.” Because I’ve been teaching with The Phono Project at Rowan for several semesters now, the site has published over 150 contributions from students like you!

Assignment: Look at some examples from my current and former students on The Phono Project site, some of which have been promoted by the Internet Archive. Some of my favorites are:

I’m Ready” by Muddy Waters (produced by Anthony Morton)
God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday (produced by Jenna)
Kickin’ the Gong Around” by Cab Calloway (produced by Connor Buckmaster)
That’s All” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (produced by Maddy Morris)

The Great 78 Project

The historical basis for The Phono Project is the 78 record. A “78” is shorthand for 78 rotations per minute (or r.p.m.) — the number of times the record spins around in 60 seconds. These are made from shellac and were commonly made in sizes of 12″ or 10″; they usually contain 3-4 minutes of sound per side.

Record formats are still described this way. Perhaps confusingly, a 45 rpm record plays the same amount of music as a 78. This seems impossible since it’s a smaller disk, but because it’s spun at a slower pace (45 rpm) it’s a wash. Your typical LP or long-playing record that you can buy on Amazon or Urban Outfitters (or at several great local shops in South Jersey & Philly) is 33 1/3 rpm.

Because it’s spun slower, it can hold half a common album (20-25 minutes) per side. CDs, as you might know, can hold 80 minutes on 5 inches, though these are different because they are played digitally.

Image result for 33 45 78

The 78 format was the first dominant format for popular music, used widely for 50 years — from the early 1900s through most of the 1950s. Here’s a Billboard article from 1952 about the beginning of the transition to vinyl which would be complete by 1959.

Exploring sound archives through The Great 78 Project

Each Phono Project post is made by researching and writing about a recording from history that reflects the writer’s interests, identities, or curiosities while also considering the needs of the publication. The digital archive you’ll be drawing from is called The Great 78 Project hosted by the Internet Archive. You’ll be first looking for a phonograph recording in this archive that has already been digitized by the large community of audiophiles out there on the web.

Assignment: Read about The Great 78 Project on The Verge and Philly.com (be sure to watch the George Blood video embedded in the article on how they digitize the 78s).

Searching and browsing: some starting points

An archive made up of only 78 rpm records means that if you are looking for a particular artist or musician, their work will only be in here is it was released prior to the 1960s. You won’t find any classic rock in this archive, but you will find the stuff that influenced it: especially the blues.

We want to find diamonds in the rough, not those artists or tracks everyone already knows about so before you get too attached to a particular recording please know up front that as the publisher I strongly prefer that we avoid artists or songs we’ve already covered on The Phono Project site, including:

  • repeated popular artists like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Paul Anka, etc.
  • songs like “You Are My Sunshine,” “Over the Rainbow,” or “White Christmas”
  • any other artist or recording we’ve already researched and shared — when in doubt, search the site!

But finding a rewarding recording to research and write about is complicated and takes a mix of strategies, both involving browsing and noticing, but also some specific searching moves that draw from the language above (production, instrumentation, etc.).

If you’re looking for something that speaks to your identity, background, or interests, there are also specific search strategies you should employ. These include:

  • Topics & subjects filter — not sure what you’re interested in? Take some time browsing the archive(s) until some terms or topics draw you in.
  • Views— finding information on more obscure tracks will be difficult, especially in such a short module. Consider choosing a recording that is somewhat well known. How do you know what’s popular? Look at the number of views.
  • Advanced Google Search commands — these steps allow you to be more precise in your searching. Often these commands apply to other sites, such as the archives you are searching.

Assignment: Use the strategies above to find some potential recordings from The Great 78 digital archive. But be absolutely sure to search the Phono Project site to make sure we have not researched that recording or artist before.

If you’re stuck, here’s a spreadsheet of recordings and genres that I’d love to see researched and added to The Phono Project. Note that I’ve recently added a bunch of songs that have something to do with our current crisis with the coronavirus (some of these are from YouTube since the Great 78 did not have those records digitized).

Wednesday, April 14: “Behind each disc lies a story”

As you listen to and raise questions about your recordings, you’re also probably trying to imagine a particular focus or a story for those 90-seconds. As Great 78 archivist and George Blood employee Liz Rosenberg notes in this blog post for Archive.org, “behind each disc lies a story—sometimes hidden, mostly forgotten with the passage of time, often magical.”

So how do you tell a story with research? Let me give an example.

I am really interested in recordings that have geographical connections, especially those that allow me to learn more about where I live. Hence, a few semester ago when I taught this 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.

Specific research strategies

Notice in the above search I mostly draw from Wikipedia and Allmusic in my research. However, the name of the artist is not the only language I should use as I search for possible trajectories for my script. I could also look via:

  • titles: the song, the opera the song was featured in, etc.
  • people other than the artist: it turns out Victor Herbert was actually a lot more important than JW Meyers.
  • the genre: “burlesque operetta” wasn’t something I knew about.
  • historical context or references: if the song lyrics or title refer to real events, it might be worth looking into that as well.
  • references and footnotes: any info in a Wikipedia entry is cited as a matter of policy so follow their sources to see if you can dig deeper.

As a writer clicking on links and following sources upstream, I am noticing information that repeats versus info that seems isolated or novel. My goal is to tell a story that not many people are aware of but that isn’t so obscure that I can’t find sources to verify if its true. I’m also trying to balance those goals with the Phono Project’s history. If the site has already written about JW Meyers or Victor Herbert, I’ll want to know how I can approach them differently — if at all.

Assignment: Take a moment to search different Wikipedia entries and Allmusic.com — and follow their sources — to see if you can find something new related to your recording (something you did not know previously).

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.

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.

Assignment: Using the info you found in the last activity, compose a sentence that summarizes or paraphrases it ethically. Share your original and paraphrase on this Google Doc.

Publish your research narrative

By now I hope you have listened to your recording several times and read different entries on Wikipedia about the composer, artist, group, genre, record label, etc. Perhaps you also listened to your recording multiple times and wrote down the lyrics or searched for them online. Perhaps you’ve also asked several questions, like

  • What is the genre of the recording? Is this a typical example of it?
  • Who is this artist? Did this person or group normally record/write this type of music?
  • Where were the performers in this stage of their careers (note the date of the recording)?
  • Were there notable circumstances or consequences surrounding this recording?
  • Do the lyrics tell a story about an event or historical figure?
  • Was this recording controversial in any way?

Assignment: Compose Post #3 on WordPress: a 500-700 word blog post that begins with your chosen recording embedded (directions below), discusses why you are focusing on this particular recording, some questions it raises, and preliminary research findings from the web.

This could include your questions and observations from listening to it, a summary of preliminary info finding from sites like Wikipedia, and possible directions for your script.

Of course, any sentences or phrases that are not yours should absolutely be in quotation marks.

Embedding sound files from The Great 78:

If you choose tracks from The Great 78 Project, you can embed them by clicking the share button (circled in red below):

Copy the top embed code (the one that says “iframe.”). Next, choose a new block in WordPress and make that block “shortcode.” Paste that code into your post and you should get something that looks like this: