Amoeblog

All-Female Bands of the Early 20th Century - Happy Women's History Month!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 12, 2012 02:43pm | Post a Comment


Female singers have been popular since ancient times. Earlier this year a tomb was discovered in Egypt housing the earthly remains of Nehmes Bastet, a singer who lived and died some 2,900 years ago -- around the time of Carthage's founding and that the Iron Age was making big waves in Central Europe. To date, she's the only known woman buried in the Valley of Kings who wasn't related to the royal families.

Nearly 3,000 years after her death, female singers were still undeniably popular. Although female musicians have long been celebrated in the rest of the world, in the west most were limited to either the piano or harp -- and strictly in a non-professional role -- until the dawn of the 20th Century.

An important development in all-female bands was Lee De Forest's invention of Phonofilms in 1919. Before then, a few early attempts at marrying music to short films were made with Kinetoscopes but were hampered by their short length of 22 seconds. Phonofilms, which were essentially music videos, were longer and often featured female musicians.

Predictably, many of these pioneers were apparently valued more for their looks and/or novelty than their cultural contributions but that, of course, isn't a reflection on their technical or artistic merits. It's just that, as Sherry Tucker's book Swing Shift (one of the few books on the subject) put it, the public "looks first and listens later."

*****

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Happy birthday Bronze Buckeroo - Herb Jeffries turns 98 today.

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 24, 2011 02:18pm | Post a Comment
HAPPY 98th


Today is the 98th birthday of actor/singer Herb Jeffries. Although not widely recognized today (especially among non-black audiences, during his heyday in the 1930s and '40s he was an enormously popular singer and the first black actor to star in Westerns. I'd probably know nothing of him except for my tenure in the Black Cinema section at Amoeba, where elderly gentleman regularly treated me to their reminiscences about a black singing cowboy they'd idolized as kids. 

 

Herber Jeffries was born September 24, 1913 in Detroit, Michigan to Afro-Sicilian pianist Umberto Balentino and his Irish-American wife, Mildred. He never knew his father and was raised by his single mother, who ran a boarding house. Although light-skinned and almost surely able to "pass," he identified as black and associated himself with Detroit's Howard Buntz Orchestra, which brought him a measure of local fame.

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The evolution of the music video, part I (1890s - 1940s)

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 14, 2009 02:56pm | Post a Comment
Video and the Radio Star

I think it's safe to say that many, if not most, people seem to assume that music videos began with the initial broadcast of MTV on August 1, 1981. That first video, the Buggles' excruciating "Video Killed the Radio Star," came out in 1979, so what were they singing about? Were the Buggles prophets or were there videos before MTV?


For a long time, there have been musical numbers both in film and on TV. And hundreds of people have probably seen the PBS documentary about Soundies, where Michael Feinstein suggests that "an amazing forty years before MTV made its debut came a revolution in sight and sound." Hacktually, the marriage of music, advertisement and visuals within discrete shorts is almost as old as film itself and this, part one of The evolution of the music video, actually ends with Soundies.  

*cue the Ken Burns music*

1890s - The Kinetoscope

   
William Dickson, a Kinetoscope and a Kinetoscope parlor

William K.L. Dickson, one of the most important pioneers of early film, was working on the Kinetoscope, which played short films matched sound recorded on wax cylinder to film. In what to me is the first music video (filmed around 1894), Dickson plays "Song of the Cabin Boy" on the fiddle whilst two dudes grind suggestively.

Watching the videos required a pair of earbuds and looking through a tiny contraption not unlike the viewer on Spock's 23rd century science station. Constrained by technical limitations to decidedly short durations of around 22 seconds, they were impractical for all musicians (with the exception of maybe Wire and Anal Cunt). Whilst some video purists now suggest that this is the way videos were meant to be seen, at a nickel per view ($1.28 adjusted for inflation), it wasn't appealing enough to make them profitable.



This one isn't that far removed from Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights."



1920s - Phonofilm & Vitaphone, Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, Visual Music and Photophones

  

After a long, enjoyable silence, something resembling the music video appeared, this time on the big screen in 1922 with Lee De Forest's Phonofilms. On April 15, 1923, he showed a program of phonofilms at New York's Rivoli Theater.








   

Warner Bros
got in on the action with their Vitaphone films, beginning in 1926. Recording the music onto discs instead of directly onto the film (as Phonofilm had), they may've represented a step backward in terms of technology. Artistically, however, they moved light years beyond their predecessor's darkened stages or curtain backdrops by situating their subjects in decorated sets.





   

Beginning in 1924, Fleischer Brothers began making Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes, which were, in addition to being precursors to music videos, were also precursors to karaoke. They were the first films to feature the "follow the bouncing ball" technique. In 1926, Phonofilm declared bankruptcy and the Fleischer's Red Seal followed. After joining forces with Paramount, the Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune was reborn as Screen Songs in 1929.






Visual Music

     

In 1928, Oskar Fischinger created a series of abstract films matched to music known as Studies and released through Electrola. In 1931, Universal purchased the distribution rights to Studie Nr. 5 and it was widely seen in theaters. The Wizard of Friedrichstraße made other movies that are, to me, amazing and seem to have no doubt influenced later musically-minded abstract filmmakers like Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage.

   

Dudley Murphy had gained some fame in 1924, co-directing (with Fernand Léger) the dadaist film Ballet Mécanique, with Man Ray as cinematographer. In 1929, using RCA's Photophone process, he made St. Louis Blues, a two reel film that added the concept of illustrative narratives to music films and was followed by Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy."




1930s - Seeing Sound

 

Mary Ellen Bute
was an experimental filmmaker from Houston who, beginning in 1934, began making what were billed as Seeing Sound. In many ways, they resembled and were no doubt influenced by Fischinger's Visual Music but used science and technology to determine the visuals.






1940s - Soundies

    

In 1939, the Mills Novelty Company invented a visual jukebox they called the Panoram. In 1940, they produced many "soundies" for the machines, which were usually found in bars and the like. Artistically, many had much higher production values than their antecessors in the 1920s.









Auroratone
Auroratones were created by British filmmaker Cecil Stokes for use in the treatment of mental disorders and featured pleasingly proto-psychedelic visuals often accompanying the music of Bing Crosby. 


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