In 1947, my grandparents converted a room connected to their small home in downtown Richmond, Indiana, into a record shop. According to my grandmother, my grandfather—perhaps enamored with the family’s new “Airline” table model automatic phonograph (purchased from Montgomery Ward the year before)—somehow managed to persuade her, my great aunt Ina, and my great uncle Henry to embark on the venture. On May 12, 1947, the Monday after Mother’s Day, the Specialty Record Shop opened its doors. It would become the first black owned and operated retail establishment in the area to serve both black and white customers. (The store closed in 1980.)
Many years later, so many things strike me about this ambitious undertaking. Mostly, I realize that their actions were, particularly at that time, a very bold step across a profoundly demarcated color line in American life and music, even in Richmond, which was, with its Quaker history, somewhat more tolerant of African Americans. While Richmond’s public schools had been integrated by 1947, official segregation in the City of Richmond didn’t end until 1965. Long after my mother graduated from high school (1957), blacks and whites lived mostly separate lives—and listened to different music.
This seems especially true in the early days of the shop, although among the nearly 100 78 rpm, ten-inch breakable shellac records that comprised the store’s first inventory were records by Nat King Cole, who by 1947 had himself made it across the color line into popular music. For the week ending January 3, 1947, King Cole’s “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)” was among Billboard’s top ten “Honor Roll of Hits,” a tabulation of the most popular tunes in the nation. Other popular songs carried by the shop on opening day were Alvino Rey’s “Near You” and Tex Williams’s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).”
Specialty would come to distinguish itself from its five Richmond competitors by carrying all kinds of music and special ordering any sound a customer wanted: classical, country and western, bluegrass, jazz, R&B, spiritual, folk. Music that other stores didn’t stock, Specialty carried, and its inventory eventually included more than 400 different labels. White customers who listened to sounds outside of mainstream popular music of the day found a home at Specialty, but on occasion would still feel the need to discreetly whisper their requests for the latest country and western or bluegrass hit, as if embarrassed by their own musical tastes. Such was the climate in those early days.
.In the 1950s, the Specialty Record Shop, which had from its inception boasted the “Greatest Variety in Recordings,” was in its advertisements not only marketing all genres of music but also both white and black musicians. A November 24, 1954, advertisement, for example, promotes Specialty’s wide variety of “albums and single records of popular, children’s, classical, religious, western, rhythm and blues, and jazz.” And an earlier advertisement from May 19, 1954, for example, promotes Tommy Dorsey (“Little White Lies”), Artie Shaw (“Special Delivery Stomp”), Fats Waller (“Honeysuckle Rose”), Duke Ellington (“Solitude”), Jimmie Lunceford (“Jazznocracy”), and Coleman Hawkins (“Body and Soul”).
Still, what’s painfully clear from the majority of advertising during that time is that mainstream music of the day reflected “popular” (that is, white) tastes. While black teenagers like my mother listened to “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino, her white counterparts listened to “Ain’t That a Shame” by Pat Boone. On and on, two versions of records—black and white—and two audiences: Among black songs covered by white artists that my mother remembers from her youth (most certainly carried in my grandparents’ store in both incarnations) are “Fever” by Little Willie John and “Fever” by Peggy Lee, “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard and “Long Tall Sally” by Pat Boone, “Good Night, Irene” by Leadbelly and “Good Night, Irene” by the Weavers, and “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton and “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley.
The R & B sounds that my mother, Marilyn Kelley, favored in musical artists in the 1950s were the familiar sounds of (or “sepia” as it was called early on), gutbucket, and melisma—black musical sounds and pronunciation not acceptable to the parents of white teenagers (although white youth were of course becoming familiar with these sounds). Covers changed that sound and made popular rhythm and dance music acceptable to white parents while satisfying white teens and keeping them “inside the fold.” White people (and black people) regularly heard and saw Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee, Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, and other white performers on radio and television, as the record companies heavily promoted these artists and their versions of popular songs. Black performers, on the other hand, were much harder for black people (or everybody else, for that matter) to discover. In the Midwest you had to catch Randy, a white disc jockey out of Nashville, who played black performers’ records and sold them through mail order (see WLAC—Radio). My mother listened to Randy’s show from her bedroom nearly every Saturday night.
I had never heard of Little Willie John or his version of “Fever” until my mother mentioned it, but when I listened to his voice for the first time I immediately understood what compelled my parents as teenagers to desire this song, even without lots of radio play or the benefit of television. When I sent my mother a link to Gayle Wald‘s review of a book about the musician (Fever: Little Willie John: A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul), she remarked that as a young girl in the rural Midwest she knew not a single thing about him except for the sound of his voice on that one song, which has stuck in her memory all these years. Few people in rural America knew what budding black artists looked like in those days. For listeners like my mother it was all about sound because there was practically nothing else. Pure sound drove her to enjoy these artists and made her want to hear their music again and again.
Into this world jumped two ordinary black couples, moved by their own phonograph player and records to turn a space they had leased to a succession of black beauty parlor operators into a small storefront: Harold Kelley, my grandfather, a carpenter by training who tended as carefully to the foundations of the store as to its customers; my grandmother, Elizabeth, who handled the register and advertising; my great aunt Ina, who mostly worked behind the scenes as the bookkeeper; and my great uncle, Henry Bass, known among the family as “the promoter,” likely as much for his knowledge of music, particularly jazz, as for a habit of walking up and down the street talking to people (a young African-American man named John would join the four after first lingering in the shop as a customer, then helping as a volunteer, until finally becoming an invaluable employee in 1955.)
Benefiting first from their proximity to downtown at 611 South A Street, beneath a rose-colored neon sign, and later in the more spacious Main Street shop—with its “high fidelity” room in the basement—that I remember, the Kelleys and Basses managed to put several other record stores out of business, but more significantly they forged a small community—white and black—around music at the heyday of a vast industry and at one of the peaks of cultural segregation, which even now, so many decades later, seems like no small accomplishment.
Last year, my mother and I traveled to Richmond to visit both Specialty locations, maybe thinking that in all their metaphorical glory they would inspire us to write down what we remember. We went first to the storefront on Main Street, the place that I knew, and then to the small frame house on South A Street, the early shop and my mother’s childhood home. The drabness of the place knocked any hint of nostalgia out of both of us: The bushes and flowerbeds were gone, and the building looked cold and empty, slightly seedy, and a little miserable—these days no doubt valued more for the land it sits on than for the property itself. Thinking now of how my mother must have felt to see her childhood home diminished so mercilessly by time and progress still pains me.
She said then and I write with certainty now that it was more than it looked, which brings me back to what Specialty was, which must be something larger than what stands in our memories or I would not be writing this. It is difficult to attach particular significance to the place in a simple essay about music except to say that as with sound with Specialty meaning was everywhere, and as with music, Specialty reached everyone, at least in Richmond. Its soundproof booth, five-by-five feet square, drew high-fidelity enthusiasts to listen longer than perhaps should have been allowed. A single door connecting the store to my grandparents’ home, sometimes left open by chance, invited curiosity and even boldness from some customers who, stumbling upon the family’s dining room table with its treasure trove of uncataloged records may well have lingered too long in a private space but were never scolded or turned away. The record company representatives who, swept up in the excitement of Specialty’s open house in 1955, began helping customers buy any record, regardless of its label. Taken together, these shared experiences become a narrative of human experience as intricate and complicated as music itself, not so unlike the tapestry of sound that compelled my mother to listen to the magnetic voice of Little Willie John.
In the musical amalgam of today, it is at times difficult to imagine an America so rural, isolated, and segregated, at least in these particular ways. These days “black” music—that is, music by African-American performers—is likely more accepted by and certainly more fully integrated into mainstream America than is the black population itself. Virtual musical communities like turntable, Spotify, Grooveshark, and Pandora are as much growing purveyors of music as are iTunes and Amazon, the new corner record stores, and as such hold much promise for unprecedented global musical cross-pollination and exchange.
As we may rightly celebrate the cultural integration of more sounds into a larger and perhaps more democratic musical landscape, it is also appropriate to mourn the passing of brick and mortar record stores (and bookstores and libraries, too, I might add) like Specialty, as much for their fidelity as for the ephemeral things these spaces once contained: qualities that bring kinship and serendipity to human experience—sound, yes, but also light, smell, touch, and color, with all its complications.
Jacqueline Dowdell received a B.A. from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from Cornell University. She is a communications coordinator at Cornell Law School. Thanks to her mother’s memories, her grandmother’s meticulous archive of Specialty history, and a newfound enthusiasm for sound, she is working on a memoir about the Specialty Record Shop.
John Cage’s “Music of Changes,” which was composed using a random component from the iChing.
I perform and write music, normally acoustic, and usually for a single guitar, harmonica, and voice. I am traditional in my choice of instruments, they are basically “old” technology. On the other hand, I am also fascinated by the idea of robotics in music. The idea of artificial, autonomous music creators that work alongside human musicians. John Cage used the iChing to make choices about musical form in some of his compositions, including “Music of Changes” above, which has some of that flavor. It is music that is composed, not just performed, by a partially artificial means–by a non-human actor, the iChing.
In my work as an economist, I develop autonomous software programs that simulate economic actors in a process called agent-based modeling – the construction of independent pieces of software, which simulate real agents in the world, that interact and form patterns that transcend any single agent’s behavior. Recently I realized that agent-based modeling might be able to be applied to the construction of music: creating individual artificial decision makers which might together construct a piece of music that transcends what any one of them can do.
Think of a swarm of bees or a school of fish. Once biologists thought that schools of fish had a `leader fish,’ a single fish that would direct how the school would move. Biologists also once thought that the queen bee was the `leader’ of the hive, that it directed behavior of the bees in the hive. Both of these beliefs have been shown to be false. There is no leader in a school of fish. On the contrary, each fish responds to local information and then the co-ordination which arises on the school level emerges from this system of individual choices. The same with bees…the queen plays a part in the hive, like all the bees play parts, but there is no sense in which she directs the others. There is no bee that is in charge.
Here is a video of my colleague Hiroki Sayama’s `Swarm Chemistry’ in action. The specks you see on the screen are individual agents, dumb agents, who react to their environment, which is other local agents. There are no leaders here, there is only group behavior.
In this clip, you can see the swarms which emerge. The music is incidental in this clip; not a result of the swarm behavior.
I have begun an experiment in agent-based sonic composition with the idea of emergent behavior and agent-based modeling in mind. In this video I show my initial foray into this world:
The agents in this video are small triangles that seek a well, and eventually learn (sometimes more effectively, sometimes less effectively) where that well is. What I have done to add a sonic component is to assign each agent an instrument, and assign the agent’s proximity to the well to the pitch of the note they create.
“Random” sounds created by a computer are nothing new. And, frankly, I find them uninteresting. No depth, no humanity. But I think agent-based sonic composition might be something different. These agents are not simply random (although indeed, their behavior has something of a random component, or seemingly random component). They are goal-seeking, they are purposeful, and the sound they generate is a function of their effectiveness and path in pursuing that goal. I think this purposefulness can be heard in the sound the create. There certainly isn’t a melody, but there is a story being told, some kind of struggle being documented.
Swarms, too, are not simply random. Though swarms may be composed of elements have that have randomness in them, they are also structured. If Music is sound with structure, and complex systems is the study of emergent structure, there could be a genuinely interesting music that might emerge from a well-constructed agent-based approach to sonic composition.
I’m not convinced what I have is there yet. There are not interesting interactions between these agents, and there is not a structure to their sound that has depth – yet. Perhaps the next step is to tie the goals of the agents more explicitly to music making. Perhaps there can be melodic agent who moves on a predetermined path, and the other agents try to follow that agent, and hence the sound that comes out documents their struggle. Maybe the agents’ notes should be restricted to scales, so that it sounds less chromatic. Or, perhaps, as I suggest in the video, there can be some agents which control rhythm and others that control pitch.
To be clear: I wouldn’t just listen to this. I don’t know if I would call it “music” yet. But I think it may get there some day.
Andreas Duus Pape: is an economist and a musician. As an economist, he studies microeconomic theory and game theory—that is, the analysis of strategy and the construction of models to understand social phenomena—and the theory of individual choice, including how to forecast the behavior of agents who construct models of social phenomena. As a musician, he plays folk in the tradition of Dylan and Guthrie, blues in the tradition of Williamson and McTell, and country in the tradition of Nelson and Cash. He plays acoustic guitar, harmonica, and voice: although the technology of his musical production is a hundred years old, his ideas are often quite modern, and he covers songs as old as early last century and as recent as this one. Pape is also an assistant Professor in the department of Economics at Binghamton University, where he teaches microeconomic theory at the undergraduate and graduate level. He is a faculty member of the Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems (CoCo) Research Group: http://coco.binghamton.edu and considers complex systems and agent-based modeling to be central to his research
The podcast is (or, can be) an intimate performance venue on the internet because it allows you to whisper into the ears of your fans. It allows you to grow close to communities of listeners. And podcasts also do one last thing, to be revealed at the end of this piece, after we’ve seen how far I can take you. For now, I will quote podcasters I admire to help explain these ideas in their own words. I also quote these podcasters in an audio format. I have recorded this essay as an episode of the Sounding Out! podcast. You can listen right here, and I suggest you do. Go ahead, press play:
The podcast is what’s happening if you’re listening to these words. Are you? Because remember: my central claim is that a podcast is an intimate performance venue on the internet. Keep that in mind.
I am a podcaster, musician, and assistant professor of Economics. I have released six episodes of my own podcast, The Lion in Tweed.
My podcast is primarily a narrative, with music and sound effects interwoven. It is about a character, The Lion in Tweed, and his experiences as a musician and professor of economics. He is also a lion. The second half of each podcast episode is a references section where I cite my sources and leave the fictional Tweedoverse canon to discuss real things.
I am not the first podcaster to remark on the ability of podcasts to traffic in intimacy. Chris Hardwick, of the Nerdist podcast, has claimed that, due to their intimacy, podcasts are the best medium going. He stressed: “you’re talking directly into the ears of your listeners.” There is no doubt that Hardwick was referring to those white iPod earbuds, which are a primary method of listening to podcasts. Part of a podcast’s intimacy comes from the closeness of the earbud to the membrane in the ear. Listening to earbuds evokes the intimate, and physical, closeness of someone whispering in your ear. Hardwick’s style of podcast is also intimate: vocal storytelling, mostly three comedians talking about the funniest things that have happened recently. The fact that it is not visual accentuates the intimacy of “whispering in your ears.” Although I would like to argue that the visual always reduces a sense of intimacy, I may simply prefer the sonic over the visual. Nevertheless, I believe that, the intimacy to which Hardwick is refers, is tied to the fact it is only sonic.
Podcasts as performance have a strange kind of liveness, episode-to-episode interactivity. By this I mean that they are not immediate; they lack the urgency of a theater-goer’s applause, or a heckler’s retort. Though not immediate, they are still dynamic, with their episodic pacing. And, unlike heckling, almost completely positive. This sense of long-term interactivity provides a foundation for understanding a second way that podcasts are intimate: they can cultivate intimate and interconnected communities of listeners.
They [Stop Podcasting Yourself, hosted by Graham Clark and Dave Shumka] have a really good community of people, community interaction: people send them stuff, sometimes people send them stuff unprompted. And they have a phone number [for people to call in messages that they play].
To illustrate how interconnected this community is, let me describe to you where this quote came from. It is a clip of Dan Sai, recorded by Davin Pavlas at MaxFunCon (the annual convention of the MaximumFun.org podcast label). I know Davin because of our mutual love of MaxFun podcasts. When I brought The Lion in Tweed into the world, I advertised it on podcasts in the MaxFun network. When Davin heard the description, he began to listen to my podcast. Now we are collaborating on an episode of The Lion in Tweed, which will quote these very words when it comes out two weeks from now. Similarly, UK resident Will Owens and I exchanged tweets after he started listening to my podcast and I found out he reviewed various narrative media on his website, and now he has written a review of my podcast, which we both promote. Ours is a community in which a feeling of value comes with a sense of connectedness. The podcasts give a shared culture.
SO IN PODCASTS, WE FIND A MEDIUM that is both sonic and vocal. They provide a platform for intimate and interconnected communities, which are rooted in an alternative kind of interactivity (long-term liveness), to grow. The whisper-in-the-ear quality of podcasts, as well as the feeling of community, all but completely explain why podcasts are so intimate.
Podcasts may be hip and modern, but they are not ironic. Podcasts represent a distillation of what the podcasters genuinely love, and in that they find their authenticity. According to Paul F. Tompkins, a comedian and podcaster:
It’s very freeing to be able to say: “Here are all the things that I like; I’m going to put them all into this [podcast].”
That was at minute 50:32 of Nerdist podcast ep 33 hosted by Chris Hardwick, with Paul F. Tompkins as a guest.
I can mostly just do things that I am interested in, and so I don’t have to do something that is false to me, and I can let my guiding light be, “Do I like this and think it’s worth doing?”
And we see that authenticity completes the puzzle: podcasts are intimate because they feel so real. In podcasts it feels like you are listening to a real person because you are listening to the things that a real person loves…and interacting with real people is much more intimate than feeling like you are interacting with a marketing department (as you may when listening to a CD, or radio-show).
This is how I construct intimate performance venues: Audio-only, voice/storytelling focused, in which I try to build and exploit supportive, interconnected communities of fans with a shared culture (the podcasts). And, in doing so, I try to remain true to what I truly love. This authenticity, I believe, deepens the intimacy.
In the background of this podcast episode, Andreas plays an instrumental cover of “Bound for Hell” by Love and Rockets.