Having modestly self-proclaimed myself a pop culturist, I'm often asked who I consider the most influential to the early advancements of modern pop music. Undeniably, my support gives way to Thomas A. Edison: the wizard of Menlo Park.
Thomas Edison's inventions provided the catalysis for our modern age and created the mechanisms for the development of pop culture. The phonograph and the motion-picture camera allowed sight and sound to become a demonstrative devise of creative thought, entertaining viewers and listeners with persuasive animated allure.
The piano had been the cornerstone of America's home entertainment throughout the post- Civil War era. Then shortly after the turn of the century, the phonograph changed everything. Wax cylinders inscribed with the songs of popular musicians replaced published sheet music.
The self-replicated performances of the era's popular ballads, by family piano concertos, now came to life on phonographs heralding the songs by authentic performances. The new invention now allowed a family in Atlanta, Georgia to hear Enrico Caruso sing Domine Deus from Trinity Church in Camden, New Jersey. It allowed the mid westerner to hear Louis Mitchell sing Ain't We Got Fun from a performance at Casino de Paris (16 rue De Clichy), in Paris, France.
Edison's luminary presence guided with governance over the domain of his laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ. He only catnapped when fatigued, never leaving the lab for any extension of time.
Always focused on the project at hand, he encouraged the other staffed inventors with his dedication to the cause. The laboratory filled a large room with a pipe organ standing against the rear wall. Most nights, after midnight, Edison would sit at the organ, providing the melody to the chorus of beer drinking lab workers.
I visualize the scene from the prospective of historical fiction. Using anachronistic license, I envision Edison rhythmically controlling the keyboard of the organ, as the others occasionally impede the swaying of their fist held beer-mugs to swill its content before crooning the lyrics of J.J. Cale: "After midnight, we're going to let it all hang out." His inventions truly did cause talk and suspicion.
A new expression of defiance to the restraints of conventional protocol came soon after in New York during the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, held in New York City's 69th Regiment Armory. For many New Yorkers it was their first glimpse of the progressive art movements that had become the rage of Europe.
Here in America, Traditionalists were shocked by the new expressions of Avant-Garde, Cubism, and Fauvist. Many conceived the expressions as short lived mockeries of art disciplines. However, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's purchase of Paul Cézanne's displayed landscape: View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, had to be regarded as the museum's acceptance of Post- Impressionism, and a signal of the art world's accepted integration of modernism. Progressive cultural ideology entered the American Psyche.
The Armory show displayed standards of art that challenged the times. Realism was shown with distorted departure by the expressions of Fauvisms contributed by artists such as Henri Matisse and Maurice Denis. The influences of Avant- Garde pushed new levels of early Modernism, with displays reflecting the advance stages of Cubist expressions by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. This freedom of expression soon entered the era of Dadaism, which declared all objects as art, and formed the foundation of Surrealism and the beginning of our current pop culture.
It was an era of new developments and expressions unlimited by conventional standards.
Along with the social introduction of Edison's inventions, a new medium of sight and sound had been born. Both music and art formulated with limitless adaptation. Jazz cultivated without boundaries; imagery without perimeters. Pop culture began to span its wings to soar toward a new tomorrow.
This new direction in music had an early influence on anther pioneer to our contemporary pop culture. Being the great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt, John Hammond was a product of wealth and privilege. He learned to play violin at the age of eight, preferring the musical influences of the house servants to the classical persuasions of his parents. Evening when his parents were preoccupied, he'd often retreat to the servant's quarters to gather with the help and listen to the music of jazz.
While prepping at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, Hammond persuaded his headmaster to allow him to be tutored each week in Manhattan. Neither the headmaster, nor his tutor knew his main objective in traveling to the city was not in learning the classics, but to go uptown to Harlem after class to visit the predominately black jazz clubs. Upon graduating from Hotchkiss, in 1929, he went to work for Editor Ernest Gruening at the Portland Evening News, before attending Yale In the fall of 1929. He soon dropped out of college to dedicate his life to a career in the music industry.
In 1938, he organized a concert at Carnegie Hall that became a pivotal point in music. From Spirituals to Swing showcased most of the great contemporary performers of jazz and rhythm and blues. He encouraged attendance to be witnessed by a multiracial audience. Sponsors rejected the prospects of an integrated audience and money became an issue. Hammond sought funding from his Greenwich Village Progressive associates. Supporters like Max Eastman and members of the American Communist Movement provided funding. The interracially exhibited show went on to become a success, and proved that the music of a new age had no racial preference.
Hammond later in life became a producer for Columbia Records, and is responsible for signing artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen, launching America and the world into the current climate of pop culture. The unfaltering convictions of inventors like Edison, artists like Matisse and Picasso, and music producers like John Hammond gave tolerance and allowed for the acceptance of icons like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Jay- Z and Beyonce.
Author of "Benson's House"
John Milner graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in literature from Virginia Wesleyan College. He now resides in Clearwater, Fla. He is the author of "Benson's House." He recently released "Benson's House," a book that aims to entertain while instructing on the incredible implications art and music have had in shaping our American social structure.
The 1864 art debut of Sarah Taggart Benson's spurred wide acclaim among New York society. Many thought a woman artist would not be taken seriously, but her popularity grew, spawning an insurrection against rigid Victorian standards, and a following of counter-culturists known as the Urban Romantics. They congregated in the downstairs galley and in the basement tavern of the brownstone she shared with her husband in Greenwich Village. The rooms evolved in accord as a center of a new artistic universe known affectionately as Benson's House. Then one day the balance became unbroken. (Read More)
By John Milner
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