The Body of Work and Play: Crazy Words

The Body of Work and Play: Crazy Words

[TL;DR – See my radio portfolio on this website!]

My motivation for launching this website was to help with marketing and attracting clients for my freelance writing and editing work. From that narrow perspective, I would have to say the site has not delivered success to this point. Such a view, however, suffers from a certain myopia—the same sort of wrong view by which I’m constantly tempted to think of my freelance career on the whole as unsuccessful.

“So you career from career to career,” wrote a certain uber-successful tunesmith in the Follies anthem entitled “I’m Still Here.” And I take the point. That is, the point of being still here. Same guy wrote a nice little ditty called “Being Alive,” you dig?

What is your measure of success in life, nowadays, or in being alive, from day to day? Does it all make perfect sense, expressed in dollars and cents, pounds, shillings, and pence, to quote another of my favorite songsmiths? Or do you succeed when you supersede “success” with something else, such as, oh, I don’t know, “happiness” or “fulfillment”?

Ten years ago, I was recruited to participate in a community-building initiative: a new community radio station springing up in the city where I reside, Ithaca, New York. WRFI and I have both been on the airwaves for a decade now. Not a sawbuck of remuneration have I gleaned from this effort, yet increasingly I’m inclined to think of all this broadcasting as some of the work I am proudest of in this lifetime.

I’d been a disc jockey on my college station, and I gave my new show the same name I’d given the old one: “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune,” lifted from the classic “vo do-de-o do” song from 1927—about a guy with a ukelele who inspires murderous rage in the neighboring tenements! Early in life I developed a strong affinity for the popular music recorded in the 1920s and 1930s—the big bands and the jazz that preceded them, the “American songbook” of show tunes and vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood soundtracks. Having relocated to the rural Finger Lakes, I began to recognize that the music I was familiar with was primarily urban-based, and that the twenties and thirties also left rich artifacts of rural sounds: the blues, for example, and the rootsy, so-called “hillbilly” stuff that became country. So I opened up the format of the program, while concentrating on recordings from no later than the early forties.

Then I came across a wonderful book by the historian Michael Denning, called Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. All around the world, during those same years, it turns out, the dynamics set in motion by the invention of the phonograph were giving rise to all sorts of novel kinds of danceable popular music, made in many cases by people from ethnic and cultural out-groups. You just have to call the roll of all these styles: tango, samba, son cubano, rebetika, fado, calypso, beguine, bal musette, jazz-manouche, hula. Blues and jazz and ragtime and hillbilly country fit the worldwide trend. Add a Chinese one to the menu—call it shidaiqu or Mandopop or what became C-pop. In Africa you have what became highlife, juju, other genres. Don’t forget India, Japan, the Middle East, Southeast Asia.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 1938

“Music and popular culture of the 1920s and ‘30s in all genres and from around the world” became my one-long-breath tag line. I think I might still be the only person in the country producing a weekly program with that particular focus. If there’s someone else, I’d love to know about them. (If I spent more time researching other researchers and programmers I’d have a more informed view about that. Recently one of my WRFI colleagues turned me on to a certain show coming out of WFMU, hosted by a Dutchman who plays stuff from the 19-aughts to the fifties.) I have been repeatedly astounded by how much of the recorded material from so many parts of the world are available to listen to in the digital era. There’s even a trove of U.S. recordings, mostly from the teens and twenties, made for immigrant markets. Small record labels like Canary, Archeophone, and Dust-to-Digital are producing incredible reissue packages. Others are simply cranking up victrolas and playing 78s into YouTube.

When the pandemic struck, we volunteer programmers were locked out of the studio, but invited to learn how to produce our shows from home. I became a sort of advanced beginner at audio editing, and pretty soon I noticed my on-air comments could pack in more information and come out sharper with a little scripting. Sometimes I had a little trouble with my on-mike audio quality, but the content was continuing to get better and better.

Till I reached a pinnacle of sorts in the first week of August 2020. Having done some nuclear disarmament work at the United Nations earlier in my life, I was exceedingly aware of the impending 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings. In fact, all year I’d been thinking (and writing a little) about how the coronavirus pre-empted almost all commemoration of and public grappling with the legacies of 1945. (It wasn’t just the virus—we had our own 45 to deal with, one recalls.)

I did a little searching for archived radio broadcasts reporting the A-bombings—and the pivotal event that came between them, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which in truth did more to hasten Japan’s surrender than the nuclear attacks. On the Internet Archive (bravo Brewster!), I found hours of audio that aired August 10, 1945, over New York’s flagship NBC station, WEAF. Fortunately, I had no freelance work to do that week! I dove into these clips on Monday, and by Friday I had turned out a very tight, highly informative two-hour musical documentary.

That program, to which you can listen at any time, is the first item on this portfolio of what I’m calling “Best of Crazy Words, Crazy Tune.”

So between the broadcasting, podcasting, and wordsmithing, I suppose I’m accumulating behind me a certain body of playful work. Such as it is, I submit it for the consideration of how you measure success.