Monthly Archives: November 2010

Life and times of virtuoso whistler George W. Johnson

A November 29, 1890 item in the New York Sun titled “Whistling For the Wind”, which I discovered in Out
of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895

George H. [sic] Johnson, the whistling Negro inthe Battery scene of
“The Inspector,” is a familiar figure on the North River ferryboats,
where he whistles for pennies. Eighteen years ago he went with the
Georgia Minstrels on a tour of the Old World. In Vienna they stayed
two months. While there he fell in love with a white woman. She had
no objection to his color, and they were married. Soon afterward they
came to this country, and have lived happily together ever since. A
daughter was born to them, and she has inherited the whistling
abilities of her father.

When Dramatist Wilson approached Johnson on the subject of joining
his company the whistler stuck out for a fair salary. He said that he
could pick up over $15 on the boats, and get a regular salary from a
phonograph company for whistling in their machines. Wilson had to pay
him $25 a week.

Since his engagement he has had an offer from Mrs. William K.
Vanerbilt, who wishes him to whistle for her one night after the
theater performance. Mrs. Vanderbilt will not go to a variety
theatre, but she is anxious to see all the best performers.”

I wonder about his daughter. As the years went by, how did she use her whistling? Maybe just to amaze people while she was walking down the street.

And what about his Viennese wife? What happened after she arrived in America?

NPR’s web site has a piece on him, too.

Why I put my work into the public domain

I put my Ghost Solos package, and most of my other recordings, into the public domain. Why?

One reason is compatibility. My primary goals include being used in soundtracks and mashups, so I needed licensing that allowed my work to be incorporated into as many other works as possible. Public domain is the only universal. The only license for creative works that is used widely enough to be considered a standard is a Creative Commons non-commercial license (like this one), but they are deliberately incompatible with many works.

Another reason is durability on the scale of decades and continents. On this time scale there will be very many individual licenses like Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. Even the most durable will be superceded and obsoleted again and again. Someday there may be a standard of licensing for free cultural works that is as durable as version 2 of the Gnu General Public License has been for software, but right now there isn’t. If my creative work eventually became part of the cultural ecosystem, which is unlikely enough to be grandiose, I would be happy. To accomplish this it helps to make legal arrangements for my work that don’t rely on my active intervention, whether because I am dead, far away, or separated by language barriers. The public domain is the same anywhere and any time.

Another reason is to communicate clearly. My political goal is to enrich the public domain. My creative work enriches the public domain by increasing attention paid to the mainly-forgotten source compositions that are now available for anybody to use just like I did, and to a lesser extent by having my recordings themselves be sources for new works. I dedicate copyrights on my recordings to the public domain to be clear about what I am saying. A share-alike clause or a non-commercial use clause would muddy the message. Sometimes non-commercial licenses are used to express anti-business politics, which I don’t share. Sometimes share-alike licenses are understood to express anti-business politics (whether they actually mean that or not), and this is not my point. I give to the public domain because I take from the public domain.

Creative Commons was still an important resource for my goals, in that I used the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication to put my work in the public domain. It takes due diligence to manage the business of a public domain dedication properly.

I used to use licenses with share-alike clauses like the Gnu Free Documentation License, which I like because it works to grow the public domain (by encouraging disarmament like mine only when mutual). But no such license has been adopted widely enough to satisfy my purposes.

I suppose that so far I have answered every question but the main one: why not retain exclusive rights on my recordings? Because this is a fool’s errand for someone in my position. There are people who can sell recordings at a scale big enough to matter, but I am not one. The amount of time and money I spent to make these recordings dwarfs anything I realistically stand to earn. It’s laughable to think I’ll benefit more by clutching the rights tightly than by letting them go their own way.

None of this stops me from selling the work. It is for sale at the iTunes store, at Amazon, etc. I doubt many of those who read this will pay for it, but I think some others will who come across it there instead of on my blog. The buyers are welcome to have the recordings without giving me money, it’s just that I have to charge money to get the recordings into these distribution points.

The Menace of Mechanical Music

SWEEPING across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.  Only by harking back to the day of the roller skate or the bicycle craze, when sports of admitted utility ran to extravagance and virtual madness, can we find a parallel to the way in which these ingenious instruments have invaded every community in the land.  And if we turn from this comparison in pure mechanics to another which may fairly claim a similar proportion of music in its soul, we may observe the English sparrow, which, introduced and welcomed in all innocence, lost no time in multiplying itself to the dignity of a pest, to the destruction of numberless native song birds, and the invariable regret of those who did not stop to think in time.

Do they not realize that if the accredited composers, who have come into vogue by reason of merit and labor, are refused a just reward for their efforts, a condition is almost sure to arise where all incentive to further creative work is lacking, and compositions will no longer flow from their pens; or where they will be compelled to refrain from publishing their compositions at all, and control them in manuscript? What, then, of the playing and talking machines?

John Phillip Sousa on the scourge of the phonograph, via Phonozoic Text Archive, originally published in Appleton’s Magazine, Vol. 8 (1906).

Mellow Me Out, Fleet Foxes, and me

Mellow Me Out on Fleet Foxes & Ghost Solos:

really, Fleet Foxes is actually quite nice —sometimes unbearably folky for my tastes, yet of impressive musical quality. More than anything else, its the harmonies that get me. Never have harmonies affected me as they have here. The beautiful jam sessions that occur nightly on my floor have turned into piss-poor, attempted three-part harmony failures because of this. Damn you, Fleet Foxes.

Also, if you happen to be the type partial to all this folky-ness, or have stumbled on this site while trying to find a mediafire of this album, or both, be sure to also check out Lucas Gonzes Ghost Solos. The songs consist mostly of guitar, and have an antique-y, relaxing sound to them. They warm my heart.

Peak Rock

Douglas Wolk theorizes the existence of “peak rock” a la “peak oil”:

For those who aren’t familiar with the problem, peak rock refers to the point in time where the maximum rate of production of global rock ‘n’ roll is reached, after which rock music enters a period of decline–you can map it out as a Hubbert curve. Rock ‘n’ roll was once considered to be a virtually limitless resource–what we call the Neil Young theory, that “rock and roll would never die”–but what we’ve been seeing in the past decade or so is that it’s actually non-renewable, and some experts now believe that peak rock may have been reached in the early ’90s or possibly even as early as the late 1970s. It’s not like all the rock is gone, but it takes more and more money and effort to extract large deposits of rock, and the remaining major labels have been forced to rely on diminishing reserves of fossil bands.

(Quoted from a 3-minute talk he gave at Experience Music Project earlier this year (about independent-label music in the ’00s)).