Pete Drake and Sound Magic: A Grant from ARSC

I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Association for Recorded Sound Collections for financing research at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. The folks at the Center provided invaluable insight and enthusiasm for my project, sending me down great rabbit holes and pushing me in new directions. Here are two snippets from the summary I submitted to the ARSC:

My research focuses on the ways in which performers imitate and simulate pre-recorded sounds in live performances, creating art forms in their own right. Examples include air guitar competitions, karaoke, lip syncing battles, and various forms of pantomime. I am interested in historical examples that serve as precedents for contemporary practices.

The grant from ARSC provided me with the opportunity to travel to the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, where I analyzed a diverse collection of materials related to musical pantomime, musical comedy, vaudeville, ventriloquism, impersonation, magic shows, and other types of performance. This research will contribute to an article-length history of contemporary practices, and it will also provide historical background for my ethnographic dissertation on communities that reconfigure popular music in these ways.

Conversations with employees were equally helpful. During one particularly generative brainstorming session with employees John Fabke and Martin Fisher, we began to consider some of the musicians who blurred distinctions between their voices and instruments, which led me to explore recordings of artists such as Pete Drake, Lonnie Glosson, and Peter Frampton. Pete Drake, in particular, developed a technique for amplifying his steel guitar through his own mouth, allowing him to form words out of guitar sounds (setting the stage for the “talk box” that Frampton popularized).

As I listened to these recordings, I compared them to the Center’s pedagogical publications on resonaters and Hawaiian guitars. By examining these publications throughout the early 20th century, I discovered that the Hawaiian guitar was typically advertised as a vocal-like instrument, with the unique capacity to simulate the human voice—an idea that Drake’s recordings brought to fruition through
technological innovation.

Exploring the Center’s music pedagogy collections generated useful insights on how people conceived and still conceive of the proper relationship between the body and sounds in performance. Among these, the Star Licks cassette tapes, a series of guitar lessons produced by Star Licks Productions in the early 1980s, provide an important link between written guitar pedagogy books from the 19th and 20th centuries and the rising popularity of instructional videos in the 1980s. Offering instructions on how to play like Jimi Hendrix, the Scorpions, or Albert Lee, the Star Licks cassettes demonstrate the way that auditory pedagogy might influence how popular music consumers listen to popular music.

These directions and many others made my stay worthwhile.

Although this didn’t make the writeup for the ARSC, I found interesting connections between magicians, automata, and sound “sourcery” (magic w/ sounds, sound magic) in the 19th century. This topic is worth considering for future projects–how magicians may have been vanguards for new technological developments with media in the century to follow.

Here’s a link to the newsletter with a full description of my research.