one l of a journey
Those who tuned in to RTE Lyric FM last Monday evening will have been captivated by a new series tracing a century of recorded music.
Hosted by two of Ireland's most distinctive singers, Kildare's crooner-in-chief Jack L and Galway's Choice Prize-winning Julie Feeney, High Fidelity will be essential listening for music buffs interested in the history of popular song.
Tracking the journey from early cylinders, gramophones, 78s, vinyl, tape, CDs and finally digital files, MP3s and iTunes today is no easy task, but Jack is relishing the chance to become a musical historian over the course of the 26 weeks of the series.
"We're going from Thomas Edison to the iPod," says Jack. "We're going to look at the issue of LPs versus digital and iTunes ... I've done so much research on the subject I feel like I've done a thesis on it -- I should get a hat and a scroll!" he laughs.
"If I wasn't presenting it, I would definitely be listening to the programme. We've recorded six episodes already.
"We interviewed the director of the radio museum in the Martello Tower in Howth. He has loads of fascinating stories. He told us about how the first ever radio transmission across the Atlantic took place in Connemara by Marconi -- now there's a monument to the event there."
Jack's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. He's on a roll.
"The likes of [blues singer] Ledbelly and Bing Crosby were major players in how music recording evolved. Bing Crosby put his money where his mouth was and commissioned the first microphone to be used in recording. Before that, the singer was singing into the horn of a gramophone. That's where the term 'to croon' comes from. Because they had to lean in to the horn to make their voices heard."
Given the breadth of material at their disposal, how did Jack and Julie decide what to put in and leave out of the programmes?
"We start with Edison," says Jack. "People thought he was cuckoo. He was a mad genius. He invented morse code. He used that knowledge to invent the phonograph. He saw it as a way of sending letters. The music element of it never struck him. It was [the Italian tenor Enrico] Caruso who developed that part of it.
"We also delve into the Alan Lomax recordings, which Moby used when he made the album Play. The Lomax brothers were commissioned by the US government to go around the US and record ethnic songs. So Moby's Play is a perfect example of how two different spectrums of music collide -- the old work songs and gospel tunes and modern dance music.
"Ledbelly was really important too. I won't say he invented the blues but he was the first one to gather all these songs together on record: 'House of the Rising Sun', 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night', 'Black Betty'. A Black Betty was a whip which the white slave masters used to whip the slaves with."
Julie also found the race issue to be an integral part of the story of how music evolved.
"There was the whole Cotton Club scene in Harlem, New York," Julie explains. "You had a situation where black people weren't allowed into the club, even though most of the artists playing there would have been black.
"This was during the Prohibition era in the 1920s and people like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and all the jazz greats would have appeared there, but the audience was exclusively white."
As songwriters themselves, Jack and Julie are excited by some of the nuggets they have unveiled.
"The first radio needed raw crystal before it would work. There was all this alchemy going on," says Jack.
"The whole way in which the history of recorded music is tied in with technology is fascinating," says Julie. "Even the styles of singing were determined by how it was recorded. I can hear similarities between how Al Jolson and Bob Dylan sing. I found out afterwards that Dylan was a big fan of Al Jolson. I don't think he tried to sing like him but there's a resonance there.
"And it turns out Al Jolson was the first person to use a catwalk -- long before U2's runways. He started in vaudeville and featured in The Jazz Singer in 1927. He used to bellow to a large room with no microphone. Then when he had a mic, he changed his way of singing."
And what about closer to home? Do Irish musicians feature?
"John McCormack was the first millionaire recording star," says Jack. "I got to perform his music when I sang at some book readings by Pat McCabe.
"So I sing the Count as well as some Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill and Frank Sinatra. I also do 'Joe Hill', which is a song Luke Kelly used to do."
The radio series will conclude with a show featuring the Top 10 songs of the last century chosen by the listeners. By then Jack and Julie will have taken us right up to the 21st century and the development of the modern gizmos that we all now take for granted.
"We're going right up to the iPod and the advent of MP3s," says Julie. "The concept of the album is changing now that people are listening to their iPod on shuffle, so you're just getting random songs from each artist, rather than listening to an album all the way through."
You can listen all the way through High Fidelity on Monday evenings at 7pm on RTE Lyric FM.