Until Thomas Edison first recorded sound in 1877, sound and image were always experienced as one. It had been that way since music was first made. One saw a performance as one heard the music, whether it was a neighbor playing guitar or an orchestra in a concert hall. But suddenly, with the advent of recording technology, a listener could replay just the sound from a performance, and a performance that had already past. It was nothing short of a revolution.
It may be, however, that there is a human desire to see as one hears. For just as soon as Edison’s invention revolutionized the experience of listening, the audience for those recordings wanted to see something as they listened. When technology for “moving pictures” emerged in the 1890s, those images were immediately applied to music. Some suggest that the first music video was created in 1894 by Joseph Stern and Edward Mark, who set a recording of their song “The Little Lost Child” to a moving slide show and marketed it as an “illustrated song.” Though the average American did not yet own equipment to play a recording of the song, over 2 million copies of the sheet music of “The Little Lost Child” were sold.
The first “talkies”–films with sound–were also musical in nature. The 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which featured the acting and singing of recording star Al Jolson, was the first to synchronize sound and image. After several decades of separation, it seemed that sound and image had been restored to their original relationship, arriving to the audience’s eyes and ears together. But more was coming.
“Musical shorts,” such as the 1929 Bessie Smith film “St. Louis Blues” featured in this lesson, used a song’s lyrics as the basis for a short “scene” starring the performer and other actors. Because the present-day “movie theater,” at which one attends a single film, was not yet a fixed concept, these “shorts” would play along with feature films and even other forms of entertainment such as live dancers, musicians and comedians. In the 1940s, “visual jukebox” machines moved film into new locations, allowing users to pay a nickel or a dime for a three-minute “soundie” like the Louis Jordan film of “Caldonia” seen in this lesson. With the emergence of television, new opportunities extended what was possible for sound and image. On The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a young Ricky Nelson began performing songs at the conclusions of the show–and the audience hungered for more. These are just a few examples among many.
However much musicians embraced the possibilities of film, up until this point, the videos made were almost always visitors add-ons to other programs. Musicians appeared before they made feature films, as guests on TV shows and performers on portions of variety shows, but music videos had no permanent home of their own. Until the launch of MTV on August 1, 1981.
The 24-hour-a-day music video programming of MTV gave musicians and their audiences a platform to fully explore the experience of sound and image. In this lesson, students will investigate the ways musicians used video before MTV, then consider how MTV changed the way artists have exploited the surprising territory where sound meets image.