June 18, 2008
Something about the way of life during the Cold War era always strikes me as simple—simple in all senses of the word—plain, uncomplicated, even naïve. I mean, why would children learn to “duck and cover,” as if crouching under your school desk could save you from a nuclear blast?
Earlier this week, as news of the death of 84-year-old Tony Schwartz, the creator of the famously frightening 1964 Daisy Ad crept across the airwaves, tens of thousands logged onto YouTube to view again the iconic political commercial of a small girl in a field counting petals on a daisy just moments before a countdown to the big blast. The horrifying message of the film was driven home with plain, uncomplicated and direct precision. The commercial, which was pulled after airing only once on September 7, 1964, likely clinched the election for Lyndon B. Johnson.
Schwartz, himself, was not a simple man. He suffered from agoraphobia and feared leaving his home. And yet, while he tended to rarely stray from his Manhattan digs, his list of accomplishments includes: radio host; sound designer; college professor; media theorist; author; art director; advertising executive; and significantly, urban folklorist, producing several albums for Folkways Records.
“None of us here ever got to see or meet him,” says Folkways archivist Jeff Place, “he basically did everything from his own apartment. He was fascinated by sound in all of its manifestations, and he collected and analyzed sounds of all kinds—kids playing on the playground and sounds from the street corner.”
His recordings reflect that age of simplicity. They allow us to linger in a time when life wasn’t zipping around us at 24-7 speed. All complexity melts away while savoring one simple, isolated sound. Take for example, the sound of a coke bottle being opened and slowly poured, a classic soundscape that Tony Schwartz created for one of his commercial clients, Coca-Cola.
Schwartz, says Place, was a unique individual, just the sort to hit it off with the eccentric Moses Asch, the founder and original owner of Folkways. “Asch was the only guy who would put out commercially released albums of the kinds of ambient type sounds that Schwartz recorded.”
At Global Sound, check out 1,2, 3 and a Zing Zing Zing (1953), a collection of children’s playground rhymes, or his classic New York 19 (1954), recordings of speeches, conversations and songs heard on city streets—hear Schwartz interview an elderly woman, the grocer and a plumber in the track, “Music in Speech.“
A personal favorite of mine is An Actual Story in a Dog’s Life (1958), which aired on the CBS Radio Network that year. From the album, you’ll learn about Tony, his wired-hair terrier Tina, and his dog’s mother and father, Fanny Fishelson and Chip O’Hara. “I recorded all the sounds of all the situations that ‘Tina’ led me into,” Schwartz writes in the liner notes.
This from the guy who scared us near half to death with a daisy.
(Daisy girl image courtesy of Conelrad. Album cover courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways.)
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