Well-Known Facts: Music Edition

Several non-electric old-timey washboards in an old-timey tub.

Today, class, we are going to discuss music. Music is a form of artistic expression that manifests through sound. Sometimes, it is the cause of spontaneous, often subconscious, physical movement in humans, e.g. dancing, head banging, toe-tapping, moshing or singing along.

The Electric Washboard

As we discussed in Well-Known Facts: American History Edition, Thomas Edison invented time and the electric washboard. In that edition, we discussed time at great length, but we glossed over the electric washboard. The electric washboard was actually the precursor to the electric guitar and is responsible for amplified music as we know it today.

The washboard used for laundry

For a long time, washboards were used pretty much exclusively to wash clothing. Water and soap were placed in a tub and clothing was run up and down against the corrugated surface of a washboard to clean it. Thomas Edison, having just completed inventing time, found that he had a lot of it on his hands. He decided to do something about this clothes washing business. There’s got to be a better way, he thought. After many failed experiments including donkeys, sulfuric acid, lye, manure, gasoline and fire, he finally struck upon the idea of using electricity. By electrically charging particles, he could create an agitator, not unlike the variety used in washing machines today. Here is one of the final versions of Edison’s schematic.

Nobody has ever succeeded in building a prototype from this schematic.

Unfortunately, as you can see, Edison applied current directly to the washboard and tub, which happened to be full of water and resulted in a lot of electrocutions as well as clean clothes. It was Nikola Tesla who took a look at Edison’s incomprehensible schematic and came up with the idea of powering a motor that would operate the agitator. This would result in much less electrocution. Sadly, since Edison held the patent, he got all the credit and money for inventing the electric washboard and Tesla’s involvement is forgotten today.

The washboard as a musical instrument

Before it even became electrified, the washboard was used as a percussion instrument, employing the ribbed metal surface of the cleaning device as a rhythm instrument. For a few years after the invention of the electric washboard, people still played the old-timey, non-electrified versions in jazz, zydeco, skiffle, jug band and old-time music. It wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix came along that people realized the true power of the electric washboard as a musical instrument. Hendrix flipped the washboard upside-down and played with his left hand. He completely changed the way people played the washboard, and even today, he is widely considered to be the greatest electric washboard player in music history. His electric washboard version of the American National Anthem is considered a turning point in American music history.

The Truth In Advertising Act of 1963

There was a time when you could call your band whatever name you chose, but that time ended with the British Invasion. The Beatles ruined everything. Perhaps, it’s more apt to say that a bunch of uptight parents ruined everything. While every single teenage girl in America was going positively nutty for the Beatles, several parents groups got together and formed The Parents For Sane Children Committee (PFSCC) to lobby Congress in the hopes of outlawing this new form of music.

Certain members of the United States Congress, some having teenage daughters themselves, were keen to act, but based on the United States Constitution, the Beatles were allowed to sing as much as they wanted. The best that they could do was invent a loophole. Originally, The Beatles spelled their band name B-E-E-T-L-E-S, as in the insect. Congress and The PFSCC said that there were no actual beetles in the band, and therefore, The Beetles were committing fraud. Congress enacted the Truth In Advertising Act in 1963, which stated that a band name must match the band.

The Beetles, to whom all of this legislation was directed, decided to recruit a new band member named Phil, who looked something like this:

The last member of the Beatles, Phil.

Unfortunately, they forgot to poke holes in the jar in which Phil lived and he died in short order. Instead of recruiting another member, the Beetles decided to change the spelling of their name from the insect to The Beatles because they definitely contained beats. There was nothing that Congress nor the PFSCC could do about it.

Though rarely enforced, the act is still on the books, which is why members of Anthrax carry a little vial of anthrax, several members of Metallica are actually made of metal and The Rolling Stones roll a stone up a hill once a year during the solstice festival in Leeds.

The Beethoven Code

There was a lot of speculation that a code was hidden within DaVinci’s works due to an awful fiction book written about it and an even worse movie adaptation. There has never been any evidence supporting a DaVinci code. However, there is a code hidden in Beethoven’s symphonies. Beethoven, being somewhat of a genius, hid it so well, that it took centuries to crack it. The cipher used to encode Beethoven’s symphonies was so brilliant that the United States Navy still uses it today.

Here is the original of one of Beethoven’s simpler works, Für Elise.

In code, it translates as follows:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as Elise.
Elise, whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
Elise, that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
Elise, that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make Elise.

Granted, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Obviously, Beethoven’s skill is in music, not poetry. This girl of Beethoven’s eats dirt, has “leafy arms” and wears birds for a hat, but I think we can all agree that it is far too structured to be anything but a hidden code. The symmetry of the lines precludes any sort of random coincidence; it is well and truly a poem.  Coincidentally, Für Elise is nearly identical to Joyce Kilmer‘s poem, Trees, written several hundred years later.

That’s all we have time for today. We will return to the subject of music next semester.

This post is part of The Well-Known Facts Series.