Thursday, October 20, 2022

Muzak-The American Work Song




“I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else to invent.”  

Lily Tomlin  

A few days ago I was in SEPTA’S Jefferson Station, and I was in a bad mood. I was in the middle of doing a bunch of errands that I did not want to do, I had gotten some bad news about a friend’s health, and I was upset, tired, worried and concerned. I was talking to a friend on my cell, and suddenly a Muzak version of the song, Stand By Me came over the station’s PA. I lost it. I love that song-the sense of devotion and pleading and passion that the original version of that song conveys still moves me to this day. And it was totally lost in this silky- smooth, instrumental, even-tempoed,  syrupy, violin-heavy Muzak version, and I was outraged.   

After I talked to my friend and calmed down I laughed and reflected on my outrage. It was clear that it was the culmination of a rough day, and I took it out on the Muzak. I laughed at myself, and then I started reflecting on what Muzak is and has been, and how it came to be. The history teacher in me took off, and I did some research about this seemingly strange and ubiquitous background to so much of American life. Because for decades, Muzak has been a soundtrack for all of us. It has been there for so long and in so many ways that we scarcely notice it anymore.  

When we hear the word “muzak” the first thought that often comes to mind is, “elevator music.” Muzak had it origins in the 1930’s and was invented as a way to send music through wires to people in their homes. Major George Squiers had perfected how to send recorded music over wires and wanted it to go to customers in their homes. However, radio had become very popular, and radio soon cornered most of that market. In the meantime, cities, and especially urban downtowns, were starting to boom across the nation. This meant huge office towers and this strange new invention called, “the elevator.” Initially Americans were very nervous about elevators; the idea of going way up in a tall building, stuffed into a narrow tight compartment carried only by a string, and in close contact with strangers, was not so appealing to many folks. To make this easier for people to deal with, office towers started piping in soothing, non-threatening music to calm people’s nerves during their elevator rides. This took off, and the Muzak Company had its opportunity. The company would bring in orchestras to record calm versions of both original material and popular songs, and then lease and sell these recordings to building owners via subscriptions. Soon office buildings, restaurants, and stores in downtowns all over the country were carrying Muzak. Mass background music had arrived in the Untied States via The Muzak Companyand its “musical architects.” 

World War II really cemented Muzak into the nation’s psyche. Major Squiers was into what we would now call “psychological research,” and he discovered that playing certain types of music in factories at certain times changed moods and made factory workers both happier and more productive. Remember-the US had to suddenly start mass producing tons of things for the war effort, from uniforms and ammunition to vehicles, weapons and more. Many of the workers hired to do these jobs had never worked in a factory or on an assembly line before. Something had to help them adjust. Muzak would do that. It would pipe in blocks of 15 minutes of carefully selected music per hour to help factories run more productively and smoothly. When that worked, factory owners brought hundreds of subscriptions to the service. Muzak was here to stay.  

Although we may not be aware of it, Muzak is all around us still. It has gone from elevator music to fsactories to now designing and providing carefully selected audio programs for all types of businesses, from offices, to restaurants, department stores, warehouses, train stations, malls, and more. Yes, there are places that are seemingly streaming from playlists in coffeehouses. But some of that is Muzak. Small businesses cannot afford the licensing fees for the music they play, and the Muzak Company can, so it does that for them. So it is unconsciously still a vital part of the everyday life of many Americans.  

After thinking about it and researching it some, I am tending to look at he phenomenon of Muzak as a type of universal soundtrack or “work song” for much of American culture. Every culture has some type of music that its members sing or chant or listen to that draws them together, calms them, and keeps them centered as they work and go about their regular day-think of the stereotype of the chain gang worker. Muzak is quietly like that for many of us, whether it is setting a mood and helping us calm down as we eat and/or navigate the aisles in a crowded store, trying to motivate us to spend more money, helping us wait in line without getting too riled up, or what.  It is our “collective work song,” even if it does screw up some great tunes every now and then.   

(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog”         

VOTING IN 2022  

The last day to register to vote in the mid-term election in Pennsylvania is Monday, October 24th. If you are not registered, please register, and if you are, check your registration by the deadline. And please show up and vote. This may well be the most important and consequential election in our lifetimes. We all need to show up and have a say. Thanks  


Friday, October 14, 2022

Deep Fall



“Love the trees until their leaves fall off, then encourage them to try again next year.” ― Chad Sugg 

Autumn...the year's last, loveliest smile."― John Howard Bryant 

  It is nearing that time of the year that I lovingly refer to as, “Deep Fall.’ That is the time where you just step outside your house and everywhere you look you see various shades of orange and yellow, fading green and red, and even some purples. First those colors are on trees all around and above us. Then, gradually, they are beneath us and underfoot, forming a carpet of leaves as we walk down the street on our daily comings and goings. It is a visual treat lasting for several weeks, bringing smiles and a sense of wonder wherever I am. I have seen dozens of Deep Falls, and they all bring me no end of joy. 

When William Penn laid out Philadelphia he had the idea of a, "Greene Country Towne”-a place where there were trees throughout the city. He also laid out five green public squares, now known as Washington, Franklin, Rittenhouse Squares, City Hall, and Logan Circle. He did it to promote the city and attract Europeans to come to this new and strange place, guaranteeing that they would have some of the comforts they were familiar with in Europe. Those Squares are still here, and the city has, as it has grown, done a good job of holding on to Penn’s original idea for the city. Just about every neighborhood in Philadelphia has a good number of trees, and there are a variety of small and large parks throughout the city. That is one of the attractions of Philadelphia for me. Those trees and parks and squares allow for a number of benches and seats to just sit in, to read, to lunch, to meet folks, and just people watch. They also attract a good number of birds and bring their autumn tree magic to us. Philly in many ways is a “Greene Country Towne.”. 

Throughout the whole city there are tons of trees that put on spectacular fall displays. In addition to the four squares in Center City, there are a myriad of other places where one can easily witness the glories of autumn. The maples have just started turning different shades of red and orange, and in my Mt. Airy neighborhood, we have red maples, sugar maples, Japanese maples and more. That is a lot of wonderful viewing every time I leave my house. There are also sumac trees and bushes and sweetgum in different parts of the city, including Center City and parts of South Philly. West Philly has several large gingko trees that stand up proudly and colorfully. There are also sumacs and aspens there as well. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Kelly and West River Drives, the Ben Franklin Parkway, Bartam’s Garden, all along the Wissahickon, Tacony Park, Clark Park...whew! Wherever we are, all we need to do is slow down, look up, and marvel at what nature has provided for us.  

These changing trees, along with the fall migration of the hawks and songbirds, makes Deep Fall a special and powerfully magical time for me. I am so glad to be a resident of the mid-Atlantic region where these treasures last for a nice, long while. It is a glorious way to approach the ending of a year, the year's “last, loveliest smile.” May you all have a Happy Deep Fall. 



Local deadlines for registering to vote in the 2022 Mid-term elections are fast approaching. Delaware’s is Saturday, October 15th. New Jersey’s is Tuesday, October 18th. Pennsylvania's is Monday, October 24th. I urge you all to register, check your registration if you think you are already registered, and to show up and vote. This may well be one of the most important and consequential elections in our lifetimes. We all need to show up and have a say. Thanks 

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Benefits of Failure and Mistakes




“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Mahatma Gandhi  

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Alexander Pope  

“He who makes no mistakes makes nothing.” Anon.  

“Form does not follow function. Form follows failure.”   

“Necessity is not the mother of invention; failure is.”   

both by Henry Petroski   

The above quotes are amongst my favorite quotes about mistakes, error, and failure. I chose to open this newsletter with them because I made a mistake in the last newsletter, and I need to ‘fess up. In the last newsletter I wrote about being on the east side of Market Street for the first time in a long while and about walking along Market Street down to 6th Street. I reminisced about some places I passed along the way, and I specifically talked about the Philly Thanksgiving Day parades that I had enjoyed as a kid. I said the parade ended with Santa going up on a fire truck ladder to his Playland to meet and to take Christmas wish lists from kids. And I said this happened at Lits Brothers Department Store. The only problem was that it wasn’t Lits Brothers Department Store that Santa climbed into. It was Gimbels Brothers, which used to be at 8th and Market. I made a big mistake.  

My sister caught the error right away, and she let me know that I had made a mistake. A couple of other people also pointed it out, and I knew that I had to come clean. So I am. I like what old Southern bluesmen I knew used to say when they made an error recalling something: “I just disremembered.” I like that because it is accurate. I didn’t forget everything: the feelings, thoughts, and all of the other observations were correct. I just mistakenly forgot a small but significant part of it. Disremembered, indeed.  

What is interesting about that, though, is where all of that led me. I was talking with a friend about my mistake, and he mentioned an NPR series from several years ago that had focused on the purpose and benefits that often come from failing and making mistakes. I had the, “He who makes no mistakes” quote hanging in the front of my classroom for much of my teaching career; I wanted my students to feel and to know that learning often involved “being wrong” and “failing.” I felt that as long as we can look at our failures and get something from them, we were learning, and that was the goal, after all. So, I was very interested in that NPR series.  

  I eventually found the series, but in looking for it I took some interesting "wrong turns” that had some great snippets about ways seeming failure can be the gateway to new discoveries, changes, realizations, and more. As one person said in one of the snippets, “We only learn to walk by failing at it hundreds of times.” I also found some interesting comments about what business failures could lead to and a grandfather's thoughts about his daughter’s first day in kindergarten. So for me, that Gimbels Brothers error allowed me to get to a place where I could explore this theme in a broader and more nuanced way and make some interesting finds. A mistake leading to something else....indeed. It is often that way with us humans.   

  Of course, I hope I did not make any more content mistakes in this newsletter (smile), and I don’t think I did. But I will see. And who knows? If I did, I may be sent on another unexpected trek and learn something new. And that would not be a bad thing.