TWENTY FOUR If I Had You … Like You Got Me

Edouard-Scott de Martinville developed a machine for recording sound some twenty years before Edison. His phonautograph “wrote” the patterns of a person’s voice onto a thin film of carbon – including, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s “thin tenor … falsetto voice, almost as high-pitched as a boatswain’s whistle” (though the recording, if it existed, sadly has vanished).

Edouard’s machine, unlike Edison’s, had no method of playing back the recordings. His hope was that the the sound patterns could be ‘read’ visually – which proved not to be possible. That is until one of his glass plates found its way to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, up the road a bit from our mooring. Their substantial computing power converted the carbon traces to playable sound – and, some 150 years after the event, out came Edouard’s voice gently singing Au Claire de la Lune.

Edouard and his phonautograph

Following Edouard’s lead, some archaeoacousticians investigated whether the vibrations of sounds made by potters in the ancient world created retrievable patterns on their clay artefacts. In 1969, Richard Woodbridge reported replaying the sound of the potter’s wheel from the surface of an ancient clay vessel; in a similar experiment he heard the word “blue” recorded in the brush strokes of an oil painting.

Woodbridge’s claims are contested but some sounds from the past are retrievable: astronomers bring us the hiss from galaxies billions of light years away and, on earth, archaeoacousticians can reconstruct the sound worlds of the ancients.

Trevor Cox with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber (c) Acoustics Research Centre, Salford University) of Salford, Manchester)

Stonehenge is a calculated sound-space: speech or music within the curtelage of the stones gains clarity but is kept from being heard beyond the outer circle. And although materials were available near to hand, huge stones were dragged 200 hundred miles from the Preseli Mountains (where, incidentally, my forebears farmed for generations) probably because they were ‘singing stones’ that rang with music when struck – like a giant gamelan. And I like that the Maya constructed the Kukulkan pyramid at Chichen Itza such that handclaps at the base will surround you with echoes of their sacred quetzal bird.

Neanderthal bone flute (c) wikicommons

Music is possibly the most retrievable sound from antiquity, not least because instruments have survived – a flute made by a Neanderthal 60,000 years ago from the thighbone of a young bear; gold and silver war trumpets from Tutankhamun’s tomb; church bells dating back to 1260. The oldest identifiable song in the world, The Hymn Of Ugarit, was inscribed on a clay tablet in the 14th century BC together with instructions for the accompanying lyre – sufficient for paleo-musicologists to reconstruct a melody.

The instruments made by Stradivarius evidence more than sound. Their timbre is so special because the spruce and maple he used were harvested during the Little Ice Age, particularly severe in Europe, when trees grew slowly and with the density that gives such resonance to his instruments.

The artefacts proving music stretches back thousands of years are supported by our own evolution. From ancient times, music was not just around us – but within us.

In his brave* book, The Singing Neanderthals, Steven Mithen argues that “musicality is a fundamental part of being human, that this capacity is of great antiquity, and that a holistic protolanguage of musical emotive expression predates language and was an essential precursor to it”.

Mithen’s insight (much simplified) is that human communication could not have begun with just speech because Neanderthals could not, for physiological reasons, produce precise sounds – therefore, their mode of communication must have comprised an amalgam of grunts, music, rhythm and gesture.

[*brave – because Mithen’s thesis harnesses several disciplines – neurological, physiological, ethnographic, linguistic, ethological and archaeological – and so, knowingly, he risked the flaying knives of experts in each field. No doubt some of the reviews still urticate: “In sum, a great bedtime read — but only for those who enjoy fiction“, Maggie Tallerman, professor of linguistics, Newcastle University]

As evolution brought homo sapiens a tongue and mouth capable of precise utterances, speech became possible. We no longer needed the Neanderthal composite but could rely on the spoken word to communicate – which raises a question: why then did evolution not ditch music as no longer functional, much as our tails were discarded when we came down from the trees?

But rather than discarding music, evolution has hardwired it into us: music occupies in its own region of the modern human brain, separate from language. So perhaps Steven Mithen is right – musicality is a fundamental part of being human and must be essential for human life. Or, as Nietzsche put it, “Without music, life would be a mistake”.

Lightnin’ Washington and his group in Darrington State Farm, Texas (Photo: Alan Lomax, courtesy Library of Congress)

This centrality of music within us makes our behaviour manipulable. I like the way big stores play sedate tracks when there are few customers while upbeat tempi hurry people along when the store is crowded. And, of course, music stirs our emotions: would there have been the Jaws-incited ecocide of shark populations worldwide without the fear generated by John Williams’ score?

Music brings courage and fortitude; it fires up nationalism: and makes protest plain (though perhaps less plain in music such as Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony). And it bonds. Gloria Gaynor’s You think I’d crumble? You think I’d lay down and die? Oh no, not I – I will survive is the enduring anthem of empowerment and a unifying hymn during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Bobbi Campbell, the first person with Kaposi’s sarcoma to come out publicly, and who used his San Francisco Sentinel column to educate others in the progress of the disease, wore an I Will Survive lapel button.

In the 1930s, two unassuming sound recordists, John and Alan Lomax, gathered the folk and work songs of African-Americans – making some 10,000 recordings for the Library of Congress. The sources of these songs were mostly found handily corralled in prisons in the South – famously, while recording in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, John Lomax came across one of the great blues singers – Lead Belly with his twelve string guitar and an extraordinary repertoire of traditional and own-composed songs.

One song Lead Belly wrote influenced the behaviour of his prison governor, so the story goes: “If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d awake in the morning, I would set you free“. John Lomax recorded Leady Belly’s plea for clemency, presented it to Governor Pat Neff – who did indeed issue a pardon. Lead Belly walked out a free man and (mentored by John Lomax) into national fame.

Lead Belly with guitar, John Lomax to the right, in Louisiana State Prison (courtesy Library of Congress)

In his book sub-titled The Sonic Rhetorics of African American Folksong in the 1930s, Jonathan Stone draws parallels between the impact of visual rhetoric (referencing Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother) and the sonic rhetoric of the blues being gathered by John and Alan Lomax in contributing to the nation’s understanding of its “national identity, history, and race”.

Stone’s thesis is that John Lomax had a sub-text, a hidden strategy. Recognising the blues as “the foundational cultural presence of African Americans in the United States”, Lomax, through radio broadcasts, talks and lectures, used his recordings as tools to educate white America and change entrenched attitudes.

And it was a perfect time to weaponise the blues. By the 1930s, the demographics of America were changing rapidly. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the (mainly) big cities in the north was in full flow – 1.6 million people by 1940 and another 5 million by 1970.

In the relative freedom of the North, a powerful and multi-faceted dynamic emerged among the new arrivals. One aspect was political – the civil rights movement which, of course, pushed on after the Second World War accompanied by songs like We Shall Overcome, Lift Every Voice and Sing, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, and A Change Is Gonna Come (which Sam Cooke wrote after he was turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana).

But the second and critical aspect of the dynamic, from John Lomax’s point of view, was cultural. The 1920s and 30s witnessed an extraordinary ferment of theatre, music, visual arts, fashion, philosophy, literature and poetry in the African-American community – mostly centred on Harlem.

The “Harlem Renaissance”, as it is known, broadcast the intellectual and cultural strengths of African-Americans. Alain LeRoy Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, was the intellectual Dean: as Martin Luther King put it – “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle – W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe too.”

The Proud Valley – drawing lots to see who will sacrifice themselves (c)The Criterion Collection

Paul Robeson, who had graduated as the only African American in his class at Rutgers before taking an LLM at Columbia Law school, emerged during the Renaissance as a star actor – in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings.

The civil rights imperative of the Harlem Renaissance remained with Robeson all through his life. He was a comitted socialist, sometime reviled in America but well-loved in Wales, where he was generous in his support of the destitute.

The story goes that one evening in London after a performance of Show Boat, he joined some unemployed Welsh coal miners singing in harmony as they raised money from the theatre-goers of London’s West End. This scene is reset in The Proud Valley (1940) where Robeson goes to find work in South Wales and is quickly drafted into a male voice choir. In the film, the coal miners defend Robeson against racial abuse with the famous line: ‘Aren’t we all black down that pit?’ – a debt he repays in the film by sacrificing his life to save his trapped workmates.

Great poets and writers came out of the Renaissance, too. Angelina Weld Grimke caught an interesting aspect of the Harlem zietgeist – questioning the Christianity imposed on her forebears by slave-owners. In The Black Finger, she asks:

I have just seen a beautiful thing
Slim and still,
Against a gold, gold sky,
A straight cypress,

A black finger
Pointing upwards.
Why, beautiful, still finger are you black?
And why are you pointing upwards?

The sound of the Harlem Renaissance was the blues together, of course, with another music rooted in African American culture – jazz. Musicians like Mamie Smith, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith – the ‘Empress of the Blues’, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstong, Lena Horne and many others broke through into popular culture, bringing, as John Lomax hoped, white Americans onto some common ground, some shared identity with African Americans.

Albeit with a long way to go – even Harlem’s fabled Cotton Club admitted only white patrons until the late 1930s. Racism is hard to drive out of its trenches: Langston Hughes, another major figure to emerge in the Harlem Renaissance, put his shoulder to the wheel in his collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks:

“They were people who went in for Negroes—Michael and Anne, the Carraways. But not in the social-service, philanthropic sort of way, no. They saw no use in helping a race that was already too charming and naive and lovely for words. Leave them unspoiled and just enjoy them, Michael and Anne felt.”


Lincoln’s recording – regarded as more than unlikely – http://www.firstsounds.org/features/lincoln.php

Thin and reedy – https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2018/01/hearing-abraham-lincolns-voice/

Edouard- Scott de Martinville – Au Claire de la Lunehttps://youtu.be/ENtsJ08pLl0?feature=shared

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – https://www.llnl.gov/

The Hymn of Ugarit – https://youtu.be/QpxN2VXPMLc?feature=shared

Stonehenge acoustics – https://news.artnet.com/art-world/stonehenge-acoustics-1905935 and Stonehenge enhanced acoustics for people inside the monument | Science News

The sound of Stonehenge – https://youtu.be/RserYsBi_Uo?feature=shared

Stonehenge – https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/researchers-reveal-stonehenge-stones-hold-incredible-musical-properties

Archeoacoustics – Woodbridge, Kleiner and Astrom’s experiments – Archaeoacoustics: Introduction (christerhamp.se)

The Song of Lady Meng Jiang recorded in Shanghai in 1901 – https://libraries.indiana.edu/firstrecordings

Neanderthal flute – https://youtu.be/EHXV07YCGKY

Stone, Jonathan W.. Listening to the Lomax Archive: The Sonic Rhetorics of African American Folksong in the 1930s (Michigan UP)

The earliest recording of Jefferson Airplane – you might want to start at 16 mins 40 secs – https://youtu.be/fdgU91j_kHc?t=1015

Stradivarius – https://www.science.smith.edu/climatelit/stradivarius-violins/

Steven Mithen’s revews – and his response – are clustered in a review feature published by CUP – https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774306000060

Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survivehttps://youtu.be/RUGYe5TzPBg?feature=shared (though the costumes are better in Priscilla Queen of the Desert)

Bobbi Campbell Jr – Gay in the 80s website – Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive posted June 7, 2012 by Colin Clews – https://www.gayinthe80s.com/tag/bobbi-campbell/

YouTube – Lead Belly in a 1935 March of Time newsreel re-enacting his meeting with John Lomax, including sickening prison-learned obsequiousness – https://youtu.be/QxykqBmUCwk?feature=shared

The Lomax Collections at the Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/collections/?q=lomax

YouTube – Harlem Renaissance summary – https://youtu.be/90PTxdsqfsA?feature=shared

YouTube – longer PBS programme on the Harlem Renaissance – https://youtu.be/hEJS39QuEAs?feature=shared

The Proud Valley – full film – with Paul Robeson: https://youtu.be/UyNWpRY5lH8?feature=shared

The Cotton Club – https://youtu.be/fdDsBg_p1v8?feature=shared

Langston Hughes The Ways of White Folks (Random House) – quote is from his short story Slave on the Block


The Village Drummer – the Sologne (c) 2003 meirion harries

2 replies »

  1. What an inspired meditation on sound—from the sound space of Stonehenge and a Stradivarius to Leadbelly and Lomax! More please.

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