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Reverb Effect Season 1, Episode 2: Transcript

Return to the audio for Reverb Effect episode 2.

Daniela Sheinin: How do past voices resonate in the present moment? And how do we make sense of those voices? What were they trying to say and whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.

Audio (Edison Phonograph): I am the Edison Phonograph. Created by the great wizard of the new world, to delight those who would have melody or be amused. I can sing you tender songs of love. I can give you merry tales and joyous laughter. I can transport you to the realms of music. I can cause you to join in the rhythmic dance. I can lull the babe to sweet repose, or waken in the aged heart soft memories of youthful days.No matter what may be your mood, I am always ready to entertain you. When your day's work is done, I can bring the theater or the opera to your home. I can give you grand opera, comic opera or vaudeville. I can give you sacred or popular music, dance, orchestra or instrumental music. I can render solos, duets, trios, quartets. I can aid in entertaining your guests.

Daniela Sheinin: That was a 1906 Edison wax cylinder recording, an advertisement used by phonograph dealers. A mildly unnerving voice as though the machine were talking directly to you, selling its many features. It might make you laugh or cry. It could bring the opera into your home. It could allow you to hear the voices of your loved ones, even if they are far away. People in 1906 were not ignorant to the recording process, but that still didn't settle the way people understood the sounds coming out of the machine. What was a recording? Was it the machine talking? Was it the machine reading a written record? Had it captured the actual voice of the person, it could now release into the room. Why was this particular machine advertising itself? Today we can say that this was performer, Len Spencer, talking as the phonograph directly to potential consumers. But this was not always so simple.

Since the late nineteenth century, these machines captured voices talking and singing, musical instruments and performances, animal and city noises. These were the sounds of the phonograph. For us listening today, an archive of sounds. For historians, it's a particularly exciting moment when you can literally hear the voices of the people you study. It provides a different entry point into their lived experience, framed by varied inflections, rhythms, and tones. The recording is a thing left behind, the preserved sound that exists in the archive, a lived rendition of a moment captured in time surviving to this day. 

Audio (Edison Phonograph): I can enable you to always hear the voices of your loved ones, even though they are far away. I talk in every language. I can help you to learn other languages. I am made with the highest degree of mechanical skill. My voice is the ...

Daniela Sheinin: Welcome to episode two of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan, Department of History. I'm your host, Daniela Sheinin. This episode features recent PhD, Dr. J. Martin Vest. His dissertation and current book project, "Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1870 to 1930" considers the evolution of early sound recording and playback technologies. He pays particular attention to the entanglements of phonographic technology with popular understandings of sound, hearing and social difference. From manufacturing and distributing the machines, to the increasingly sophisticated chains of motors, belts, pulleys and cabinets to transmit sound, to the practices and modes of listening and thinking encouraged by interactions with the machines. He traces the ways recorded sound technologies created new social worlds in the twentieth century from mass publics to the family home.

J. Martin Vest: On August 26, 1907, a parcel arrived at the home of the Reverend James Sunderland, his wife, and their adult daughter. It would have been a substantial package and the Sunderlands likely had to work together to get it open. Once its contents, a fancy looking machine of steel and wood, had been liberated and placed in the parlor, the reverend knew just what to do. Several days earlier, he had received a prophecy of this package's arrival by way of a letter from his son Ralph in Omaha, who had also sent along a strange artifact. A hollow cylinder of black wax. Sunderland retrieved the wax cylinder from wherever he had stashed and mounted it on the new machine and listened as it began to speak.

Audio (Sunderland Wax Cylinder): Hello father. This is Ralph at Omaha. August 17th, nineteen hundred and seven. I’m sending this record by mail so that you can put it on your new graphophone that you will have received by express in a few days, and which is a gift from your children who are not at home.

J. Martin Vest: The voice of son, Ralph, filled the Sunderlands' parlor, informing them that the phonograph, a Columbia graphophone to be precise, was a gift from their adult children. In addition to the phonograph and Ralph's message, the Sunderland children had also sent along a number of blanks. These empty wax cylinders, Ralph instructed, were to be placed on the phonograph, filled with whatever message the Reverend so desired, and then sent through the mails just like a handwritten letter. For years following that day in 1907 the Sunderlands kept up a robust two way traffic in home recordings. They sang songs for one another, told jokes, gossiped, apprised one another of the local weather and some long holiday and birthday greetings. It's impossible to know just how many recordings the Sunderland family eventually made, nor how long they kept at it. But a few years ago, a descendant of the James Sunderland family donated 33 of the family's wax cylinder home recordings to the University of California at Santa Barbara.

There they entered the holdings of the UCSB library who digitized them and made them available as part of their online cylinder audio archive. Individually, these recordings are not unlike other home recordings from the same period. Some early home phonographs allowed users to make their own recordings, a feature that fell by the wayside as flat black, 78 RPM records overtook the wax cylinder as the medium of choice. Before that happened, however, a generation of Americans had used their home phonographs to commit their voices to posterity. Their wax cylinder recordings occasionally pop up at yard or garage sales or in antique shops and a large number of them have been digitized by UC Santa Barbara. The Sunderland collection, however, offers a unique listen in on the American past, both by virtue of its extensiveness as well as the notoriety of its creators. The Sunderlands, were a busy bunch whose activities put them right at the center of some of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries important stories. We know a good deal about them and the lives they led away from the photograph's horn.

The story of the Sunderland family recordings begins with the Reverend James Sunderland himself, heard here in 1908 when he was nearly 74 years old.

James, of course, hadn't always been an elderly preacher. He was born December 16, 1834, at Hobcote Farm in Yorkshire, England to parents Thomas and Sarah Sunderland. When he was about 10, the family immigrated to the United States landing in New York City in 1844 before taking a steamer to Albany and then on the Buffalo. They settled in Busti, Chautauqua County, New York, but had no sooner gotten settled there before James' father became ill. much of the responsibility for running the farm fell on James' young shoulders. A situation made permanent when Thomas Sunderland passed away two years later. Now the Sunderlands had always been Weselyans, but in 1852 James became convinced that his interests were best served elsewhere and he joined the Baptist church. It was around this time that James also started trying to figure out his life's work. He considered medicine, but an opportunity to secure training fell through and he abandoned the idea.

He taught school for a while, did a little manual labor, worked as a traveling salesman, and started his own mercantile business. None of these pursuits panned out for the young man. In May, 1861 however, James went to work for the Iowa Baptist Education Society traveling around to the various churches of the area for the purpose of raising funds to support ministerial students at Burlington University. This first foray into church work though cut short by the civil war, marked the beginning of Sunderland's career in the ministry. The following year, he began preaching in a number of churches around Northeast Iowa. The ensuing years found the budding preacher taking pastoral and church administration positions in increasingly far flung locations across the United States, from Sault Ste. Marie to Seattle and many points in between. By this time, the Reverend was an old man and had enjoyed a long and healthy personal life. He had married three times, surviving his first two wives and had raised seven children into adulthood. Some of these folks found their way into the Sunderland audio archive. Ralph, we've met, but his brothers, Albert and Lester also make appearances. The woman heard here may be Cleora Sunderland, the reverend's third wife.

Audio (Sunderland Wax Cylinder)

J. Martin Vest: Now, James and Cleora had been married about a decade and a half in 1901 when the reverend's health began to decline. Back in 1872 not long after he had moved to Sioux City, he had been doing missionary work in some of the newly settled areas of Northern Iowa. Somewhere on the rough unfinished dirt highways of the Midwest, Sunderland succumbed to the sun and the dust. His skin became irritated and he itched all over and the symptoms soon developed into a severe case of eczema. For the next two decades, Sunderland's eczema flared up intermittently appearing every few years, throwing the reverend's life into chaos and disrupting his work on behalf of the church. The old enemy, however, always disappeared after a few months, allowing the Reverend to recuperate and salvage his work. This changed in Oakland. By 1895, the eczema had grown quite aggressive. Sometimes it was so bad. His eyes were swollen shut and by 1899, Sunderland had been forced to curtail his travels because of it.

In June of 1901, he resigned as district secretary of the American Baptist Mission Union. These were trying times for the Reverend, but he did what he could to keep busy in these years. He tended to some chickens on his property. He preached occasionally at the local Baptist church and taught Bible school classes for adults. He traveled to conventions when he could, visited with family and even did a little vacationing around the country. To help make ends meet, he worked for a while as secretary for his replacement in the American Baptist Mission Union. Though he had to give this up too after a while. As he looked back across the years, James Sunderland had much to be thankful for. He had served his God and his family faithfully and his condition, though painful, could do little to dim the reverend's pride in life well lived. Unfortunately, Sunderland's problems were soon to multiply. As his eczema worsened in the years around 1900, he turned desperately to a series of radical treatments. He subjected himself to all manner of chemicals, wraps, ointments, drugs, at least one of which left his face pockmarked with little holes. He also subjected himself to an experimental therapy we now know to be highly dangerous, exposure to x-rays. The reverend's x-ray treatments had not only not cured his eczema, but were probably also responsible for the cataracts he developed starting around 1907. You see, James Sunderland was going blind.

The cataracts clouding Sunderland's eyes deprived him of his capacity to read, a particularly grievous loss for a man who had indulged a lifelong love of books. If Sunderland could no longer read, his children thought, he might listen, and this is part of why they had sent him a photograph in the first place. Included in that 1907 care package sent to the Reverend was a cabinet full of pre recorded musical cylinders. We don't know what records Ralph and his sibling sent along, nor would additions the Reverend made over the years, but we know the kinds of musical recordings they could have chosen from. The reverend's record collection, almost certainly contained, for example, selections of sacred music such as Harry Anthony and James F. Harrison's 1906 recording of Draw Me Nearer.

Audio (“Draw Me Nearer”)

J. Martin Vest: But the Reverend might also have availed himself with a wide variety of more profane fare, committed to the phonograph’s horn in the years around 1900. Very popular in this period, were the recorded skits and comedy routines borrowed directly from the vaudeville stage, which more often than not treaded in racial or ethnic stereotypes. In 1906, the performers Albert Campbell and Bob Roberts recorded this skit.

Audio (“Skit”): Well, well if that ain't little Geney Murphy. How are you Murphy? Hello Casey! <inaudible> What talk have you man? What do you mean? Is well you know what I mean. Who was the fine lady you were with today? Why Geney you've gone crazy! Sure that was no lady, that was me wife, Ellen. By golly Casey I'm sorry for ya, I thought she was a human being. Is that so?

J. Martin Vest: One of the most popular types of music recorded in the years prior to the First World War was the military march. Following the Civil War, regimental musicians returned home with a large number of brass instruments, cornets, and saxhorns and tubas, as well as the musical training necessary to play them. These musicians and their military style instruments became the nuclei of thousands of local brass bands across the country. And by the 1880s the characteristic music of these local brass bands, the military march, was a national obsession. Not surprisingly, when commercial recording took off in the 1890s a large number of the selections committed to wax were military marches, and no one's marches sold better than that of John Philip Sousa, the so called March King. Sometime between 1901 and 1904 Sousa's grand concert band recorded this version of "El Capitan March."

Audio (Sousa march)

J. Martin Vest: Similarly, it was a rare record collection in the years prior to World War One that didn't have at least a handful of so-called "coon songs." The "coon song" represented arguably the most venomous piece of anti-black culture spawned by the long minstrel tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning in the 1840s, whites in blackface portrayed African Americans as music loving buffoons. But these early blackface performances, however, demeaning, weren't entirely without traces of sympathy and sometimes even veiled admiration for African Americans. By the 1890s however, these elements had largely disappeared from the blackface minstrel's repertoire. In place of the lovable black buffoon, white audiences were treated to depictions of violent, thieving, chicken and watermelon obsessed black monsters. Professional songwriters in New York's Tin Pan Alley provided the soundtrack for these blackface caricatures in the form of the "coon song." In 1907, Arthur Collins and Byron Harland recorded one such selection, "Bake Dat Chicken Pie" for the Edison Company.

Audio ("Bake Dat Chicken Pie")

J. Martin Vest: Notwithstanding this universe of prerecorded sonic entertainment, the Sunderland children were most interested in the phonograph's capacity to help Sunderland, for whom encroaching blindness had made writing difficult, keep in touch with his concerned children. Through the ritual of phonograph communication, the family hoped, Sunderland and his family scattered across the Western United States like seed broadcast to the wind might maintain the intimacy of the family circle. From a standpoint of the early twenty first century, nothing seems more clear than that sound recording should take the form that it had assumed by the interwar period. By then nationally and internationally renowned recording stars sang into the can for Victor, Columbia, Edison and the quickly proliferating field of smaller record companies. Recordings of Enrico Caruso, the original Dixieland Jazz Band or Bessie Smith circulated in the millions, welding strangers all over the world and to semi discrete communities of consumption. At the same time, recording's cheapness, and portability contributed to a fracturing of older sonic sociological formations, namely the nuclear family. As competition for the American ear heated up in the first decades of the twentieth century, record companies grew increasingly attuned to the needs of children, teenagers, and young adults. Markets segmented.

The young drifted away from the parlor and into their bedrooms, where generations of them consumed a parade of increasingly cacophonous music from hot jazz to hip-hop and heavy metal. Recorded sound though need not do any of these things. For the Sunderlands, it was precisely the technology's capacity to sonically reconstitute the family parlor that attracted them to the phonograph. The forces of modernity had contributed to the Sunderland's alienation from one another. James’ work for the church implicated him in a bureaucracy of national and even global scope. His inveterate wanderings on behalf of the world's lost souls would've been nearly impossible prior to the nineteenth century and of course Sunderland's regimen of ultra modern medical procedures had cost him his vision, decisively cutting him off from the written word and the last linkages to his distant children. But what canals and locomotives and good roads and x-rays had pulled apart, the Sunderlands hoped the phonograph might put back together.

Daniela Sheinin: Thank you so much for joining us. And a special thank you to our segment producer for the episode, Dr. J. Martin Vest. Our Editorial Board is Professor Melanie Tanielian and Matt Villeneuve, and our Production Team is Executive Producer Gregory Parker, and I'm your Season Producer, Daniela Sheinin. I hope you'll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in present. This is Reverb Effect.