- James Weldon Johnson and the Speech Lab Recordings
Projects of historical reconstruction are common to all contemporary oppositional intellectuals in America. This follows from the erasure of ‘other’ from dominant historical accounts; if it is said by those who deny us now that we have no past, then we have to insist that we have a past as deeply as we have a present.(Hunt 1990:201)
On Christmas Eve in 1935, James Weldon Johnson met with Columbia Speech Professor George W. Hibbitt (1895-1965), a lexicologist and scholar of American dialects, and read thirteen of his poems. Johnson, a polymath who distinguished himself as a poet, a lawyer, a professor, a lyricist for Tin Pan Alley musicals, the American Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and a leader of the NAACP, had returned to his alma mater to capture his poetry in— or perhaps reconvert it to—sound.1 Together, Johnson and Hibbitt created four aluminum records of Johnson reading his poetry, with selections from Johnson’s 1917 Fifty Years and Other Poems (his first collection of poems), the much-praised 1927 God’s Trombones, and his 1935 St. Peter Relates an Incident. While bits of these recordings, most frequently the recording of “The Creation,” have emerged in poetry audio anthologies,2 the majority have lain dormant in the archive. It is odd that these recordings were never published in light of their quality. Many poetry recordings made in Hibbitt’s speech lab were released in a series of records produced by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and sold to schools on a subscription basis (more on this later). Johnson may have opted to record only for Columbia’s on-site record archive, and as a result, these recordings were never distributed, save for the fragments that made it out of the archive—until now. For the first time, these recordings are available for public download, historically contextualized, as part of the PennSound archive (Johnson 1935).
The context for the creation of these recordings begins in 1931, when the poet Vachel Lindsay approached Barnard Professor of Speech W. Cabell Greet (1901-1972) and implored him to record Lindsay reading his poetry. Lindsay had recently been rebuffed by the commercial record companies he had approached since their executives had believed that poetry was not sufficiently commercial to warrant the production. Greet, who possessed a Speak-o-Phone recording device that he used to record samples of American dialects for his research, agreed to use it to record Lindsay. In January of 1931, Greet and Lindsay recorded nearly five hours’ worth of Lindsay’s poetry (Mustazza 2014).3 Lindsay died nine months later.
Galvanized by what he saw as the recording industry’s disrespect for poetry in favor of more profitable content, Greet partnered with Hibbitt to create a series of recordings of American poets, all made in Greet’s speech lab, with some being distributed in a series that would come to be known as The Contemporary Poets Series. Greet and Hibbitt worked with Walter C. Garwick, an audio engineer and the inventor of the portable field-recording device he later sold to John A. Lomax for use in recording African American spirituals, cowboy songs, and other ethnographic repertoires (Mustazza 2014). The series, which grew to include poets such as T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Harriet Monroe, and Robert Frost, was distributed by the NCTE on 78rpm records to schools and to the public on a subscription basis, intended for “teachers, students, and other lovers of literature” (Greet 1934:312).
Greet and Hibbitt actively sought out poets whose work was better heard than read, those that foregrounded the sonic facets of their poetry. In a call for suggestions for poets to be recorded in the series, published in American Speech, Greet prompted (1934:312):
“You are asked to give some thought to the use of records in studying and teaching literature, to ask yourselves the following questions:
What poems of present-day authors lose most when transferred to the printed page, and should, therefore, be preserved as the poet reads them?
What poets and what poems would I and my friends...