This is a guest post by Janet McKee, Recorded Sound Reference Librarian in the Library’s Recorded Sound Section.
Repeatedly over the years a recording purporting to be the voice of Walt Whitman has surfaced. Sadly, it has long been the opinion of the reference staff at the Library of Congress that the recording, like the cardboard butterfly pictured on Whitman’s finger below, is a fake.
The recording has stirred considerable controversy. In 1951 on the NBC radio show, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a recording of what the host claimed was a copy of a wax cylinder of Walt Whitman reading four lines from his 1888 poem, “America,” was played. The original wax cylinder was identified as coming from the collection of Roscoe Haley. It has never been located and the cylinder recording was not found when his sister sold his collection after his death. Sometime in 1974 a cassette
recording, Voices of the Poets, with this recording on it was released by the Center for Cassette Studies.
Whitman’s life, especially his later years, was very well documented in Horace Traubel’s diaries. Traubel, close personal friend and biographer of Walt Whitman, never mentions a recording of Whitman being made although he would have no doubt known about it, if it actually occurred. Although there was brief correspondence between A.O. Tate, Thomas Edison’s private secretary, and Sylvester Baxter, a friend of Whitman, about making a recording, there is no evidence in Edison’s records that a recording was actually made.
Allen Koenigsberg of Brooklyn College, a sound recording specialist and a leading authority on fake recordings, published an article in 1992 in Antique Phonography Monthly (Vol. X, No. 3, Issue 87) describing the recording as a hoax. He also states that Roscoe Haley never showed anyone his cylinder collection, stonewalled on its actual location and was, in fact, associated with a number of other legendary, unauthenticated recordings. Professor Koenigsberg believes that the voice on the recording is that of an actor.
But a much more subjective measure is what the recording sounds like. Early acoustic recordings had a limited dynamic range. They were recorded without using electricity or microphones. Samuel Brylawski, former Head of the Library’s Recorded Sound Section, said in 1992 interview on NPR’s Morning Edition that recording in 1890’s was crude at best and all recordings from the time are enormously noisy. He notes that what you hear on the Whitman cylinder is a voice that comes through loud and clear and the surface noise on the cylinder is in the background.
Allen Koenigsberg, in his previously quoted article in Antique Phonograph Monthly, reports that he took a recording of the tape to several sound experts, including engineers at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives, and they were unanimous in their belief that the recording contained too much bass response for a recording made about 1890 and the signal-to-noise ratio was much too high.
Below are links to the Whitman cylinder and an authenticated recording from 1890 of Alfred, Lord Tennyson reading is poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” recorded on a wax cylinder by representatives of Thomas Edison. They’re supposed to be from the same time, recorded on the same material, using the same techniques and the same equipment by the same company.
What do you think?
And about Whitman’s butterfly pictured above. The picture was one of Whitman’s favorites and he described the butterfly as being both real and “one of his good friends.” However, when experts closely examined the picture, they could see the wire holding it to his finger.