You think William Jennings Bryan surely must have had one of those thunderous, rolling voices, rising and falling like the tides, like Jehovah.
Not so. It was a light voice, a high baritone. He talked fast, with hardly any drama at all.
Booker T. Washington's voice was deeper, but clipped and precise. Buffalo Bill Cody, on the other hand, was a showman to the core, and his voice rang when he rode into the arena of his Wild West extravaganza to say, "Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you a Congress of the Rough Riders of the World."
Theodore Roosevelt, so the story goes, was soon to pick up on that last phrase.
You can hear these long-dead people talking again, you can hear Ellen Terry doing Juliet, and Joseph Jefferson doing Rip Van Winkle, the role he could never escape (he assumed a comic Dutch accent), and Rudyard Kipling, elegantly British, and Leo Tolstoy, heavily Russian. There are minstrels and church choirs and comic monologuists and marching bands. And politicians, from Coolidge to McAdoo to Harding (now there was a mellifluous voice) to Taft. Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth, Tom Edison himself ... in fact 668 recordings, all on one disc.
The Library of Congress has compressed 33 hours of recordings onto one side of this new digital disc, and enterprising listeners can use it at the performing arts reading room in the Madison Building. Produced to mark the centennial of the invention of the audio disc in 1887 by Washington's Emile Berliner, the disc is the size of a 45-rpm record.
"There are limitations," said reference librarian Sam Brylawski. "The quality is not always good. And there are blips of silence every half-minute or so. But we've got almost every recorded spoken word that the library has, before 1910."
Until 1925, when electricity was used for recordings, everything was voice activated, made by talking into a horn. This means that when you hear a famous speech like Bryan's "Cross of Gold" address, you are not really there at the Democratic convention in 1896. It is a studio reenactment. Some of the famous speeches are not even made by their original authors.
One ubiquitous voice is that of George Graham, a former train caller who was discovered by Berliner hawking patent medicines at Seventh and Pennsylvania here. "We have tried to pick whole collections of records, not just highlights," said Brylawski. "For instance, we have all of the Nation's Forum label. That way we save a huge amount of ephemera, lost genres of entertainment."
There is raucous vaudeville humor, ethnic humor to offend almost anyone, rube humor. How long has it been since everybody west of Albany was considered a rube? Who remembers how big the Christy Minstrels used to be? When did you last hear "Barbara Frietchie" recited straight?
Maybe we are still an adolescent country, but when you hear these sounds from our past you realize we have come quite a long way at that.