Vachel Lindsay and the W. Cabell Greet Recordings

By Mustazza, Chris | Chicago Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Vachel Lindsay and the W. Cabell Greet Recordings


Mustazza, Chris, Chicago Review


"Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance.... Poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music. " --Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934)

In April 1912, the Victor Talking Machine Company sent a recording engineer to the Indianapolis home of the "Hoosier Poet," James Whitcomb Riley. In an era before the adoption of electrical microphones, a homebound Riley read his dialect poems into a recording horn. For a record label like Victor considering the distribution of poetry, Riley's emphasis on the sound of his poems, particularly the phonetic aesthetics of his dialect poems, made him an excellent choice, as did his popularity in the late nineteenth century as a touring performer. Victor later informed Riley that the records were insufficiently commercial due to their sound quality, but at the poet's request, they agreed to arrange another recording session and eventually released some of the records. In many ways, Riley's insistence on creating these records toward the end of his life is an antecedent for the story of Vachel Lindsay's sound recordings, just as Riley's poetics provided a space for the performance-forward poetry that Lindsay would develop in the Chicago of the early twentieth century.

About a generation younger than Riley, Vachel Lindsay followed the older poet in using the space between sound and meaning as the primary vehicle of his expressivity. Lindsay's poems are what I might call sonic ekphrases, sounded representations of the people and events that made up his America. (1) Thus, for Lindsay as well as for Riley, it is no wonder that the burgeoning technology of sound recording held such allure.

For Lindsay, the potential to have his poems preserved in something so close to their truest form--the performance, rather than (to him) an ersatz libretto in the printed text alone--prompted him to seek out record companies to record his poems. Like Riley, Lindsay was rebuffed by the record companies that he approached in the late 1920s --"by one in a very cruel manner," likely Victor--because his work was not sufficiently commercial. (2) Turning to the academy, Lindsay solicited the assistance of Barnard College professor and lexicologist W. Cabell Greet, who owned a Speak-o-Phone recording device that he used to record samples of American dialects. Greet agreed, and together, in January 1931, they recorded nearly five hours' worth of Lindsay's poetry on thirty-eight aluminum records. Lindsay died eleven months later.

Lindsay's appeal to Greet is significant because it marks a key moment in the birth of the poetry audio archive. Increasingly disdainful of the commercial record companies for their rejection of the Lindsay project that he embraced, Greet was inspired to begin an entire series of poetry recordings, which came to include the most eminent modernist poets, including Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and James Weldon Johnson. The practice of recording poetry has blossomed in the age of digital recording through archives such as PennSound, where the Lindsay recordings and others from Greet's series, The Speech Lab Recordings, reside. These modern archives can trace their lineages through this historical moment and to Lindsay and Greet as central participants in the founding of the poetry audio archive.

I have previously written about these Lindsay recordings as the inception of and inspiration for The Contemporary Poets Series, a subset of The Speech Lab Recordings dedicated to poetry and eventually distributed to schools on a subscription basis. (3) In that article, I make the argument that a significant detail in the history of these recordings is that Greet was a lexicologist and a scholar of American dialects--an ethnographer. Further, his recording engineer, Walter C. Garwick, invented the portable recording device that he would later sell to John A. Lomax and the Library of Congress for use in creating Lomax's famous ethnographic field recordings, including those of cowboy songs and African American spirituals. …

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