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You Hear Dead People

A man speaking into a tube connected to a late 19th century phonograph
From The Phonograph and Phonograph-Graphophone (New York: Russel Bros. Printers, 1888), 9. The Graphophone was an attempt by Alexander Graham Bell’s company to improve on Thomas Edison’s original 1877 phonograph design.

Shuffle enough random songs and you’re certain to hear many singers who are no longer among the living. Before 1877, hearing voices of the dead would have been a supremely blood curdling experience. Yet we weirdos of today routinely listen to the sounds of the departed; we usually don’t even think about it. The invention of the phonograph fundamentally changed that aspect of the human condition, and altered how human-made sounds could travel through both space and time. Understanding how people reacted to this technology when it first arrived can reveal something important about who we’ve become.

Sources for Episode 3: You Hear Dead People

Select audio & written sources:

  • Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan’s audio clip was part of his toast to Thomas Edison and to the phonograph itself.1I admit that my goofy introduction to this episode felt just slightly like propping up a corpse and connecting servo motors to its arms and having it wave to passersby. From what little I know of Sir Arthur Sullivan–including his quip about how much bad music the new phonograph was likely to proliferate–it does seem like he too had a quirky sense of humor and might appreciate the effort here. That said, I’ll let you know if I’m suddenly haunted by apparitions singing about modern major-generals….
  • Edison on the many potential uses of the phonograph
  • Thomas Lambert’s talking clock
  • “Bottled speeches”
    • Robert G. Ingersoll, “On Liberty,” spoken by the author, 31 Dec., 1897 at the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, https://yalemusiclib.aviaryplatform.com/collections/213/collection_resources/13433 . For a nearly identical version of this poem entitled, “Apostrophe To Liberty,” see, e.g., Robert G. Ingersoll, Prose Poems and Selections from the Writings of Robert G. Ingersoll, Fourth Edition (New York: C.P. Farrell, 1890), 57–58.
  • Science of the ear at the Kansas Academy of Science
    • J.T. Lovewell, “On Sound Transmission by Electricity.” Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1872-1880), 6 (1877): 25–29. https://doi.org/10.2307/3623543.
  • Technological advances in the 1890s and “the perfected phonograph”
  • Bird song from 1913
  • Charles Kellogg, professional bird imitator
  • Garrett Hobart, Vice President of the United States
  • Recording the Qur’an
  • Béla Bartók & music of the Hungarian peasantry
    • See, e.g., Judit Frigyesi, “Béla Bartók and the Concept of Nation and ‘Volk’ in Modern Hungary.” The Musical Quarterly 78, no. 2 (1994): 255–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/742543.
  • Siti binti Saad: East African pop star
    • Laura Fair, “Siti binti Saad (c. 1885–1950): ‘Giving Voice to the Voiceless,’ Swahili Music, and the Global Recording Industry in the 1920s and 1930s,” in Dennis Cordell, editor The Human Tradition in Modern Africa (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012), 175–190.
  • You can interact with OpenAI’s Chat GPT conversational chat bot at https://chat.openai.com .
  • 1
    I admit that my goofy introduction to this episode felt just slightly like propping up a corpse and connecting servo motors to its arms and having it wave to passersby. From what little I know of Sir Arthur Sullivan–including his quip about how much bad music the new phonograph was likely to proliferate–it does seem like he too had a quirky sense of humor and might appreciate the effort here. That said, I’ll let you know if I’m suddenly haunted by apparitions singing about modern major-generals….

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