August 10, 2007

Abe’s Voice.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jim @ 6:56 pm

lincoln-07.jpgI have a good ear for voices. There have been times when I’ve recognized someone from his or her voice when I didn’t recognize the face. I hear and remember inflections, cadences, pitches, timbres, and accents. Fascinating stuff, that.

Then there is Abe Lincoln.

Chances are excellent that you have read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address dozens of times, if not more, and you probably heard various actors recite those perfectly crafted phrases and sentences. When I read the Gettysburg Address, in my mind’s ear I “hear” the beautiful baritone of Raymond Massey.***

Problem is that my “mind’s ear” is wrong, for history tells us that President Lincoln’s voice was anything but a beautiful baritone. On the contrary, it was described as “shrill, squeaking, piping [and] unpleasant.” Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated twelve years before the first recording of the human voice, so the sound of his voice is lost to history. In fact, there isn’t a person on the planet today who has ever heard Lincoln’s voice.

I admit that I do experience a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to imagine Lincoln sounding more like Pee-wee Hermann than Raymond Massey, but, still, I’d sure love to be able to hear the real thing, shrill and piping though it might be.

***This Wikipedia entry suggests (without any citation to a source) that Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, heard Massey perform early in his career and was “struck by the similarity between Massey’s speaking voice and that of his father.” My guess is that the story is complete baloney, or if Robert Lincoln really said that, he was flattering Massey.

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