With my friends, I like to extract the text with a reader and just send the article along. Is there any copyright issue doing this?

Voices From the Grave

Terry Teachout
Oct. 8, 2015 3:39 p.m. ET
In 1931, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest person to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, turned 90. By then the seemingly ageless judge was widely regarded as a national treasure, so CBS marked the occasion with a prime-time birthday tribute in which he spoke briefly from his home in Washington. 

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Justice Holmes was the most eloquent jurist this country has yet produced, and he rose to the near-final occasion (he retired from the bench 10 months later and died in 1935) with characteristic grace, closing by quoting his own elegant translation of a passage from a medieval poem in praise of wine, women and song that he bent to his own austere purposes. “To live is to function,” he said. “That is all there is to living. And so I end with a line from a Latin poet who uttered the message more than fifteen hundred years ago: ‘Death plucks my ear and says, Live—I am coming.’”

Three years ago the Harvard Law School Library, where Holmes’s papers are housed, launched an online “digital suite”that allows anyone with a computer to access its digitized 100,000-document collection of Holmesiana. I knew from having read G. Edmund White’s 2006 biography that the 1931 radio broadcast was recorded off the air and that the Harvard Law School Library, where Holmes’s papers are housed, possessed a tape copy of the recording. Why, I wondered, wasn’t it possible to use the Holmes Digital Suite to listen to that 1931 aircheck?

I got in touch with Harvard a few months ago and suggested that they post the broadcast online, and now they’ve done so here.(You’ll need RealPlayer to play the file; it can be downloaded here.) To read what Holmes said on that long-ago evening is to be stirred to the marrow. But to actually be able to hear it—to listen to the tremulous yet dignified voice of a man who met Abraham Lincoln and was wounded three times in the Civil War, then spent the better part of three decades sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court—is an experience of another order altogether.

In case you neglected to do the math, Justice Holmes was born in 1841. That makes him one of a significant number of notable men and women born in the 19th century whose voices were recorded for posterity. So far as is known, the earliest-born person to have left behind a sound recording of his speaking voice was Alfred Tennyson, who was born in 1809, the same year as Lincoln and Felix Mendelssohn. He recorded several of his poems in 1890 on a machine borrowed from Thomas Edison,and one of them, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” can be easily found on YouTube. So can the voices of, among others, Max Beerbohm, Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Browning, G.K. Chesterton,Mahatma Gandhi, O. Henry, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling,Vladimir Lenin, H.L. Mencken, Florence Nightingale, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy (speaking in English!), Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson and W.B. Yeats. In addition, there are a few fascinating counterfeits, including alleged recordings of Walt Whitman (widely regarded as a fake) and Oscar Wilde (definitely phony).

To hear these antique recordings, near-opaque though some of them are, is at once mysterious and moving. The pitted wax sputters and crackles furiously, and you wonder for an instant what the fuss could possibly be about. But then the curtain parts and the 19th century comes to life for a few precious seconds, sometimes through a glass darkly, sometimes with the near-hallucinatory sharpness of a daguerreotype by Eugène Atget or Mathew Brady.

On occasion they can be unexpectedly funny, as when Browning tries to recite “How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix,” comes to an abrupt halt, then admits, “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t remember me own verses!” Once in a while the humor is both deliberate and biting. Sir Arthur Sullivan, for instance, recorded this grim prophecy when he first saw Edison’s phonograph at work in 1888: “For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.” If only he could have known…

I find it little short of miraculous that these vivid glimpses of the fast-receding past have survived into the uncertain present. How wonderful that the Web has put so many of them at our fingertips—and how good it is to now be reminded by the electronic shade of a very great man that the only possible answer to death is life, lived to the hilt.
Lou Judson
Intuitive Audio

On Oct 10, 2015, at 1:39 PM, Steve Ramm <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> Some folks couldn't access this. This should work better
> Steve
> Here is something from that might interest you: The haunting  
> recorded sounds of 19th-century voices