Voices... Of The Dead!
March 7, 2008 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm curious about the voices of famous and influential folks who died before the creation of recorded sound. Did Sir John A. MacDonald sound like Groundskeeper Willy? Did Lincoln have a deep voice? I'm particularly interested in historical Canadians, but any contributions are welcome.
posted by Alvy Ampersand to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We have some descriptions. I remember reading that Lincoln had a higher-pitched voice than average, but I can't cite that. :(
posted by cmiller at 10:05 AM on March 7, 2008

I believe Lincoln's voice has been characterized as being "reedy." Yeah, need cites.
posted by mumkin at 10:08 AM on March 7, 2008

I remember hearing that Lincoln's voice was high and "reedy" too -- and I am going to go out on a limb and say I heard this around the time Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, came out. Also, I recall that Lincoln's voice might have been this way because of a rare genetic disorder that caused his voice to be high and thin -- of course, in scanning the article I've linked to, they don't mention anything about that -- still it's an interesting article -- especially when you consider the whole notion of trying to go back and gather information on famous people using technology that wasn't present or widely available (either analyzing DNA or gathering sound recordings) at the time.
posted by nnk at 10:14 AM on March 7, 2008

ooh! Took too long!
posted by nnk at 10:15 AM on March 7, 2008

This is just hypothesis, but for John A. MacDonald I imagine he had something of a Scottish accent, but it wasn't Groundskeeper Willy thick (as awesome as that would have been). He was born in Glasgow in 1815, but emigrated to Kingston in 1820. There were plenty of Scots in Upper Canada to be sure, but others from the UK and beyond as well. I imagine he'd pick up some Scottish accenting, but not as much as someone from Scotland. Totally conjecture though.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:17 AM on March 7, 2008

I'm 99% sure Lincoln's "reedy" voice was mentioned in James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom
posted by ewiar at 10:31 AM on March 7, 2008

How about the Mona Lisa? Scientists in Japan studied her bone structure to get an idea of her voice.
posted by mochapickle at 10:34 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Apparently, speaking like Groundsman Willy was MacDonald's party trick.

NARRATOR: He was good humored. At drinking parties, Macdonald amused his cronies by doing impressions in a thick Scottish accent.
posted by zamboni at 10:35 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

s/man/keeper. My Simpsons cred lies shattered.
posted by zamboni at 10:36 AM on March 7, 2008

This reminds me that I have no recorded voice of my mother and just a short recording of my father's voice as he annotated the reel to reel tape of my bar mitzvah in the 60s.

Growing up in the era of the Super 8 [silent] movie, many of us probably don't have audio recordings of those very close to us.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:17 AM on March 7, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the quick responses! Just to be clear, I'm not interested in just Abe or Sir John, any other vocal descriptions of folks long dead are welcome. Cites would be cool, but aren't required.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:44 AM on March 7, 2008

I remember, but can't find, a magazine story about a fellow who invented a voice recorder in the mid-19th century. He used a smoky lamp to put a layer of soot on a sheet of glass, put that on a rotating turntable and had people speak into a megaphone attached to a needle at the small end, which engraved the sound onto the soot layer. There was a screw mechanism to move the needle toward the center -- just like the acoustic disks that appeared in the late 1800s. However, there was no playback mechanism, so it was just a curiosity. He went around the country demonstrating it and got Lincoln to record his voice.

If the recording of Lincoln still exists, it could be read by laser today. . . .
posted by KRS at 12:07 PM on March 7, 2008

cheating a bit On a recording I have at home (can't find it on Amazon at the moment), there's a brief recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan speaking, when he visited Thomas Edison one day. Can barely hear it and it's brief, but it's there. Neat.
posted by Melismata at 12:49 PM on March 7, 2008

Best answer: Well, the Edison National Historic Site has a collection of recordings online such as PM Gladstone from 1888 and Shackleton in 1910. I would have thought Library and Archives Canada would have a bunch of files but it seems to be all music online. They do have some interesting links if you want to follow them.
posted by saucysault at 1:17 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

My dad (who is in his early 80's) had an old-lady neighbor when he was a boy, who recalled Linclon's voice being high pitched and not pleasant at all.
posted by blackunicorn at 4:19 PM on March 7, 2008

Tapes of Theodore Roosevelt exist, but apparently in his earlier years he was squeaky and all teeth and spittle.

Of course we in the US *know* all Canadians did and do sound like Terrance and Phillip.
posted by gjc at 6:29 PM on March 7, 2008

"Also, I recall that Lincoln's voice might have been this way because of a rare genetic disorder that caused his voice to be high and thin"

That would make sense; Lincoln was believe to have Acromegaly, a disorder that causes an unnatural lengthening of the facial features. British actor Paul Benedict has this disorder -- he played Bentley on the Jeffersons, and was in Waiting For Guffman as the man who (spoiler alert) wasn't Guffman. His voice is kind of high and reedy.
posted by mgrichmond at 10:15 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

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