Here on this great gray island, this concrete battleship firmly aground on the dead oyster beds of the Hudson and the East River, in NYC, we rub shoulders with all the world’s accents as we scramble down narrow corridors to man the engines of commerce and pleasure. Mosaic or melting pot, we can listen to every dialect in the world, not just across space, but across time too, as each generation leaves its linguistic mark.
In my last post, we looked at the lost dialect of New York’s upper crust, that glamorous transatlantic dialect of Rooseveltean presidents and Hollywood stars. This dialect once shined best on the silver screen, the diction of boarding schools transformed into performance art in movie palaces, the inspiration and affectation of local yokels everywhere seeking their own slice of Broadway glamour.
It’s almost gone now, a thin strip of celluloid on the linguistic palimpsest of the city, with only a few native speakers left. That old black-and-white entertainment dialect has been almost completely overwritten, first by the neutral Midwestern tones of the evening news and the Tonight Show, and now by the moronic profanity of Jersey Wives and Jersey Shores.
Yet thanks to the same web that has spawned these contemporary monsters, we can listen to the way people once spoke, or at least how they spoke in the movies. But before their voices were recorded on film, what did New Yorkers sound like?
As we travel back in time, the talkies grow silent, and the film stars can only text us from the screen. Traveling farther back, flickering film screens are replaced by creaking floorboards, the voice of that earlier age lost to us—almost. Some of those 19th century actors made a successful translation to film. The first great cowboy star, William S. Hart, Friend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, was one. Hart was born in Newburgh, NY in 1864, and became famous as a Shakespearean actor way before the first motion pictures. In 1914, at age 49, he left the bright lights of Broadway for the still brighter California sunshine to launch a new career as a silent film star. At the end of his film career, his epic labor of love, Tumbleweeds, first issued in 1925, was re-released in 1939 with a spoken prologue by Hart, the only recording of his voice that I know of. This is a must-listen for any student of voice, as Hart’s command of the language is absolutely thrilling. The rolled r’s and every vowel and consonant clearly enunciated are now the stuff of parody (read the transcript of Jon Lovitz and John Lithgow’s brilliant Master Thespian skit from SNL), but in an age of electricity, it took this style of hyper-annunciation, and rhythmic pattern was just the ticket to bring an audience to its feet.
Oratory and rhetoric was a field of study, a tool necessary for elites to influence more common men, and thus surely a target of emulation of all, influencing private modes as well. Another example, that “Silver-Tongued Orator of the Platte,” William Jennings Bryan, declaiming in the same tradition in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. (This recording is a 1923 re-enactment of the speech that brought down the house at the Democratic Convention in 1896.) Some say that Jennings was also author Frank Baum’s inspiration for the Wizard of Oz. As an old speech writer, I love the declamatory rhythms which still echo in the voice of American politicians, including our own silver-tongued president, Barack Obama.
Next time, we’ll look farther back into voices of the past, ditching the gaslight for whale oil, and Broadway for the Bowery, and elite affectations for the language of the common man.