Friday, March 29, 2019

The NRR Project #59: Wilson's bitter Armistice Day speech

Was Woodrow Wilson a prophetic martyr, or a self-destructive jerk? The little pendulum of historical regard swings back and forth. He is often lionized as a visionary who dreamed of world peace and international cooperation. In his own time, and long after, he was judged to be a delusional interventionist.

Armistice Day radio broadcast
Recorded: November 10, 1923
Speaker: Woodrow Wilson

Wilson was narrowly elected to a second term in November, 1916. His slogan was “He Kept Us Out of War.” On April 2, 1917, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany. When the war ended on November 11, 1918 he was obsessed with creating a lasting peace, and he took personal command, going to the Paris Peace Conference and acting in what many considered a high-handed, unilateral, condescending manner. In no time at all, he alienated both his foreign allies and those in Congress he needed in order to see his peace plan succeed.

He barnstormed across the country, trying to drum up popular support for his plan. Exhausted, a stroke disabled him in Pueblo, Colorado on October 2, 1919. The plan failed.

The best material on the speech itself and the context in which it was delivered can be found here at the National Recording Registrywebsite — Richard Striner’s essay is impeccable.

The recording is historic in other ways. It’s the first surviving recording of a radio broadcast. More importantly, it’s the earliest surviving electrical recording. Until this time, performers recorded and played back mechanically, on the same phonographic device. Speakers were expected to half-yell into a recording horn attached to a stylus, which inscribed their vocal patterns.

Electric recording brought in the microphone. Suddenly and forever, the dynamics of performing changed. A microphone could gather a wider range of frequencies. It could make small voices bigger, and vice versa. Performers no longer had to project to the back of an auditorium. They could snuggle up to the microphone and address the listener in a much more informal and intimate way. The Age of the Crooner was nigh.

As for Wilson, the judgment of history may flutter this way and that. He had the best intentions and sabotaged them repeatedly. On this recording, five years after Armistice Day, he sounds sad, bitter, and disapproving, almost peevish. In less than three months, he would be dead.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Ma Rainey sings ‘See See Rider Blues.’

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