Oral History

Julia Bennett, “Beneath the Ashes”

Link to Transcript

This oral history project was inspired by a 1959 newspaper article that reports an accident in which my grandmother was badly burned. I have heard this story many times from both my mother and my grandmother, so I was rather shocked by the Telegram–News’s version of events. Firstly, the article’s crass, sensational tone is both unprofessional and distasteful. The author’s reference to my grandmother as a “flaming torch” is the most egregious example. Secondly, I find it strange that both the headline and the article place most of their emphasis not on my grandmother, but on my grandfather’s rescuing my grandmother: “LYNN MAN SAVES WIFE FROM DEATH,” the vague and dramatic headline reads. It gives no information about the circumstances under which he saved her, but it does imply that his actions are the most important in the story. Later, in a statement that oozes chauvinism, the author maintained that my grandmother’s life “probably was saved by the presence of mind of her husband.” Obviously this writer never saw the dazed man blowing on numb hands in the hospital corridor, unaware that he too had been burned.

Telegram-News article

A newspaper article from the Telegram-News titled “Wife Burned Badly, Saved By Husband.” The article is wrinkled, yellowed, and faded from age. The small print is somewhat smudged. In one spot, the paper has worn through all together. Clear tape covers a particularly big rip running down the center of the page. An unrelated photo of a middle-aged man appears to the right of the article. Full text of article available in transcript.

In an effort to disrupt the “official” account of this story and do justice to my family story, I decided to compose my project as an oral history comparing my mother’s narrative to the article’s. While examining many accounts of one story is typical of the oral history genre, my piece is unusual in that it incorporates not only interview material, but also performance. Because the article is both poignant and brief, I wanted it to be spoken verbatim in a voice that matched its tone, so I asked Matt Bounds, a voice actor who replied to an inquiry I posted on Reddit, to read the article in an old-fashioned radio announcer voice. The result is a work that blends a faux vintage news report with a personal narrative, juxtaposing two divergent accounts of this story: masculine and feminine, old-fashioned and modern, personal and impersonal.

Voice is by far the most important element in this project.  Both my mother’s voice and Bounds’ voice are rich in expression, but for very different reasons.  Fast, tinny, and nasally, Bounds’ voice evokes a detached, genteel-sounding speaker who is consciously aware of his audience.  The tightness in Bounds’ voice partly comes from its high degree of tension.  According to Theo van Leeuwen (1999), tensing the muscles of the throat creates a voice that “not only is tense, it also means ‘tense’” (p. 131).  The announcer’s voice is tense because he is speaking in a situation that is both “public [and] formal” (p. 131).  The unemotional quality of Bounds’ voice comes from its lack of vibrato, as an even, vibration-less voice sounds “‘steady’ [and] ‘unwavering’” (p. 141). The smoothness of Bounds’ voice speaks its refinement; van Leeuwen has remarked that “[t]he smooth voice is the vocal equivalent of unblemished young skin, polished surfaces, designer plastic, immaculate tuxedos” (p. 132). Bounds’ elegant voice is further enhanced by his elegant speaking style.

Bounds adopts the so-called transatlantic accent, a learned, more “refined” speech pattern that mixes American pronunciations with British ones (Taylor, 2013). The transatlantic accent was considered the broadcast standard in radio until the late 1950’s (Taylor), which explains why Bounds’ speech sounds so old-fashioned to modern listeners. I asked Bounds to use the transatlantic radio voice because listeners likely associate it with the historical moment in which the article is situated—and the sexism that marks this era. Similarly, people often associate the old broadcast voice with a masculine voice, which is fitting because the article was written by a man; was directed toward a male audience; and depicts a masculine perspective. Thus, Bounds’ antiquated speaking style lends both context and authenticity to this article.

While Bounds’ speech is scripted and carefully enunciated to achieve a certain style, my mother’s speech is punctuated with numerous “nonverbal sounds and utterances” (Anderson, 2014) such as sighs, pauses, and stutters. These spontaneous, “natural” vocalizations make the listener’s encounter with her much more personal, as they evoke an almost “incarnate experience” (Applebaum as cited in Anderson, 2014). While the announcer’s clean-cut speech makes it clear he could potentially be talking to an audience of thousands, my mother’s offhand, conversational speech makes us feel as though she could be chatting with the listeners. Given my mother’s relaxed tone, it’s no surprise her voice itself is different than Bounds’; she is speaking in a much more casual situation. Her voice also has a degree of roughness to it. van Leeuwen (1999) has explained that a “rough voice is one in which we can hear other things besides the tone of the voice itself—friction sounds, hoarseness, harshness, rasp” (p. 131). While my mother’s voice is not very rough, carrying just a slight raspy grain at its base, it still sounds less refined than Bounds’ piercingly smooth voice. Finally, my mother’s voice is much more emotional and expressive because she varies her volume and pitch as she talks. The most prominent example is when she reaches the point in the story when her parents take her back from her aunt. Her voice becomes much louder and somewhat higher here to lend gravitas to this highly emotional moment. On the whole, my mother’s voice sounds more human and less mechanical than Bounds’.

My mother’s voice is casual, but mine is more intimate still. My voice is not only very lax and soft, but also quite breathy. As van Leeuwen (1999) noted, softness and breathiness often go hand in hand, and both create a sense of closeness between speaker and listener (p. 133). “The soft voice,” van Leeuwen has said, “excludes all but a few others, and can therefore become associated with intimacy and confidentiality” (p. 133). Bounds’ announcer speaks for a large audience and my mother speaks for a recorder, but in this clip, I speak only to my mother. Though I recorded my one and only line, “So, what happened, Mom?”, after interviewing my mother, I thought it important to keep my voice soft and relaxed to show my personal connection with both my mother and this story. Both the line and the tone in which it is spoken also alert the listener that what follows is my mother’s own account of the event.

Because my mother tells a much more affective and personal story than Bounds, I used music behind her voice only. I chose a soft piano solo because I didn’t want my mother’s voice to be drowned out or distracted from by a barrage of instruments. Heidi McKee (2006), borrowing Aaron Copland’s system of musical analysis, has said we hear music on three planes: the sensuous, the expressive, and the sheerly musical (p. 344). The sensuous plane covers the medium and volume dynamics of the sound (Seiler as cited in McKee, p. 344). This song, Marc Russo’s “If You Really See Eurydice,” is fairly uniform in volume, but gets somewhat louder and a little fuller at its bridge (Bob Saget, 2008). The timing of the bridge worked in my favor because the story becomes more dramatic around the same time the music does. “When listening to music on the expressive plane, we determine how the music interprets—and clarifies—our feelings” (p. 344). Though not quite sad sounding, “If You Really See Eurydice” is moody and pensive. While the story is all together sad, it isn’t tragic; my grandmother still survived the accident, so I didn’t want to set my mother’s voice to a funereal-sounding track. Finally, the sheerly musical plain refers to the song’s movement and pitch (p. 344). "If You Really See Eurydice” is neither fast nor slow, has a somewhat irregular rhythm, and incorporates both major and minor notes. The song’s composition strikes a balance between lightness and depression, ease and stress that creates a reflective, recollecting mood when layered with my mother’s voice.

I used sound effects very sparingly in this project. The first sound effect—and the first noise we hear in the piece—is a short burst of radio static. McKee (2006) has stated that sound effects can “provide information about a scene” and “help in mood creation” (p. 346). Though it lasts for little more than a second, the static strongly evokes a radio and alerts the audience that Bounds’ lines are meant to emulate a newscast. While Bounds’ transatlantic accent and the radio static alone were sufficient indicators that his speech imitates an old radio program, the sound quality of the recording was simply too pristine to be convincing. Hoping to age the sound of the recording, I consulted several tutorials on YouTube to learn how to fray Bounds’ voice somewhat using Audacity. With the addition of filters to distort the recording, Bounds’ voice finally sounded like a genuine 50’s-era newscast—so much so that several of my colleagues thought his speech was archival material at first. The success of this rhetorical move, I feel, not only breathes life into a decades-old newspaper article, but transports the listener to the moment in which the story took place.

McKee (2006) has written that “meaning is carried not solely by the verbal content” of speech, but also “by the vocal qualities” of a speaker’s voice (p. 340). The rich affordances of voice and vocality enabled me to create a project in which listeners experience both emotional detachment and closeness, thus allowing them to relate to two very different accounts of my grandmother’s story. Bounds’ cold, transatlantic delivery coupled with the radio static and distortion allow listeners to take a step back in time to when this story was first reported, when the claim that a woman was saved by “the presence of mind of her husband” raised no objections. My mother’s naturalistic, unadorned speech, on the other hand, not only moves this story to the present, but also moves it closer to us. The emotion of her voice and the music accompanying it invite us to empathize with her and this much more personal, visceral telling of what happened to my grandmother on January 26, 1959 and the year that followed. While I thought it important at first to keep these two disparate voices separate from each other, I would not hesitate to experiment with placing them closer to each other in the future. Instead partitioning the voices, I would try interweaving them as they tell their stories, perhaps even seeing if I could make them respond to each other. I believe that having these two voices interact with each other directly has the potential to create an even more interesting, original, and affective piece.

Audio Assets

Bounds, Matt. (2015, March 28). Lynn man saves wife [Audio file]. SoundCloud. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/mattboundsvo/lynn-man-saves-wife

Bob Saget. (2008). The Sims soundtrack: Building mode 4 [Audio file]. YouTube Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbA58yOhPH4&list=PL538B8AD43F078BFA&index=4

Image Asset

Wife burned badly saved by husband. (1959, January 26). Telegram-News, p. 1.