Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux
Welcome to the second installment of our Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, promoting the work of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), which is part of the National Recording Reservation Plan of the Library of Congress. Our series kicked off two weeks ago with this post by Josh Garrett-Davis exploring both the history of Native American radio and new ways of thinking about it, and the series will conclude with a piece next week by the University of Michigan’s Derek Vaillant about radio recordings in immediate need of preservation in Detroit.
Between possible archives and endangered ones, we have an article about an archive that has begun to speak after long years of silence. Below, Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University gives us a preview of her research into a radio evangelist who was among the most prominent African Americans of his day, yet has been largely forgotten. Smith’s fascinating work not only revisits Elder Michaux as a historical figure, but also gives us a clear sense of how a project in radio reservation relies not only on institutional resources, but also on personal outreach. As many of us who are part of the preservation project are learning, media history lives on in storage units, basements and lockers, preserved by collectors, churches and communities that only individual connections can truly reach.
– Special Editor Neil Verma
In October 1934, the Washington Post published a feature about Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux in which it boldly declared that the “radio evangelist extraordinary, is the best known colored man in the United States today.” At the time, Elder Michaux, known as the “Happy Am I” Preacher, had a national radio show on the CBS network that broadcast his ministry of happiness and holiness to over twenty-five million listeners each week.
Like many popular evangelists of his era, Elder Michaux promoted his image as one of God’s prophets, presciently envisioning that radio could revolutionize the purview of modern evangelicalism. Michaux first used portable radio equipment to broadcast his holiness revivals in the mid to late 1920s in his hometown of Newport News and these religious programs were among the first of their kind in the United States. By 1929, Michaux moved to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of expanding his mission.
As an African American, Michaux initially had difficulty convincing local D.C. radio outlets to put him on the air. Eventually, he persuaded James S. Vance, local owner of WJSV, to broadcast his weekly revivals. When the CBS network bought WJSV in 1932, the budding evangelist achieved a national audience in the millions.
The key to Michaux’s success was his ability to combine his preaching with snappy, upbeat gospel songs that reminded listeners that a holy life leads to a happy life, a message that resonated with Americans navigating the economic trials of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the BBC invited Michaux to broadcast his program on its network and listeners around the globe soon began to tune into his WJSV broadcasts in via shortwave hookup. These opportunities allowed the charismatic preacher to reach a vast international radio audience that extended from Europe to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. That Michaux’s broadcasts, like his story, have disappeared from radio history has impoverished our sense of the role of race in the soundscape of the era.
My current book project examines Michaux’s extraordinary life and career as a radio evangelist. For this post, I want to explain both Michaux’s significance to the history of religious radio as well as African American history; and how my research has led me to join the Radio Preservation Task Force in an effort to preserve the surviving recordings this important figure, but understudied, figure.
In spite of his many accomplishments, Elder Michaux has been largely overlooked in the histories of religious radio and African American religion. Scholarship on religious radio from the 1920s and 1930s tends to focus on figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson with only passing mention of African American preachers such as Michaux. In the history of African American religion in the 1930s, Michaux tends to be overshadowed by scholarship on other major figures such as Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace and his United House of Prayer. Although Michaux’s ministry was often categorized as a religious cult in the popular press of the time, his Gospel Spreading Radio Church of God was firmly a part of the black Holiness movement and continues to have ten active congregations today.
Throughout his career, which began in the late 1920s and extended until his death in 1968, Elder Michaux defied the odds and challenged boundaries of race, theology and politics to become one of the most successful religious leaders and media celebrities of his time. As early as 1926, Michaux, whose Holiness ministry openly welcomed all races, was arrested for baptizing whites and blacks together. Once established in Washington, D.C., Michaux led annual mass baptisms in the Potomac River and later at Griffith Stadium that drew tens of thousands of followers. At the height of his fame, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Michaux was regularly invited to the White House to consult with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower about the racial issues of the day. By the early 1960s, Michaux engaged in public debates with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, about the direction of the civil rights struggle.
My book argues that Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux is critical to our understanding of how religious leaders used the mass medium of radio to literally “sell” evangelical faith movements in modern America. Elder Michaux was the first to fully develop the concept of a “Radio Church,” which offered official membership to followers and created one of the first, if not the first, virtual religious communities in modern America. A true evangelist, Michaux sought to reach believers and potential converts wherever they were and knew that the radio could facilitate his mission in revolutionary ways. In an interview in 1938, Michaux explained, “I wanted to give people religion over the air so they might have it at home. Then they couldn’t have an excuse for not going to church. They couldn’t say that they were tired or didn’t have the right clothes. They could get God and his teachings right in their own parlor.” Most significantly, Michaux’s entrepreneurial skill at marketing his Gospel Spreading Church of God through the radio was simultaneously in service to his race and racially transgressive in ways that complicate our understanding of how modern religious movements navigated Jim Crow segregation.
So how can we actually give an account of Michaux’s contributions? Researching radio programming from the 1920s and 1930s presents a number of challenges for any historian because recordings of broadcasts from this period are rare. Fortunately, Elder Michaux began his career on WJSV, one of the most powerful stations in Washington in the 1930s (which became WTOP, the most popular local news radio station in Washington, D.C. today). The first director of WJSV under CBS ownership was Harry Butcher, who had the foresight in September 1939 to record an entire day of programming, which is remarkable considering this was accomplished without the use of magnetic recording tape. Although this collection does not include Elder Michaux’s program, it is a valuable audio snapshot of the radio era in which he thrived.
My quest to locate recordings of Elder Michaux’s broadcast has led me to destinations as far away as the BBC archives in London, which houses two recordings of Michaux’s first British broadcasts; and as close as the main branch of the current Gospel Spreading Church of God here in Washington.
In the past two years, I have also developed meaningful relationships with congregants of the church, who have begun to be willing to share their private archive of recordings. During one oral history interview, one church member, who is 92-years old, gave me a reel-to-reel tape from Elder Michaux’s funeral service, which was broadcast in October 1968. Another elder member from Newport News sent me recordings of Michaux preaching at Lorton Prison in Lorton, Virginia in the 1950s. Most significantly, I recently met the current sound engineer at the church, who has been a member since the 1940s and has a large archive of reel-to-reel tapes of Michaux’s radio broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, Elder Michaux broadcast his religious services daily and never missed a week of broadcasting until his death in 1968. The church has only kept a fraction of these broadcasts. Nevertheless, a significant number of them exist and are housed in the church’s private storage. I am currently trying to assess the scope of the church’s collection, which has involved reaching out to church members in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport News, Virginia. I am also trying to investigate grants that might support my efforts to digitize the tapes as soon as possible since they are at risk of deterioration in the church storage facilities.
My research on Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s career has convinced me that more work needs to be done to pursue the preservation of African American religious radio broadcasts in general. The work of the Radio Preservation Task Force can support this mission, but it will also involve grassroots outreach to established African American churches. Many of these churches regularly broadcast their services and may have their own private archives of recordings that can offer us an invaluable glimpse at the aural history of African American religious practices in the twentieth century.
Moreover, through my ongoing relationships with the congregants of Elder Michaux’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of personal outreach to African American religious communities in the service of preserving the history of religious radio. The efforts of the Radio Preservation Task Force are critically important in terms of identifying existing institutional archives, but only through individual connections with these vital, but often overlooked minority communities, will we be able to discover and preserve these treasures of our radio past.
Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999) and To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Belknap Press, 2010). She is currently working on her third book, tentatively titled The ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.
All images courtesy of the author.
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Editor’s Note: February may be over, but our forum is still on! Today I bring you installment #5 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice. Last week Art Blake talked about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. Before that, Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have one more left! Robin James will round out our forum with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
This week Canadian artist and writer AO Roberts takes us into the arena of speech synthesis and makes us wonder about what it means that the voices are so often female. So, lean in, close your eyes, and don’t be afraid of the robots’ voices. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
I used Apple’s SIRI for the first time on an iPhone 4S. After hundreds of miles in a van full of people on a cross-country tour, all of the music had been played and the comedy mp3s entirely depleted. So, like so many first time SIRI users, we killed time by asking questions that went from the obscure to the absurd. Passive, awaiting command, prone to glitches: there was something both comedic and insidious about SIRI as female-gendered program, something that seemed to bind up the technology with stereotypical ideas of femininity.
Speech synthesis is the artificial simulation of the human voice through hardware or software, and SIRI is but one incarnation of the historical chorus of machines speaking what we code to be female. Starting from the early 20th century Voder, to the Cold-War era Silvia and Audrey, up to Amazon’s newly released Echo, researchers have by and large developed these applications as female personae. Each program articulates an individual timbre and character, soothing soft spoken or matter of fact; this is your mother, sister, or lover, here to affirm your interests while reminding you about that missed birthday. She is easy to call up in memory, tones rounded at the edges, like Scarlett Johansson’s smoky conviviality as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her, a bodiless purr. Simulated speech articulates a series of assumptions about what neutral articulation is, what a female voice is, and whose voice technology can ventriloquize.
The ways computers hear and speak the human voice are as complex as they are rapidly expanding. But in robotics gender is charted down to actual wavelength, actively policed around 100-150 HZ (male) and 200-250 HZ (female). Now prevalent in entertainment, navigation, law enforcement, surveillance, security, and communications, speech synthesis and recognition hold up an acoustic mirror to the dominant cultures from which they materialize. While they might provide useful tools for everything from time management to self-improvement, they also reinforce cisheteronormative definitions of personhood. Like the binary code that now gives it form, the development of speech recognition separated the entire spectrum of vocal expression into rigid biologically based categories. Ideas of a real voice vs. fake voice, in all their resonances with passing or failing one’s gender performance, have through this process been designed into the technology itself.
A SERIES OF MISERABLE GRUNTS
The first voice to be synthesized was a reed and bellows box invented by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in 1791 and shown off in the courts of the Hapsburg Empire. Von Kempelen had gained renown for his chess-playing Turk, a racist cartoon of an automaton that made waves amongst the nobles until it was revealed that underneath the tabletop was a small man secretly moving the chess player’s limbs. Von Kempelen’s second work, the speaking machine, wowed its audiences thoroughly. The player wheedled and squeezed the contraption, pushing air through its reed larynx to replicate simple words like mama and papa.
Synthesizing the voice has always required some level of making strange, of phonemic abstraction. Bell Laboratories originally developed The Voder, the earliest incarnation of the vocoder, as a cryptographic device for WWII military communications. The machine split the human voice into a spectral representation, fragmenting the source into number of different frequencies that were then recombined into synthetic speech. Noise and unintelligibility shielded the Allies’ phone calls from Nazi interception. The Vocoder’s developer, Ralph Miller, bemoaned the atrocities the machine performed on language, reducing it to a “series of miserable grunts.”
In his history of the The Vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, Dave Tompkins tells how the apparatus originally took up an entire wall and was played solely by female phone operators, but the pitch of the female voice was said to be too high to be heard by the nascent technology. In fact, when it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair, only men were chosen to experience the roboticization of their voice. The Voder was, in fact, originally created to only hear pitches in the range of 100-150 HZ, a designed exclusion from the start. So when the Signal Corps of the Army convinced President Eisenhower to call his wife via Voder from North Africa, Miller and the developers panicked for fear she wouldn’t be heard. Entering the Pentagon late at night, Mamie Eisenhower spoke into the telephone and a fragmented version of her words travelled across the Atlantic. Resurfacing in angular vocoded form, her voice urged her husband to come home, and he had no problem hearing her. Instead of giving the developers pause to question their own definitions of gender, this interaction is told as a derisive footnote of in the history of the sound and technology: the punchline being that the first lady’s voice was heard because it was as low as a man’s.
In fall 2014 Amazon launched Echo, their new personal assistant device. Echo is a 12-inch long plain black cone that stands upright on a tabletop, similar in appearance to a telephoto camera lens. Equipped with far field mics, Echo has a female voice, connected to the cloud and always on standby. Users engage Echo with their own chosen ‘wake’ word. The linguistic similarity to a BDSM safe word could have been lost on developers. Although here inverted, the word is used to engage rather than halt action, awakening an instrument that lays dormant awaiting command.
Amazon’s much-parodied promotional video for Echo is narrated by the innocent voice of the youngest daughter in a happy, straight, white, middle-class family. While the son pitches Oedipal jabs at the father for his dubious role as patriarchal translator of technology, each member of the family soon discovers the ways Echo is useful to them. They name it Alexa and move from questions like: “Alexa how many teaspoons in a tablespoon” and “How tall is Mt. Everest?” to commands for dance mixes and cute jokes. Echo enacts a hybrid role as mother, surrogate companion, and nanny of sorts not through any real aspects of labor but through the intangible contribution of information. As a female-voiced oracle in the early pantheon of the Internet of Things, Echo’s use value is squarely placed in the realm of cisheteronormative domestic knowledge production. Gone are the tongue-in-cheek existential questions proffered to SIRI upon its release. The future with Echo is clean, wholesome, and absolutely SFW. But what does it mean for Echo to be accepted into the home, as a female gendered speaking subject?
Concerns over privacy and surveillance quickly followed Echo’s release, alarms mostly sounding over its “always on” function. Amazon banks on the safety and intimacy we culturally associate with the female voice to ease the transition of robots and AI into the home. If the promotional video painted an accurate picture of Echo’s usage, it would appear that Amazon had successfully launched Echo as a bodiless voice over the uncanny valley, the chasm below littered with broken phalanxes of female machines. Masahiro Mori coined the now familiar term uncanny valley in 1970 to describe the dip in empathic response to humanoid robots as they approach realism.
If we listen to the litany of reactions to robot voices through the filters of gender and sexuality it reveals the stark inclines of what we might think of as a queer uncanny valley. Paulina Palmer wrote in The Queer Uncanny about reoccurring tropes in queer film and literature, expanding upon what Freud saw as a prototypical aspect of the uncanny: the doubling and interchanging of the self. In the queer uncanny we see another kind of rift: that between signifier and signified embodied by trans people, the tearing apart of gender from its biological basis. The non-linear algebra of difference posed by queer and trans bodies is akin to the blurring of divisions between human and machine represented by the cyborg. This is the coupling of transphobic and automatonophobic anxieties, defined always in relation to the responses and preoccupations of a white, able bodied, cisgendered male norm. This is the queer uncanny valley. For the synthesized voice to function here, it must ease the chasm, like Echo: sutured by a voice coded as neutral, but premised upon the imagined body of a white, heterosexual, educated middle class woman.
My own voice spans a range that would have dismayed someone like Ralph Miller. I sang tenor in Junior High choir until I was found out for straying, and then warned to stay properly in the realms of alto, but preferably soprano range. Around the same time I saw a late night feature of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, struggling to lose her crass proletariat inflection. So I, a working class gender ambivalent kid, walked around with books on my head muttering The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain for weeks after. I’m generally loud, opinionated and people remember me for my laugh. I have sung in doom metal and grindcore punk bands, using both screeching highs and the growling “cookie monster” vocal technique mostly employed by cismales.
Given my own history of toying with and estrangement from what my voice is supposed to sound like, I was interested to try out a new app on the market, the Exceptional Voice App (EVA ), touted as “The World’s First and Only Transgender Voice Training App.” Functioning as a speech recognition program, EVA analyzes the pitch, respiration, and character of your voice with the stated goal of providing training to sound more like one’s authentic self. Behind EVA is Kathe Perez, a speech pathologist and businesswoman, the developer and provider of code to the circuit. And behind the code is the promise of giving proper form to rough sounds, pitch-perfect prosody, safety, acceptance, and wholeness. Informational and training videos are integrated with tonal mimicry for phrases like hee, haa, and ooh. User progress is rated and logged with options to share goals reached on Twitter and Facebook. Customers can buy EVA for Gals or EVA for Guys. I purchased the app online for my iPhone for $5.97.
My initial EVA training scores informed me I was 22% female; a recurring number I receive in interfaces with identity recognition software. Facial recognition programs consistently rate my face at 22% female. If I smile I tend to get a higher female response than my neutral face, coded and read as male. Technology is caught up in these translations of gender: we socialize women to smile more than men, then write code for machines to recognize a woman in a face that smiles.
As for EVA’s usage, it seems to be a helpful pedagogical tool with more people sharing their positive results and reviews on trans forums every day. With violence against trans people persisting—even increasing—at alarming rates, experienced worst by trans women of color, the way one’s voice is heard and perceived is a real issue of safety. Programs like EVA can be employed to increase ease of mobility throughout the world. However, EVA is also out of reach to many, a classed capitalist venture that tautologically defines and creates users with supply. The context for EVA is the systems of legal, medical, and scientific categories inherited from Foucault’s era of discipline; the predetermined hallucination of normal sexuality, the invention of biological criteria to define the sexes and the pathologization of those outside each box, controlled by systems of biopower.
Despite all these tools we’ll never really know how we sound. It is true that the resonant chamber of our own skull provides us with a different acoustic image of our own voice. We hate to hear our voice recorded because suddenly we catch a sonic glimpse of what other people hear: sharper more angular tones, higher pitch, less warmth. Speech recognition and synthesis work upon the same logic, the shifting away from interiority; a just off the mark approximation. So the question remains what would a gender variant voice synthesis and recognition sound like? How much is reliant upon the technology and how much depends upon individual listeners, their culture, and what they project upon the voice? As markets grow, so too have more internationally accented English dialects been added to computer programs with voice synthesis. Thai, Indian, Arabic and Eastern European English were added to Mac OSX Lion in 2011. Can we hope to soon offer our voices to the industry not as a set of data to be mined into caricatures, but as a way to assist in the opening up in gender definitions? We would be better served to resist the urge to chime in and listen to the field in the same way we suddenly hear our recorded voice played back, with a focus on the sour notes of cold translation.
Featured image: “Golden People love Gold Jewelry Robots” by Flickr user epSos.de, CC BY 2.0
AO Roberts is a Canadian intermedia artist and writer based in Oakland whose work explores gender, technology and embodiment through sound, installation and print. A founding member of Winnipeg’s NGTVSPC feminist artist collective, they have shown their work at galleries and festivals internationally. They have also destroyed their vocal chords, played bass and made terrible sounds in a long line of noise projects and grindcore bands, including VOR, Hoover Death, Kursk and Wolbachia. They hold a BFA from the University of Manitoba and a MFA in Sculpture from California College of the Arts.
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This is a comparison of two soundwalks performed by SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell in two different cities–New Brunswick, NJ and Davis, CA. In this podcast Aaron listens to his footsteps and considers the sonic interactions between individual and environment. Specifically, he considers how the artist must always contend with the degree to which they are audible in the soundwalks they record, thus marking a radical departure from visual modes of inquiry that render the research invisible. Let’s join Aaron as he walks us through two cities he loves.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.
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Editor’s Note: Today I bring you installment #4 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week Regina Bradley put the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with race and gender. The week before I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” That post was preceded by Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book, on the gendered soundscape. We have two more left! In the next few weeks we’ll have A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
This week guest writer and professor Art Blake shares with us a personal essay. He talks about how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage. So, lean in, close your eyes, and try not to jump to conclusions before you listen. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
When I walked into the packed lecture theatre at the start of the Fall term 2012 I was hoping, more than any other year, to sound convincing. I had been teaching for 11 years by that time so I knew what I was doing. But I was walking into class as a man, for the first time. I was not sure if my newly thickening vocal chords would hold me at a convincing “male” pitch or if I would be able to project that developing voice to the back of the room. I thought I looked “manly” enough; but would I sound manly?
I had been researching and teaching about sound since 2003 but had not confronted myself as a potential object of study until I was preparing to return to teaching in 2012 following the early phase of my transition from female to male. My notions of “masculinity” have never been conventional: as a somewhat incompetent butch-ish lesbian I’d attempted but never “mastered” the appropriate vocal or bodily swagger. I abandoned those conventions to evolve my own more elfin, more queer swish. But on that first day back in the classroom, and for much of that term, I felt I needed to produce “normal guy”—a gender-identity category I didn’t believe in or want to become—so I might feel secure enough later to explore and tweak my newly gendered voice and body. I wanted a baseline from which I could re-build. I wasn’t ready to be out as trans* in the classroom. Yes, I was in a closet; but I needed it to serve as a dressing room, a place of private preparation, rather than as a long-term hiding place.
I started testosterone therapy in January 2011, on a low dose as is the standard of care. As my doctor increased my dose over the months, I noticed the beginning of the physical changes I’d been waiting for: more body hair, muscle development, and a hoarsening voice. I earnestly weighed and measured myself, worked out at the local YMCA, chose a new name and made it legal … and dealt with months of severe anxiety and depression. Puberty isn’t fun, and doing it again in my forties, as part of gender transition, was not the seamless story of celebration familiar from the YouTube videos I’d watched obsessively charting other guys’ transitions. Those videos were mostly about looking male, not sounding male, and rarely addressed transitioning at work, within a profession.
I spoke to a transman, also an academic, to discuss the challenges of transitioning in our profession. His version of masculinity was more conservative than I had expected, and a bit homophobic, but what really worried me was his concern about my voice: “I really hope for your sake your voice changes,” he said. What did he mean? Would I fail the test of public masculinity not only because I wasn’t wearing a jacket and tie but because I sounded feminine?
All those images of authoritative, sonorous, academic masculinity flooded me with panic. Testosterone wasn’t going to make me any taller, give me an Adam’s apple, or bigger hands and feet. I was going to be a small guy, standing at the front of the classroom with years of academic expertise, but a mismatched voice might undermine that basic authority. Female academics, like most female professionals, have to work harder for the respect of students as well as colleagues; we all have seen or know of evidence for this sexism. Men, just by being perceived as male, get more generous teaching evaluations from undergraduates. As I transitioned I found myself grasping for that authority in a way I hadn’t imagined before.
In search of help, I went to see Dr. Gwen Merrick, a therapist in the Speech Pathology section of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. Gwen is known in the trans* community and trans* health networks for her work with transwomen. To my surprise I was her first transmale patient. While admitting her lack of experience she also welcomed the challenge to help masculinize my voice and lessen my anxiety around my vocal-gender dysphoria.
So we began: she examined my vocal chords (properly “vocal folds”). We then moved on to discuss my goals and concerns, and began the process of recording my voice—measuring its volume and tone, listening to the digital recordings, and training me to hear and then adjust my vocal pitch and speech rhythms. She gave me vocal exercises for homework, and taught me how to relax and move my larynx lower in my throat to lengthen it and create a lower pitch. Gwen also encouraged me to imagine myself into the vocal change I sought. I tried taking up more space as I sat in her office, head up and chest out, adopting an attitude of greater confidence, channeling the burliest and butchest of my cismale friends.
My scholarly life took a nosedive during those months on medical leave. The first piece of scholarship I re-engaged with during this time was something I’d been thinking about for years: an article about the composer John Cage‘s voice. I wanted to write about the disconnect I had heard between Cage’s speaking voice and my assumptions about him based on his appearance. I sought to hear Cage’s voice in the context of the post-1945 period when he rose to great prominence as a composer. What I gradually came to hear as I returned to this research was how and why Cage’s voice, within the context of the 1950s in particular, spoke to me so profoundly as I emerged publically as trans*.
I first heard his recorded speaking voice while teaching some of his work in an early iteration of my sound studies seminar. I’d seen photographs of Cage as a middle-aged and older man; from those images of a tall, craggy-faced guy in a sports jacket or woolly sweater, I had expected to hear a baritone, chest-resonant, rich “masculine” voice. Instead, Cage’s voice was light, with very little chest register, almost breathy sometimes, and inflected with the rhythm and occasional sibilance of what I “recognized” as a gay male (American) voice.
How had Cage navigated the homophobia of the 1950s with a voice like that? Was what I heard as his audible difference perceived that way in the postwar period as he rose to prominence as a modernist composer? According to some older gay men I’d interviewed for my 2004 radio documentary on the early gay leather scene in the 1950s, they had consciously altered their voices in everyday situations where they didn’t want (or couldn’t risk) being heard as gay. As one guy mentioned, for such circumstances he adopted his “gas station voice”—a vocal pitch and style to get him through such commonplace moments of public masculinity as talking to the gas station attendant. I wondered if Cage also kept one voice in the closet and adopted another one he needed based on circumstance.
As I sought my own “gas station voice” in the fall of 2012, returning to Cage and listening to his voice in his 1956 composition Indeterminacy helped gradually lessen my anxiety about audibly “passing.” Listening to Indeterminacy, a series of stories occasionally interwoven with a piano, allowed me to not only hear but also admire Cage’s voice and the political resonance it may have held in McCarthy-era America.
I looked for examples of Cage speaking outside of his own compositions, someplace more public—someplace where I might hear him put his voice in the closet and butch himself up for the public ear. I looked for ways to contextualize Cage’s voice in the era of determinacy — mainstream 1950s America, high modernist, planned, and in love with postwar military-industrial efficiency and the performance of expertise.
My urban history self focused on New York in the 1950s, listening for other voices resonant with the era’s “structure of feeling.” If heard by a 1958 resident of New York City, Indeterminacy might have sounded somewhat familiar. The experience of listening to all or parts of Indeterminacy resonated with the interruptions, the drowned-out words, the overlapping and oppositional sounds, the proximity of people and machinery, which characterized Manhattan (in particular) in the late 1950s. Cage spent periods of time in New York City as well as upstate in the 1950s, moving between different art scenes. What did New York sound like in the 1950s? The Puerto Rican migration and urban renewal re-shaped the city’s soundscape on the west side, as documented by sound recordist Tony Schwartz and re-presented through the musical West Side Story. I had written about those encounters with audible difference but now wanted to listen more closely. What did the city’s infamous urban planner, master of urban renewal, Robert Moses sound like? What did his outspoken critic Jane Jacobs sound like? And how might I hear their contemporary John Cage in this context with reference to the notion of “indeterminacy”?
Within a Cold War-McCarthyist context, voices represented an aspect of the suspect-self available for investigation, interrogation, and pathologizing. I identified, to an extent, with such a predicament, such a fear of exposure and of the negative consequences I presumed would follow. While I listened to John Cage’s and others’ voices from this period, I listened for how Cold War authorities may have heard them. John Cage’s voice offers indeterminacy itself, hovering in the margins of the tonal, rhythmic, and pitch ranges of conventionally “masculine” and “feminine” voices at mid-century. Despite our contemporary resistance to stereotyping, one hears in Cage’s gendered oscillation, mixing minor chest resonance with the higher, softer, breathier sounds, a definitive type of “gay” male voice: the sissy voice. As Craig Loftin has argued in “Unacceptable Mannerisms: Gender Anxieties, Homosexual Activism, and Swish in the United States, 1945-1965,” during the 1950s gay men as well as the heteronormative majority, produced intense hostility to the archetype of the “sissy,” whose voice and body movements marked him as politically problematic in the context of both homophile activism and Cold War homophobia.
Paul J. Moses aimed to analyze in his 1954 book, The Voice of Neurosis (one of the many works in the field of “personality studies” popular in the 1950s) the personality from the speaking voices of his subjects with a method he called “creative hearing.” Moses’s work suggested that the voice revealed the “true” personality, belying a person’s efforts to disguise themselves through dress, work or relationships. Such secrets could be heard, or listened for, through Moses’ “creative hearing.” Of course, when he published his work in 1954, the Cold War made aural surveillance, the use of listening devices, as well as the “creative hearing” of expert listeners, a crucial weapon in a war of secrets.
In January 1960 John Cage appeared as a contestant on the popular television game show I’ve Got a Secret (CBS, 1952-1967), a show that perfectly channeled concerns about hidden identities at the heart of public and Congressional anti-Communism within Cold War politics in the United States. Derived from the radio show What’s My Line in which a celebrity panel tried to discover a person’s job, in I’ve Got a Secret the panel tried to uncover the contestant’s “secret,” normally something unusual or perhaps embarrassing. The I’ve Got a Secret format played with the tension between who knew and who did not know the contestant’s “secret.” After being introduced by name and hometown, the show’s host asked each contestant to whisper their secret in his ear. During the on-camera intimacy of mouth-to-ear divulgence, text of the revelation scrolled up over the TV screen for the viewers at home and was visible to the studio audience. The panel of celebrity inquisitors could only observe the studio audience’s responses of laughter, shock, or titillation.
John Cage’s appearance on the show was devoted to the performance of his “secret.” Cage whispered to host Garry Moore that he had made a musical composition using a bathtub, jugs, a blender, radios, a piano, a tape recorder, a watering can, and other common household objects. In an absurdist version of a laboratory experiment, Cage darted from one to the other object, pressing buttons, pouring liquids, hitting radios, putting flowers in a bathtub, all the while holding and responding to the stopwatch in his hand. Cage performed inefficiency and absurdity, inviting laughter, the opposite of industrial modernism’s demand for logic, order, and compliance to norms. Cage’s non-compliant, queer performance and composition satirized the efficiency experiments of twentieth century time-management experts; the “Water Walk” “instruments”, all objects from everyday life, bear no productive relation to each other and are not arranged in a manner producing efficiency. Cage thus queered the modern, as typified in mid-20th century American industry, corporate capitalism, and national infrastructure projects such as urban renewal.
Cage’s voice provides an added and unexpected queer flourish to his TV appearance on I’ve Got a Secret. The sound of Cage’s voice (soft, higher-pitched, lilting, slightly sibilant) contrasts with his formal attire and hetero-normative environment. Cage’s voice reveals a “secret”—his homosexuality—different from the “secret” featured on the show. Like most Cold War secrets, it was not a secret to him or his close friends but was supposed to function as a secret in that historical context. Cage resisted, consciously or not, the vocal closet; he made no attempt, as far as I can hear, to alter his voice in the very public context of a live television show. John Cage appears happy, playful, and delighted to perform for the audience. His antic performance of “Water Walk” endeared him to a mid-century audience who came ready to enjoy the show’s pleasurable revelation of secrets.
Other “hearings” of Cage’s non-normative self might well have produced a less relaxed response from those same audience members: his voice at a Congressional HUAC hearing; his voice overheard on the street or in a cafe. The gay or gender non-conformist audience members may have thrilled to Cage’s double-edged performance of his “secrets,” or they may have cringed at such possible revelations, in fear of their also being heard as different but lacking the protection of Cage’s (albeit limited) celebrity.
Standing at the front of the lecture theatre in September 2012, I felt I too had a secret, and my heart pounded, my stomach jittered for fear of its revelation. But, as I continued to listen to Cage’s voice on a recording of Indeterminacy, and to think through his TV performance on I’ve Got a Secret, I grew more able to let go of my fear of being heard as trans*. I heard and saw Cage as a man who resisted convention and a culture of fear and judgment.
Four years on, I no longer worry whether or not my voice signals my transmasculinity. I can’t control how my students or anyone else hears me, or the joy, confusion, curiosity, or disgust their hearing me may produce in them. My last term’s teaching evaluations, from Fall 2014, for that same large lecture class I first taught in Fall 2012, included many positive comments about my teaching; they also included a student’s written comment describing my voice as “gentle” and thus sometimes harder to hear. I will wear a microphone for volume, if needs be, to increase my audibility. But I feel no need to alter what that student heard as “gentle.” I can live with gentle, for which I thank John Cage.
Featured image: from Issue Project Room
Art Blake is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Ryerson University, Toronto, where he also teaches and supervises grad students in the Communication and Culture program. He is completing his second book, Talk To Me: Mediated Voices in 20th Century America. His new research concerns contemporary international urban “maker” cultures.
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