James Weldon Johnson and the Speech Lab Recordings
- Volume 30, Number 1
- Chris Mustazza
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On December 24, 1935, James Weldon Johnson read thirteen of his poems at Columbia University, in a recording session engineered by Columbia Professor of Speech George W. Hibbitt and Barnard colleague Professor W. Cabell Greet, pioneers in the field that became sociolinguistics. Interested in American dialects, Greet and Hibbitt used early sound recording technologies to preserve dialect samples. In the same lab where they recorded T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and others, James Weldon Johnson read a selection of poems that included several from his seminal collection God’s Trombones and some dialect poems. Mustazza has digitized these and made them publicly available in the PennSound archive. In this essay, Mustazza contextualizes the collection, considering the recordings as sonic inscriptions alongside their textual manifestations. He argues that the collection must be heard within the frames of its production conditions—especially its recording in a speech lab—and that the sound recordings are essential elements in an hermeneutic analysis of the poems. He reasons that the poems’ original topics are reframed and refocused when historicized and contextualized within the frame of The Speech Lab Recordings.