Americas and Oceania Collections blog

3 posts from September 2023

27 September 2023

On the Trail of the Contemporary Singing Voice

Diane Hughes is a Professor in Vocal Studies and Music at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

My research as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow was undertaken at the British Library during April to May, 2023. I arrived with a long list of sources to examine - recordings, historical references, and a range of interviews. I am passionate about music and singing. The aim of my current project is to document the evolution of the contemporary singing voice and its intersection with, and the influences of, American and British popular singing. This includes the conceptualisation and contexts of contemporary singing that centre around questions of voice and identity and sociocultural perspectives of song and of singing. It also involves diverse perspectives of contemporary voice and related technologies.

At the British Library, I discovered and listened to first-hand accounts related to crooning and orchestrated singing, along with more contemporary types of singing.1 This furthered my understanding of the historical significance of the musical arranger, of different recording technologies, and of various creative intents and interests. As recording technologies adapted to enable singers to be isolated from surrounding musicians, or in recording sound booths, more nuanced styles of singing emerged.2 Such nuanced audibility is often attributed to the communicative capabilities of “the microphone”, however, my research identified that this equally related to artistic objectives and to modes of audience engagement.

Several reflective accounts by touring and established singers, and by musical arrangers, provided detailed information on specific career trajectories.3 These accounts also contained commentary on changing musical styles, vocal delivery and on individual artistry. They assisted in contributing to a timeline of why and where transition points in contemporary singing occurred–broadly involving the strident sounds of vaudeville, the smoother crooning styles, the resonant singing of orchestrated standards, the personally expressive singer-songwriters, the stylistic influenced revival of skiffle, the innovative vocalisms of jazz, and the contemporary characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and pop. I found it exciting to further explore these transitions through “captured” singing in broadcasts and recordings, through to singing in “live” performances.

A red book cover with the author and title in black print.
Miriam Spier, The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, [1950]. British Library shelfmark: 7889.b.4

During my research, I uncovered several unexpected sources. These related to mid-20th century definitions of popular music,4 and pedagogical publications on contemporary singing.5 In 1950, a renowned pedagogue of her time, Miriam Spier, offered aspiring singers the salient advice to use “the best artists as your guides, analyze and experiment; do not merely imitate”.6 This exploratory approach is still relevant today and has much to do with the evolutionary nature of contemporary singing styles and sounds. Other sources alluded to the progression and succession of popular styles, where rock ‘n’ roll/rock was hypothesised as having “the characteristics of a temporary craze”7 or where the development of contemporary jazz singing followed an exploration of vocal sounds and words.8 Many sources referenced the popularity of singing in relation to individual or communal listening and, as such, the value of singing clearly extended beyond the performer to their audience.

The opening page of a chapter on 'Voice Appeal', with a drawing of 7 people at the top and text on the bottom.
Miriam Spier, The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, [1950]. British Library shelfmark: 7889.b.4

The evolution of the jazz and popular singing voice in Britain and the USA is complex and multilayered. Each is highly influenced by creativity, technologies, sounds, styles, and people, and will adapt and evolve as vocal exploration continues.

My sincere thanks to the Eccles Centre at the British Library for the opportunity to conduct this research and to the librarians at the Sound Archive for their assistance during my visit.

References

1. Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. This is a collection of interviews with a range of jazz and popular music performers undertaken by Stan Britt during the latter part of the 20th century.

2. See, for example, Peggy Lee interviewed by Stan Britt (23/07/1977). Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. C1645/238.

3. Stan Britt Collection.

4. Peter Gammond and Peter Clayton,  A Guide to Popular Music. London: Phoenix House, 1960. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 2737.c.3. Music Collections REF M.R.Ref. 781.63.

5. Frank Sinatra in collaboration with John Quinlan, (c1946), Tips on Popular Singing. For the British Empire (excluding Canada and Australasia) and the whole of Europe, the property of Peter Maurice Music Co. Limited. Music Collections VOC/1946/SINATRA; Miriam Spier, (1950), The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, [1950]. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 7889.b.43.

6. Spier, p.41

7. Gammond and Clayton, p.177.

8. Norma Winstone [interview] (1994). Oral History of Jazz in Britain. C122/206-C122/207.

 

26 September 2023

Verse and Reverse: Uncovering the work of the Toronto Women’s Press Club

Occasionally, you come across an item in the British Library that can open up a new pathway through our wider collection. One such item is Verse and Reverse, the title of two collections of poetry, printed in 1921 and 1922, written and published by the members of the Toronto Women’s Press Club.

In April 1921, the Toronto Women’s Press Club, a regional branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, held a poetry night. Members anonymously submitted poems, which they read aloud to each other. Pleased with the experiment, the membership decided to gather the poems together and publish a booklet, repeating the endeavour the following year. The British Library holds both collections, bound together, at shelfmark 1168.c.57.

Verse and Reverse
The cover of ‘Verse and Reverse’ (1168.c.57).

Since I first read about the Canadian Women’s Press Club, its members and history have intrigued me. Founded in 1904, the Club emerged out of the relationships forged when sixteen women working in the Canadian press achieved sponsorship to report on the World’s Fair in St. Louis, USA. It was during their ten-day railway journey they formed the idea of a professional network to support, promote and advocate for its members. With writers working in both French and English, it was the first nationally recognised club of its kind, founded long before women achieved suffrage in Canada.

At the start of the twentieth century, the nature of the literary marketplace for women drew almost all writers into the orbit of newspapers and periodicals. As such, the Canadian Women’s Press Club was a broad church. As one might expect, members included pioneering journalists, like founder Kit Coleman, the first Canadian woman accredited as a war correspondent, and suffragists Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy. Yet, novelist Lucy M. Montgomery, author of the bestselling Anne of Green Gables (1908), also served as a regional vice president of the club. Another active member was E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), the daughter of a Mohawk chief and English mother, who performed poems and stories about Indigenous experience. Historians have documented the compelling story of the club’s founding, most recently Linda Kay. Yet, there is much more to uncover about its regional branches and evolutions across the twentieth century. I was keen to see what the Toronto Branch’s Verse and Reverse might illuminate.

In the 1922 ‘Prefatory Note’ to Verse and Reverse, Isabel Eccleston MacKay observes there ‘are few things more delightful than to turn to the fresh-cut pages of a new miscellany’. I certainly agree. There are familiar figures among the contributors to Verse and Reverse, (Montgomery has poems in each booklet), but it is the less familiar names that intrigue. While the poetry collected is interesting, what I find exciting about something like Verse and Reverse is that it gathers the names of many forgotten writers working in Toronto in the 1920s together. This makes it a great starting point for further research, which the British Library’s wider collection is able to support.

Our Canadian holdings are remarkably rich. Much of this owes to the process of colonial copyright deposit to the British Museum Library. This undiscriminating process meant, for a time, the accrual of items published in Canada was not as subject to the ideologies of taste and the financial constraints that can shape acquisition. As such, I found it was easy to order up a sample of other titles from the lesser-known Verse and Reverse contributors. Gathering together works of ephemeral popularity, what starts to emerge is a snapshot of women’s cultural production at the start of the twentieth century in Toronto; not the luminaries preserved across time, but the disparate and largely forgotten output of everyday, professionally organised women who earnt their living through their pens.

Pictures of book covers. All are text except 'After the Honeymoon' which shows a well dressed man and woman flyiung above the earth in a hot air balloon.
The covers of books ‘Etiquette in Canada’ (YA.1987.b.1605), ‘A Canadian History for Boys and Girls’ (09555.aa.3), and ‘After the Honeymoon’ (08416.bb.82)

Although all their contributions to Verse and Reverse were poems, the Toronto members of the Canadian Women’s Press Club worked across literary genres. Some of the books I ordered cohered to my expectations: non-fiction writing on conduct, etiquette and instruction. For example, member Emily P. Weaver’s A Canadian History for Boys and Girls (1900) is a chronological survey of Canada complete with black and white illustrations by her sister. Gertrude Pringle’s Etiquette in Canada, first published in 1932, was new to me, offering advice for a gamut of social situations from picnics to the opening of Parliament. Another lovely discovery was the beautiful cover of Louise Mason’s After the Honeymoon: One Hundred Hints on Husbandry, which offers a selection of comedic snippets of marriage advice.

Picture of book spines. The cover for 'Grey Knitting' depicts a woman knitting with the yarn reaching and connecting to a solider.
Covers for the books ‘Grey Knitting and Other Poems’ (11686.ee.46), ‘The House of Windows’ (012621.cc.34) and ‘Savour of Salt’ (NN.13499)

However, other titles I ordered were more unusual and unexpected. I am intrigued now, for instance, to delve more into The House of Windows (1912), MacKay’s own novel about the fates of an overworked department store shop girl. Member Katherine Hale’s Grey Knitting, and Other Poems (1914) is a collection about women’s experiences on the Home Front during World War I. It reminded me of a more recent Canadian acquisition, the textile work I Sit and Sew (2019) by artist Lise Melhorn-Boe. The Library holds member Florence Randal Livesay’s novel Savour of Salt (1927), which chronicles the experiences of Irish immigrants to Ontario. Mother of the award-winning poet Dorothy Livesay, Florence was clearly interested in the Canadian immigrant experience, collecting and translating a number of Ukrainian folk takes in her lifetime. The British Library holds her posthumously published collection, Down Singing Centuries: Folk Literature of Ukraine (1981), with striking illustrations by Stefan Czernecki. In summary, Verse and Reverse provided me with an avenue to open up a whole range of intriguing work I did not know we held and would otherwise have been hard to discover.

Double page spread with one full page colour illustration showing two men b y the edge of a pond with frogs and waterlillies, and a nude male and female figures bathing in the pond
Example of an illustration by Stefan Czernecki from ‘Down Singing Centuries’ (L.45/3357). The image accompanies Livesay’s translation of ‘Song of the Forest’ by Leisa Ukrainka (Olga Kossatch)

There are no grand conclusions to reach with a short project like this. However, it is indicative of the work one can achieve with ease thanks to the strength of the British Library’s Canadian collection. Much more work could be done with our microfilm, newspaper, and e-resources, where, armed with their names, one could pull together more of the work of Press Club members. Indeed, within our e-resources collection we hold digital copies of publications from branches of the Canadian Women’s Press Club in Alberta and Calgary. Each provides their own starting point to enrich our understanding of localised literary marketplaces, the ways in which women constructed their careers, and female authorship in Canada. The founders created the Canadian Women’s Press Club to foster professional solidarity and promote its members’ work. It is fitting, then, that Verse and Reverse, long past the point of the Club’s existence and the Toronto Branch’s poetry night, can continue to serve as a means through which we can draw their cultural production together and begin to bring the members their due attention.

Further Reading

  • Hale, Grey Knitting, and other poems (1914) held at 11686.ee.46.
  • Kay, The Sweet Sixteen: the journey that inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club (2012) held at YD.2013.a.83.
  • Livesay, Savour of Salt (1927) held at NN.13499.
  • Livesay, Down Singing Centuries: folk literature of Ukraine (1981) held at L.45/3357.
  • MacKay, The House of Windows (1912) held at 012621.cc.34.
  • Mason, After the Honeymoon: One hundred hints on husbandry (1922) held 08416.bb.82.
  • Melhorn-Boe, I Sit and Sew: with poem by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (2019) held at RF.2022.a.75.
  • Pringle, Etiquette in Canada: The Blue Book of Canadian social usage (1949) held at YA.1987.b.1605.
  • Toronto Women’s Press Club, Verse and Reverse (1921, 1922) held at 1168.c.57.
  • Weaver, A Canadian History for Boys and Girls (1900) held at 09555.aa.3.

By Hannah Graves 
Curator, North American Published Collections (post-1850)

13 September 2023

Machado de Assis, Portinari and the Bilingual Brazilian Book Club at the British Library

Rafael Pereira do Rego is the Interim Programme Manager and Area Specialist at the Eccles Centre for American Studies

It was a great pleasure for the Eccles Centre to welcome the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club to the British Library during the celebration of their 100th edition on Saturday 15th July. The Embassy of Brazil has been running the Book Club for the past nine years with a wide network of international members and friends. This special edition at the Library was an opportunity to deepen ties between our two institutions and to celebrate and invite discussion and reflection on Brazilian literature and culture through the Library’s collections.

A group of ten participants standing in front of the Klencke Atlas at the British Library.
Some of the attendees of the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club event during the tour of the British Library.

 

The star of the event discussed during the Book Club – and for which we brought a special edition for the show-and-tell presentation – was the classic novella O Alienista (translated in English as ‘The Psychiatrist’ or ‘The Alienist). Originally published in 1882, by the illustrious Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, it is a wonderful short satirical work with an elegant and concise style centred on Dr Bacamarte, an alienist – the designation of psychiatrist in the nineteenth century, from the French ‘aliéniste’ – and his scientific experiments in the town of Itaguai, near Rio de Janeiro. There he established the Casa Verde (Green House) – a cross between a 19th century prototype of a psychiatric asylum and a scientific laboratory – to conduct experiential studies on the human mind. Dr. Bacamarte used his scientific power to define which denizens of the town should be confined to the asylum according to his shifting ideas of normality. As the narrative unfolds, the alienist gets lost in a madness of his own making. O Alienista was included recently in Machado de Assis: 26 Stories (2019) translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, which among other translations of the title, are available at the British Library.

Machado de Assis is the most celebrated classic Brazilian author, so it is natural that the Library’s holdings will encompass some of his works, but it was very exciting to see the scope and depth of our collections reflecting the interest that his books have attracted from the time of their first publications in Britain. There are over 300 copies of various works by and about Machado de Assis, including some of his earliest works acquired in the nineteenth century, many of which are rare volumes. Nadia Kerecuk, the creator and convenor of the Book Club, very kindly made a list of all of our holdings available. For instance, the British Library holds the first edition of one of his most famous novels Dom Casmurro published in 1889, and the poetry collections Chrysalidas (1866), and Phalenas (1869). In addition, we have some beautiful editions including the 1948 version of the novella with illustrations of one of my favourite Brazilian artists, Cândido Portinari1.

 

title cover of the publication with an illustration by Candido Portinari; black print on white paper.
Machado de Assis, C., & Portinari, Cândido. (1948). O Alienista. Illustrado por Candido Portinari. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional. British Library shelfmark: L.R.416.r.18

 

Last year when I visited my hometown, Rio, there was a lovely and comprehensive exhibition at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil providing an overview of the various facets and languages explored by Portinari – and including some of the illustrations that are present in the selected 1948 edition, as well as from other illustrated editions of Machado de Assis’ Memoria Postumas de Braz Cubas and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Both Machado de Assis and Cândido Portinari had this incredible capacity to capture the human condition and Brazilian-ness in ways that feel both universal and culturally specific. Portinari was a keen enthusiast of Machado de Assis’ work and both lived in one of the neo-colonial elegant houses in Cosme Velho, a bucolic neighborhood in Rio and perhaps one of my favourite areas of the city. They came from a rather deprived childhood but with unwavering talent and determination, came to represent big names in literature and visual arts.

Huge neocolonial houses within a square with tropical trees and plants
The Largo do Boticário (Apothecary's Square) is a square in the Cosme Velho neighborhood in Rio where Machado de Assis and Portinari lived.

 

The 1948 edition was sponsored by the bibliophile and executive Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya (1894-1968). It is part of a wider collection named Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil (100 Bibliophiles of Brazil) named after a bibliophilic society created by Castro Maya. The society was composed of a hundred personalities of the time, among intellectuals, executives and society figures, which met annually to produce and publish works by great authors of Brazilian literature, illustrated by notable visual artists. In 30 years, they published names such as Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rego, Lima Barreto and Mário de Andrade, with their literary work illustrated by major visual artists such as Di Cavalcanti, Portinari, Iberê Camargo, Cícero Dias, Carybé, among others.

The Brazilian media tycoon Roberto Marinho was part of the select society, alongside names that might be very familiar to Brazilians, such as Walter Moreira Salles, Maria do Carmo de Melo Franco Nabuco, Horácio Klabin, Gilberto Chateaubriand, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, Lineu de Paula Machado, D. Pedro Gastão de Orléans and Bragança, Celso Lafer, Clemente Mariani and Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt.

The artisanal publication of these beautifully illustrated editions was an important initiative, which resulted in the publication of authors and artists portraying Brazil in a variety of themes and motifs. At the same time, it is revealing of the Eurocentric references of Brazilian elites, importing values, techniques and cultural codes to the ‘developing’ country. Castro Maya based this collection on European publishing trends, especially from France where he lived. The publications were generally composed by hand and printed on manual presses. The paper had great quality specifications with rough texture and watermark, supplied by French manufacturers. Many books were engraved with different techniques such as etching, dry point, xylography and lithography.

 

Book image with engraved illustration by Portinari; black print in white paper.
Machado de Assis, C., & Portinari, Cândido. (1948). O Alienista. British Library shelfmark: L.R.416.r.18

 

Each edition took about a year to be completed and each member of the society would receive their own exclusive copy with their names identified and within loose sheets, so the binding could be personalised according to the owners’ tastes. Print runs were limited to about 120 copies. The Society launches took place at gala dinners at Rio’s most exclusive Country Club – established by British executives in 1916 and since then the meeting point of the crème de la crème of carioca society – when auctions were held of the original illustrations not included in the final edition. I was very pleased to find out that the British Library has 20 published copies of the collection Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil! Rare and exclusive copies of the beautiful pas-des-deux between classic authors of Brazilian literature and notable visual artists. I hope you can explore more the collection available at the British Library.

After the show-and-tell presentation, O Alienista was specifically addressed during the hybrid meeting of the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club, with members joining from overseas via MS Teams. Nadia Kerecuk prepared a historical background of the publication and a series of questions to direct the engaging discussion with the members of this successful bilingual and bibliophile ‘society’ with the welcomed accompaniment of delicious snacks and wine. Notwithstanding the indisputable differences between the Country Club in Rio and the British Library in London, we could say this was an exclusive gala afternoon!

Attendees of the event seating around a rectangular table; online attendees are joining the event with their images projected on the walls of the room.
Participants of the Book Club discussing O Alienista in the Foyle Room at the British Library.

Notes:

1To learn more about Candido Portinari’s work please check the five-volume catalogue raisonné available at the British Library organised by his son Joao Candido Portinari as part of the major Portinari Project which has the aim of cataloguing thousands of paintings, drawings and printings, as well digitally processing images and oral history outputs. Some of the audiovisual content of this project is also available via the online platform here.