Sound and vision blog

6 posts from October 2021

28 October 2021

Black History Month – Carlisle and Wellmon

Photo of Carlisle and WellmonCarlisle and Wellmon (BL shelfmark 1SS0009976)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History Month this year, I was delighted to find early recordings of two African American musicians made in London.  The piano duo team of Carlisle and Wellmon made recordings for Columbia over one hundred years ago in November 1912.

Born in North Carolina in 1883, Harry Wellmon was already established in London as a song composer while still in his early twenties in 1906.  He had previously worked at the Harlem River Casino in New York City but, as with many African American performers, found far more job opportunities in Britain and Europe.  In London, from his premises at 47 Oxford Street he wrote songs for famous music hall stars of the day including Victoria Monks. 

Sheet music of I never lose my temperBL shelfmark H.3988.r.(43)

Wellmon returned to the United States in 1909 for a year but was back in England where a son was born on the south coast in Southsea in November 1911 the mother being Lilian Riley, a confectioner’s assistant.  He formed the piano duo Carlisle and Wellmon around 1910 and must have been popular as they recorded for Columbia in November 1912.  However, Wellmon had many pursuits, primarily as a composer and music publisher, and the duo made their last appearance at the Lewisham Hippodrome in December 1915 while Wellmon continued as a solo performer the following week.  In the early 1920s he appeared in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Zagreb, Bombay, the Netherlands and South America.  He appears to have returned to the United States in 1935.

George Horace Carlisle was born in Minnesota, also in 1883, and had previously toured Britain with another performer as Carlisle and Baker.  It is claimed that he was a pupil of the great piano teacher Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915) in Vienna - whose pupils include Paderewski and Ignaz Friedman - but Carlisle's name does not appear in Leschetizky’s personal lists of pupils or his diaries. 

Leschetizky did have a few African American students.  One was Raymond Augustus Lawson (1875-1959) who was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.  He then studied at the Hartford Conservatory of Music graduating in 1900.  Whilst in Germany he met Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Leschetizky pupil and son in law of Mark Twain) who in the summer of 1911 introduced Lawson to Leschetizky.  After playing for the great master, Leschetizky declared, ‘I know that Americans are great technicians, but Mr Lawson is a poet.’  As was often the way, Leschetizky heard a pianist once, then passed them to one of his assistants for instruction, and this may have happened to George Carlisle.  He seems to have stayed in England and died during a piano audition at the Royal Oak Hotel in Ramsgate in 1963, an obituary claiming he was born in Bermuda and in his sixties: he was actually 80 years of age.

Carlisle and Wellmon made six sides for Columbia in 1912, all of their own compositions, most of which were published between 1910 and 1913.  Four are of their own songs – 'Kiss me Right', 'Go ‘Way Meddlesome Moon', 'A Prescription for Love' and 'Why Do You Wait for Tomorrow?' 

Sheet music of Go way meddlesome moonBL shelfmark H.3990.c.(6)

The remaining two sides are piano only - Chip-Chip Two Step and March, and an arrangement of the Sextette from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti – ‘in Ragtime.’  This disc was issued as Columbia 2054 in 1912 but re-issued on their cheaper Regal label in February 1914 and remained in the catalogue until August 1918.

Label of Regal disc Lucia SextetteRegal Label (BL shelfmark 9CS0000242)

The performance is only in ragtime for the last half of the recording.  The first part is in ‘classical’ style and the switch to ragtime is not such a jolt as one might expect due to the fact that it is played in a strict ragtime style – not too fast, with a firm and controlled rhythm.  With the ragtime revival of the 1970s we learnt that Scott Joplin did not want his rags played fast and directed the player so at the beginning of his scores.  Few solo piano disc recordings of ragtime survive from the era and a recording of Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag played by the United States Marine Band from 1909 is taken at a swift tempo.  Carlisle and Wellmon’s performance has elements of Joplin's direction and even though played at a crowd-pleasing tempo with dazzling contrary motion chromatic scales, there are underlying elements of the strict ragtime style from ten years before.

Sextette from Lucia mp3

Thanks to James Methuen Campbell for the Leschetizky information.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

The Pinnacle Club: 100 years of women climbing and mountaineering

A 1921 photo of 8 women standing on a mountainThe first Pinnacle Club meet, Idwal Slabs, 1921. L-R: Emily (Pat) Kelly, Dorothy Evans, Mrs O Johnson, Harriet Turner, B Lella Michaelson, Cicely Rathbone, Constance Stanley, Blanche Eden-Smith. Credit: GS Bower

The Pinnacle Club is a national women’s climbing club founded 100 years ago, the inspiration of Emily (Pat) Kelly. Forty-three women supported its initiation, many of whom came together on 26 March 1921 at the Pen y Gwryd Hotel in North Wales to establish the Club ethos as follows: ‘The objectives of the Club are to foster the independent development of rock climbing amongst women, and to bring together those who are interested in these pursuits by organising Meets [sic] and other such means of communications as may from time to time be deemed advisable.’ (PC Handbook 1921 p2.) In 1989 the objectives were extended to include mountaineering.

Soon after its formation, and in keeping with its Welsh origins, the Club acquired Cwm Dyli, an old cottage in the heart of Snowdonia. Usually referred to as ‘the Hut', this was rapidly converted to accommodate groups and became the ‘home’ of the Club. In the 1980s the Club was able to buy the hut and then invested in modernising it.

A black and white photo of six women standing outside a Welsh cottageThe opening of the hut, including Evelyn Lowe, Mary Lear, Daloni Seth-Hughes, Jennet Seth-Hughes, Marjorie Wood, Penelope Seth-Hughes. Courtesy: Pinnacle Club.

Jean Drummond on finding the hut (C1876/24)

Download Jean Drummond on finding the hut (C1876-24) Transcript

To commemorate its centenary year, and with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Pinnacle Club has recorded oral history interviews with 24 past and present members. These have all now been archived at the British Library and can be found by searching C1876 at the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. The club has also digitised over 1500 images and several films related to its history, and extracts from these can be seen on the Pinnacle Club Centenary Website.

The oral histories were recorded over a period of eight months in 2020 between Covid-19 lockdowns. The recordings were conducted by seven members of the Pinnacle Club; in gardens, in well-ventilated rooms and, when face-to-face was not possible, remotely using Squadcast.

Participants include women who were among the climbing pioneers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as well as younger women who are active today. Their ages range from 96 (Gwen Moffat, C1876/23) to 26 (Milena von und zur Muhlen, C1876/04). The wider membership of the club was asked to suggest suitable women for inclusion in the project. As a result, the participants came from England, Scotland, Wales and Europe, from a variety of social backgrounds and with a wide range of experiences and mountaineering achievements. Together their stories illustrate the place of women in the outdoors and in so doing help redress the balance of a male narrative in the history of climbing.

The interviewers themselves, some of whom were also interviewees, although inexperienced in the processes of recording oral histories, were quickly committed to the task and felt privileged and honoured to be witness to the extraordinary stories they heard. Despite the challenges of the technical demands of equipment and technique, they were left with a real admiration for the women they interviewed and a strong belief that these stories deserve to be shared with a much wider audience.

When the Pinnacle Club was founded, climbing clubs of the day were mainly single sex. The first mountaineering club for women, The Ladies' Alpine Club was founded in London in 1907 and it merged with the Alpine Club in 1975. Only the Pinnacle Club and the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club, founded in 1908, remain women only clubs in the UK. In the early 1900s joining one of these clubs was the only way in which women could find like-minded female climbing partners and climb unhindered by the stereotypes of the day. Even in the 1940s and 50s, when the oldest of our interviewees started their climbing career, opportunities for, and expectations of, women were restricted. Many spoke in their oral histories of being frustrated by the limitations of girls’ education at the time, and low expectations of women’s athletic performance. Alongside higher education, travel and outdoor activity were seen to offer greater independence. Climbing was a very male dominated activity, but clubs like the Pinnacle Club allowed women to take on leadership roles.

A recurring theme throughout the oral history interviews is this experience of climbing with other women. Many members found this to be empowering and confidence building, and spoke about being encouraged and supported to climb at standards above and beyond their expectations. This seems particularly evident on international meets. It is no surprise that this led to the development of close bonds through shared, often life risking, experiences. The commitment, tolerance and trust required to be part of an effective climbing partnership can be a solid basis for friendship.

Stella Adams on joining the Pinnacle Club (C1876/21)

Download Stella Adams on joining the Pinnacle Club (C1876-21) Transcript

Although in the minority among the climbing community and in many cases their presence overlooked, women have contributed significant achievements in mountaineering and rock climbing around the world. A number of these achievements are recorded in the Pinnacle Club Journals (1924 – present), and they are now further documented in the oral history recordings.

Rhona Lampard on climbing Gasherbrum II (C1876/05)

Download Rhona Lampard on climbing Gasherbrum II (C1876-05) Transcript

Dorothy Pilley, a founding member of the Pinnacle Club and an outstanding climber of her time, said in her book Climbing Days that the formation of the club was 'a long conspiracy prompted by the feeling many of us shared, that a rock climbing club for women by women would give us a better chance of climbing independently of men, both as to leadership and general mountaineering.' For 100 years the Pinnacle Club has continued to thrive with these same objectives and now this history is preserved at the British Library. The oral histories provide an insight into the history of the Pinnacle Club, into the role of women in the development of climbing and mountaineering and into the ongoing need for a women-only space where climbers can gain the confidence and independence to continue the Club’s proud traditions.

Blog by Pinnacle Club Oral History Team

The oral history collection 'The Pinnacle Club: 100 years of women climbing and mountaineering' can be found by searching C1876 at the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue

22 October 2021

The wanderings of Blackbud: Preserving Blackbud’s Glastonbury demo

Written by Kirsten Newell, Data Protection & Rights Clearance Officer.

Last year, UOSH was lucky enough to interview the Subways  about their 2004 win at the Glastonbury Festival New Bands competition. You can read more about the history of the Emerging Talent Competition in this blog post on the collection, which marked the 50th anniversary of the 'Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival', on 19 September 2020.

Now, a year later, and 17 years after their win, we have been able to put panellist Wes White’s questions to Joe Taylor, frontman of the joint 2004 ‘New Bands’ winner, Blackbud.

White sat on the jury to determine finalists for the Emerging Talent Competition from 2004 to 2007, having been heavily involved in the process through his mother, Hilary, who worked in the Festival Office. Recalling Blackbud, Wes held that the group had a ‘very different, languorous approach’ from the Subways, ‘with epic, mind-blowing jams’. While there was only one slot available on the ‘Other Stage’, Wes maintained that ‘Blackbud were an amazing band and some of our panel would cite them among their favourite ever bands to this day’.

Blackbud performing live outdoors in Glastonbury town

Above: Blackbud performing in Glastonbury town – image taken from CC images.

Wes White: Do you remember sending Blackbud’s demo into the competition?

Joe Taylor: No, since it would have been sent in by our manager Grant Newton at the time. He was Adam 's dad (Adam was the bassist), and looking back on it, he took the management very seriously and we were fortunate to have his support and efforts back then.

WW: As a Somerset band, had you been able to perform at Glastonbury before? Had all of you been in the audience in previous years?

JT: I know I was at Glastonbury Festival as a child, and although I don’t remember much, It does feel like a dream. Probably most of my time was spent in the children’s area because I remember trampolines and a helter skelter slide. I was also in the audience several times as a teenager, and also when we played, but I couldn’t say for sure which years. I remember some amazing moments most of which were off the main stages and in the more obscure places. I remember Amy Winehouse and Bonnie Raitt on the Jazz world stage, seeing Brian Wilson, Aphex Twin at the Glade, I remember being there in the mud, and one year feeling big relief that I didn’t go when there happened to be a huge storm!

Listen to Blackbud’s ‘Wandering Song’

[British Library ref. C1238/4548 BD3]

WW: What do you remember about the night of the competition finals, at Pilton Working Men’s Club? Did it seem special then, or was it just another gig at the time?

JT: In that time, I think we were gigging a lot and beginning to travel further away from our home base, so I seem to remember it was nice to play somewhere fairly local. I also remember a bit of tension, there being other bands that we had to directly compete against but also feeling confident that we were just going to play a very short set, and have the most fun possible. Perhaps by coincidence, Jeff Buckley was playing as a background music before we went up on stage. I think it added to the meaning of the performance for me as I was really inspired by his music at the time.

WW: Some of the contest’s winners and finalists have only ever played Glastonbury once - but Blackbud went on to numerous bookings at the Festival in the following years. Do you have a favourite memory from among those performances?

JT: The most memorable must have been the actual ‘Other Stage’ performance that was cancelled due to a sudden downpour, and we decided to play an acoustic set down by the side of the stage for the few fans that were waiting in the rain for us to come out! We just started jamming on acoustic in the rain and people gathered around, I remember the feeling of just enjoying that moment so much even though we didn’t get to play on the actual stage…

WW: Is there anything you would change?

JT: Not sure… change something in the past? I suppose there have been moments I would have liked to change, or be somewhere else, but actually everything that happens makes us who we are today and I wouldn’t want to change anything.

WW: In the wake of the competition, there was a great deal of record company interest in the band. Did it seem that Glastonbury and the competition success helped in bringing the band to the labels’ attention?

JT: Yes probably... it was a combination of things that got labels interested, firstly we were dedicated musicians, and really enjoyed playing together, and we were investing our time and energy into the band, working really hard developing our sound, gigging in pubs and clubs, small fairs and all kinds of places, while writing material and rehearsing, recording home demos and building a fanbase, so there may have been some interest already happening, but I think the Glastonbury Festival competition was a catalyst in terms of attracting industry people to the band and what happened was that several labels were trying to develop a relationship and sign us which was an incredible situation.

Listen to Blackbud’s ‘158’

[British Library ref. C1238/4548 BD1]

WW: Blackbud announced an ‘indefinite hiatus’ in 2009. What are you up to musically now, and are you still in touch with the other group members, Adam and Sam?

JT: The thing with Blackbud during our time signed to Independiente, was that the whole industry was rapidly changing (and still is) and we happened to be one of the last bands to get a major development deal. It was an amazing experience, and it came to a natural end as the sale of music also declined. The important thing for me is that I was always a student of music, and kind of in love with the guitar. So when the opportunity came to take some time off from Blackbud, I began to explore and grow in different ways, leading to 4 years living and studying flamenco in Seville. I composed and produced for my wife (singer Mor Karbasi), and we travelled all over the world with this project which we built together, playing with many great musicians along the way. Now I am based in Israel, working in the Jerusalem East West orchestra and a flamenco guitarist, and doing sessions with many groups as a freelance musician. I have a home studio where I record and produce, and I release the music I make as a solo artist, under my own name. I have been in touch with Sam and Adam in the last years, and it was always really great. Even though we live different parts of the world, we would still have a connection if we were to jam together. Sam played with some well-known artists as a session drummer and now works at Amnesty International, which is really admirable, and Adam also plays with artists in the Bristol area and recently became a father, which is something I can relate to!

WW: The band is still fondly remembered by passionate fans. Is there any sign of an end to that hiatus on the horizon?

JT: Haha...I suppose the last question hints to this answer. We live in different parts of the world. To be honest I would love to do a reunion and have suggested it to Adam and Sam when I had plans to come back to the UK but it didn’t happen yet. I hope my solo music also appeals to those fans and satisfies their curiosity in the meantime.

WW: How do you feel about that early demo being archived in the British Library?

JT: I feel it’s a real honour!

Many thanks to Wes for giving his questions, and to Joe for agreeing to be interviewed. Blackbud’s demo will be available to stream next year on UOSH’s upcoming website.

21 October 2021

True Echoes: Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides cylinder collection (C83)

The Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83) is a set of twelve black wax cylinders recorded in 1924 on the island of Efate in Vanuatu. The collection was previously known as the RAI Vanuatu Cylinder Collection as the cylinders came into the Library from the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1983, but with no documentation as to when they were recorded or by whom.

Their British Library shelfmarks are C83/1498 to C83/1509. Three cylinders, C83/1504, C83/1506, and C83/1508, are badly broken and so could not be dubbed. It is one of two collections from Vanuatu within the True Echoes project at the British Library; the other is the John Layard 1914-1915 Atchin, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C177).

The cylinders of the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83)

Above: The cylinders of the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83)

The cylinders were accompanied by 28 sheets, formerly held together by small rusty pins, but there was no information about the recordist or the date. The papers are carefully typed out translations and transcriptions of songs and stories from various villages on Efate.

A transcript of the recording 'The song to warn Iakokae-Iako' as performed by Miriam of Malavau

Above: A transcript of the recording "The song to warn Iakokae-Iako" as performed by Miriam of Malavau. This is the third page of the original documentation for the cylinder collection. Held by the British Library's World and Traditional Music section.

We started the historical research by compiling a document of everything we knew about the collection, and a list of any possible recordists, from anthropologists to government officials, from missionaries to traders, who spent time on Efate between 1898 and the 1930s. We circulated this document to researchers working in Vanuatu today.  We looked at handwriting, and other likely characteristics of the recordist. Chris Ballard at the Australian National University helped us to deduce who the recordist was. We can now say that the cylinders were recorded by Eric Maitland Kirk Raff (1892–1927), an Australian Presbyterian missionary who was based at Vila on Efate from 1917 to 1924.

Eric was born in Victoria, Australia, on 29 March 1892. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Melbourne on 18 October 1916, and formally appointed as minister of the Margaret Whitecross Paton Memorial Church in Vila on the same day. On 9 December 1916, he married Ruth (née Baird), and on 17 January 1917, they left Australia for Vanuatu, then called the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides.

Sarah Walpole, archivist at the RAI, found correspondence from 1927 between Ruth Raff and Sir Everard im Thurn, a former President of the RAI, which gave us a much better understanding of this collection. Ruth noted that Eric made thirteen 4-minute Edison phonograph records “in Vila … early in 1924” (Raff 1927b). The collection only comprises twelve cylinders now; we do not know what happened to the thirteenth. The cylinders are unusual as they hold 4 minutes of recording as opposed to the more usual 2 minutes; the phonograph used to record them operated at a faster turning speed. These particular kind of cylinders were very fragile, which explains why three of the twelve surviving cylinders are badly broken. We do not know how or where Eric obtained the phonograph or the cylinders.

The Raffs left Efate in 1924 due to Eric’s ill health, and travelled to Scotland. Later that year, Eric wrote to both the Edison Bell Works and the Gramophone Company as he wanted to have permanent copies of the cylinders made; neither company could help. Ruth also noted that they tried to enlist the help of Alfred Cort Haddon – “a friend at Cambridge (an ethnologist whom we had met in the Islands) tried to interest Dr Haddon, but apparently nothing came of it – I think they said their funds were low!” (Raff 1927b). Haddon led the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits and the cylinders produced during this expedition are now in the collections of the British Library’s Sound Archive. Further information on this collection, known as C80, can be found in this Sound & Vision blog post.

In July 1926, Eric received a reply from Thomas Joyce, Deputy Keeper of the Department of Ceramics and Ethnography at the British Museum, indicating that he would purchase Raff’s “New Hebrides Records” at 5 shillings a piece (Joyce 1926).

Eric died on 22 March 1927 in Bournemouth at the age of 34. Ruth was determined that the “valuable phonographic records of old native songs (both legends & songs fast dying out)” collected by her husband should not be lost to science (Raff 1927a). During a stay in Edinburgh in April and May 1927, she typed up all of the legends to give to Thurn; she mentioned “more interesting notes on early Efate” that she could send to him later (Raff 1927d). It is not clear whether this material has survived. It is also not clear what happened to the cylinders. Ruth may have sold them to the British Museum when she visited London in early June before her departure for Australia on the 16th June (Raff 1927c).

The level of detail on the accompanying documentation, including corrections on the covering List of Records as well as on the transcriptions and translations, indicates that both Eric and Ruth were familiar with the languages represented in the collection.  This documentation indicates that there were originally 30 songs recorded. Six performers are noted by name and village: Miriam of Malavau, Meny of Fila, Turi of Leleppa, and Kaltaban, Leiboni, and Tavero of Meli. Four songs were performed by “Pango women.” Nganga, probably a chief of Meli, is noted as the translator of three songs. Initial research indicates that most of the songs are from the languages of North Efate (Nakanamanga), South Efate (Nafsan) and Mele-Fila (specifically the Meli dialect).

A map of Efate highlighting Port Vila and the villages of the C83 Vanuatu performers. Map data ©2021 Google.

Above: A map of Efate highlighting Port Vila and the villages of the C83 Vanuatu performers. Map data ©2021 Google.

The clip that we would like to share with you today is from the first song on cylinder C83/1498, Iakokae-Iako, by Miriam of Malavau.

Clip from C83/1498, Iakokae-Iako by Miriam of Malavau

Research to find out more information about the performers and the genres of the songs and stories told, as well as the languages featured in the recordings, will be done by our project partners at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre / Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VCC / VKS). Ambong Thompson is Manager of the National Film, Sound and Photo Unit that manages the Vanuatu Cultural Centre’s collection of film and audio recordings and photographic collections of cultural events, ceremonies, celebrations, performance, practices and activities. Through the True Echoes project, digital copies of Eric Raff's 1924 recordings will be accessioned into the VCC collection.

Ambong Thompson, Manager of National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at Vanuatu Cultural Centre

Above: Ambong Thompson, Manager of National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

Ambong said,  

“We have already identified three fieldworkers from Mele, Ifira and Pango to work with staff from Vanuatu Cultural Centre… We have already spoken to, and had a good response, from Mele village. Some people from Mele Village have heard about the project and were very delighted.”

The VCC is working to identify the right people and equipment to undertake participatory research for this project. Ambong noted that these are “very old recordings and will make a major contribution towards our collections”.

References:

Joyce, Thomas Atholl. 1926. ’T.A. Joyce, Dept. of Ceramics and Ethnography, British Museum to Rev. E.M. Raff.’ Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. No Date. http://WDAgo.com/s/5bb00889. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927a. Letter from Mrs Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 27 March 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/47577a34. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927b. Letter from Mrs. Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 14 April 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/3bf69adf. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927c. Letter from Mrs. Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 8 May 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/4ccaadc9. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Raff, Ruth. 1927d. Letter from Mrs Ruth Raff to Sir Everard im Thurn, 10 May 1927. Ethnomusicology Committee. Wiley Digital Archives: The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. http://WDAgo.com/s/211a4c36. Accessed 8 June 2021.

Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow

18 October 2021

Recording of the week: Family mealtimes

This week's selection comes from Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

One way or another, food is at the heart of everyday life for almost everyone on the planet. We plan our days around it, share it with friends, watch TV shows about it, and food – or sometimes, intentional abstinence from food – is central to many religious, cultural and familial celebrations. Our relationship to food – whether it is we eat, where we eat it, or who we eat it with – is a reflection of who we are, shaped as it is by the traditions we inherit from our families, cultural expectations, our social circumstances and other aspects of our day-to-day lives.

Food on a table being served

                                                                                                                                                        Image: Anadolu Agency / Contributor via Getty Images (1212156867)

When interviewers ask people to describe what mealtimes look like for them, they are asking about more than just how people sustain themselves. In this clip, Kuli Padan interviewed in 1999 for the Millennium Memory Bank, describes a typical family mealtime in her home, and in doing so reveals much about her family dynamics and cultural heritage.

At the end she reflects on the ‘sad’ fact that the television is the focal point of her family now, and an enduring presence at her family’s mealtimes in particular.

Kuli Padan family cooking and eating [BL REF C900/17597]

Download Transcript

Listening to this clip brought to mind conversations I’ve had with my own family recently on how our mealtimes have changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Growing up, family mealtimes at the dinner table every evening – without any technology – was one thing my parents insisted on. It was important to them that we spent that time together, catching up and sharing what we’d been up to each day.

When lockdown happened and we suddenly found ourselves spending all our time together – all working in the same space as we were living, our hobbies and social lives brought to an abrupt stop – we suddenly found ourselves short on things to talk about at mealtimes. Gradually, for the first time in my life, family mealtimes moved to in front of the TV where a programme (usually a quiz show of sorts) could take the place of conversation. I don’t lament this development in the same way Kuli Padan does, because it feels less like a loss and more like a reaction to a world that changed in ways that were beyond our control. It does raise some interesting questions about why we eat in the ways that we do and our emotional relationship to those moments in our lives, though.

Of course, these experiences are very personal and individual. The pandemic, for example, may have changed other people’s eating habits in ways vastly different to my own: perhaps working from home presented some families with an opportunity to share mealtimes that they never had before, or enabled someone to find time to learn to cook from scratch. Over time, children grow into adults and the responsibilities for cooking and feeding in the home change and shift, as do food preferences, the schedules for mealtimes, and exposure to new foods and ways of eating. Kuli Padan was interviewed in 1999; I wonder how mealtimes may have changed for her in the years since she gave her interview?

The nature of the life history approach, which informs many of the interviews in the British Library’s oral history archive, combined with the sheer size and thematic scope of the collections means our archive contains a wealth of material on people’s eating habits and their relationship to food. This particular extract is featured in If Homes Had Ears, a website which showcases the sounds of domestic life, by exploring five spaces in the home: the bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and garden. Each space highlights intriguing audio clips from the diverse collections in the British Library Sound Archive, covering the timespan of recorded sound and featuring many of the rich cultures that make up the UK.

Kuli Padan was interviewed by Eka Morgan in 1999 for the Millennium Memory Bank, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

04 October 2021

Recording of the week: Dog team or engine power? Sleds and other subjects in 1940s Alaska

This week's selection comes from George Brierley, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

During my time working as a cataloguer on the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project, I have been fortunate to catalogue a diverse range of oral history collections. The majority of the interviews in these collections are several hours long, recorded across a number of tapes and over a number of days. Occasionally, you will come across a short but sweet recording like this one.

This recording is a ten minute conversation between Abraham Lincoln, an Inuit fisherman (not the 16th president of the United States) and Pete Severnay, a Norwegian sailor. It took place in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, just above the Arctic Circle, in the winter of 1948.

Despite its short length, the recording covers quite wide ground.

We discover that Abraham has been staying with Pete, who has been travelling across North America for the past few years.

The men discuss several topics. Pete thinks that he might stay in Kotzebue, but it all depends on the fishing. He also complains about the lack of employment opportunities in the area, and that any available jobs pay too little - one dollar an hour.

Abraham has a different outlook; one dollar an hour is a perfectly reasonable wage for the locals to live on. Pete is fishing to keep himself busy, but his main interest is gold prospecting – he believes that there are large amounts of gold in the area.

Unsurprisingly, the two men discuss the weather. Pete isn’t too bothered by the cold. After all, he’s been travelling in wind and storms during his entire time in Alaska, with visibility so poor that he hasn’t been able to see his hand in front of his face at times. He has also built his own sled.

In the audio excerpt below, Abraham amusingly mistakes Pete’s sled for a table, and they start a lively discussion about dog team sleds versus engine-powered sleds.

You will be able to hear a slight hum in the background which comes from the recording device:

A discussion about sleds [BL REF C1603/01 S1]

Download Transcript - A discussion about sleds

Inuit family with MalamuteAn Inuit family with an Alaskan Malamute, c. 1915. Photograph from Wikipedia. Original source: W. E. Mason. Malamutes are the sled dogs that are mentioned by Abraham.

We know little about the background of this recording – the open reel tape travelled from Kotzebue to Anchorage, before arriving in the United Kingdom and ending up at the British Library. We also know little about the two men in conversation.

I could not find any information about Pete Severnay online, although I did find some more information about Abraham. He lived in Kotzebue with his wife, Blanche, where they raised two sons and two daughters. His birth date is listed as around 1887, so he would have been in his early sixties at the time of this recording.

The fact that we know so little about the two men and the recording is irrelevant. In fact, the anonymity adds to the overall appeal. The important thing is that the two men have come together to share their unique knowledge and experiences. They may be different in terms of age and culture, but it is clear from their words that they have respect for each other’s differences.

This recording offers a glimpse into what life was like for the inhabitants of Alaska during the time but also gives insight into the life of an outsider venturing into an isolated community. Who knows? Perhaps this conversation was the start of a friendship lasting the rest of their lives.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.