THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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97 posts categorized "Digitisation"

22 June 2021

Windrush Day: Bristol’s Princess Campbell

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Today is Windrush Day, a day which honours the contributions and hardships of the British Caribbean community and those who travelled to the UK after the Second World War to help rebuild Britain and start a new life. To mark the day we have a guest blog from one of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’s (UOSH) hub partners Bristol Archives, to tell the inspiring story of one of Bristol’s members of the Windrush generation, Princess Campbell.

Princess Campbell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1939. As a young woman, she became one of the estimated half-a-million people from Commonwealth countries who answered the call for migrant workers in England. She came to Bristol in 1962, where she trained as a nurse and became the city’s first black ward sister.

In recent years, she became one of Bristol’s best-known members of the Windrush generation. Through the UOSH project, we can now hear about Princess’s life in England in her own words.

Photo of Princess Campbell

Pictured above: Princess Campbell in her nurse’s uniform (Bristol Archives, 44459/Ph/2/4).

In 2007, schoolchildren, involved in the ‘Easton and Us’ local heritage project, interviewed local residents to find out about their lives in Easton from the 1930s to the present day.

These oral histories, held at Bristol Archives, were recently made available for research through UOSH. Originally held on minicassettes, the recordings have been digitised so that we can once again hear the voices and experiences of the people who took part.

Princess Campbell was one of those interviewed and her story is compelling, from her experiences of racism to the many ways she fought against discrimination.

Keen to establish herself in a profession, Princess considered becoming a teacher before choosing to train as a nurse. Once qualified, she worked for years but encountered barriers when she sought to progress her career. She tells the children who interviewed her how hard black people have to work to prove themselves; in this clip, she talks about working hard to gain as many qualifications as she could.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip one

Download Princess Campbell clip one transcript

Despite her skills in both general nursing and psychiatric nursing, Princess was passed over for promotion to ward sister. She describes how support from fellow staff helped her to overcome resistance to appointing a black woman and she was eventually appointed to this role.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip two

Download Princess Campbell clip two transcript

Princess also talks about wider problems of discrimination for the growing black community. As she explains in this clip, she arrived in Bristol to find black people had little access to good jobs or decent homes. To solve the housing problem, she was involved in setting up a housing association to help both black and white people to find affordable accommodation.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip three

Download Princess Campbell clip three transcript

Through her determination to bring about change, Princess was also involved in other movements. Soon after her arrival in England, she was involved in the Bristol bus boycott, a campaign against the local bus company’s refusal to employ black drivers and conductors.

The boycott was led by the activist Paul Stephenson but as Princess says, ‘I was one of the protestors - I can't help it... we would have our banners out there and protest peacefully and decently’. Ultimately, the bus company changed their policy and began to recruit black staff, although racism from other passengers was also a common experience.

Listen to Princess Campbell - clip four

Download Princess Campbell clip four transcript

Later on, Princess was also active in the aftermath of another high-profile protest. In April 1980, the St Paul’s riots in Bristol were a response to police treatment of young black people. Princess described attending Parliament to lobby MPs for improved facilities to young people, leading to the creation of a new youth centre.

Towards the end of her life, Princess’s achievements were recognised and celebrated. A few years after this interview was recorded, she received an OBE for services to the community. In Bristol, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol and a nurses’ training centre was named after her at the University of the West of England. When she died in 2015, crowds lined the streets of Easton for her funeral procession.

This recording complements other material documenting the experiences of black people that can be found in the collections at Bristol Archives. Princess was a founder member of the Bristol Black Archives Partnership. Through this venture, people and organisations from Bristol’s African-Caribbean community - including people involved in the bus boycott - deposited records and personal papers with the archives. Available for research alongside these records, Princess’s interview adds a personal insight into the lives of people from the Windrush generation who made their home here.

Three logos - UOSH - Heritage Fund - Bristol Archives

This post was written by Allie Dillon from Bristol Archives.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @bristolarchives for more updates from the UOSH project teams.

21 June 2021

Recording of the week: Carol Ann Duffy reads ‘Mrs Midas’

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This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

I have been listening to Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem ‘Mrs Midas’ at an English PEN event held in London in 1994.

King Midas is known in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touches into gold. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is set in modern times and is written from the perspective of the King’s wife, Mrs Midas. The story starts with a perplexed Mrs Midas at their home where there is something odd going on with the King. Through a sequence of incidents at dinner time the King makes a confession. On seeing the food and homeware turned into gold Mrs Midas recounts:

___________________________________ I made him sit
on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.
I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:
how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst.

Listen to the recording to find out what happens next.

'Mrs Midas' [BL REF C125/347 C7]

Read poem transcript

‘Mrs Midas’ is part of Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife, published by Picador and Anvil Press Poetry in 1999. Each poem engages with a mythological or historical male figure. The poems are always written from a female perspective and in monologue form. Several of these women are spouses. The collection provides a revised outlook on familiar narratives but all of them place women centre stage.

There are five years between Duffy’s reading at PEN and the publication of The World’s Wife, yet the poem did not change. There are four other poems from this collection in the recording, ‘Mrs Tiresias’, ‘Mrs Aesop’, ‘Queen Kong’ and ‘Mrs Darwin’.

The English PEN collection consists of literary talks and readings hosted and recorded by PEN between 1953 and 2006. It also includes the International Writers Day events, recorded by the British Library. Most of the events took place either in London or different parts of the UK.

This collection has been preserved by the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project. It includes a total of 1184 recordings from over 400 tapes, which are now accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms. In due course, from early 2021, you will be able to listen to up to 325 English PEN recordings online.

Since I am still working from home in London, I have included this picture of King Midas from a children’s book my mother gave me as a child growing up in Spain. This was my first encounter with the King Midas story. The story feels more complete now with the addition of Mrs Midas’ views.

Illustration of King Midas
Illustration of King Midas from the book 'El rey Midas. Mis cuentos favoritos' published by Editorial Vasco Americana, 1967

English PEN is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (1921-2021). To mark this important occasion they are running Common Currency, a year-long programme of events, residencies and workshops, which includes a three-day festival at the Southbank Centre, London, 24-26 September 2021.

To tie in with PEN’s centenary I will be featuring more recordings from the collection in the coming months.

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Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

14 June 2021

Recording of the week: A Yanomami ceremonial dialogue

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This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 1978, the writer, musician and scholar David Toop travelled to the Upper Orinoco region in the Venezuelan Amazon to record the Yanomami indigenous people and their songs, rituals and ceremonies.

While these recordings were released on the album Lost Shadows: In Defence of the Soul (Yanomami Shamanism, Songs, Ritual, 1978), Toop also kindly donated the unedited field recordings to the British Library, where they have been digitised through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Toop writes:

I’m very happy that my Yanomami recordings will be available for digital access for two reasons. One is that the Yanomami are again undergoing a crisis due to the combined effects of the pandemic and a ruthless encroachment into their territory by illegal mining, so any attention focused on the Yanomami is a good thing. The second reason is connected to the first. I believe all people can benefit from exposure to the rich and diverse forms of encounter, counsel and negotiation that exist or have existed in world cultures, unfamiliar or strange as they may seem, because they can suggest alternate ways of listening to others, gaining understanding and resolving apparently intractable problems. Any narrowing of listening models is a bad thing.

Torokoiwa and daughter
Torokoiwa (a Yanomami shaman) and daughter. Photograph by Odile Laperche.

One of the recordings that stood out to me was his recording of wayamou – a type of ceremonial dialogue that the Yanomami use to negotiate relationships, maintain peace and resolve conflicts between different communities.

Wayamou is conducted at night and is performed in pairs, with one member from each community taking part. One participant will lead, and depending on whether the communities are on good or bad terms, he will criticise and reprimand the other participant, or submit requests and proposals to them.

The speaker will adopt a heavily metaphorical manner of speaking to conduct these conversations diplomatically and avoid addressing sensitive subjects too directly. The other participant will then repeat the phrases, words and syllables uttered by the speaker – sometimes identically and sometimes with slight variations – to show agreement with the speaker or at least an understanding of his point of view.

Afterwards, the participants swap roles so both have a chance to speak. The pair is then replaced by series of other pairs and discussions continue throughout the night.

It is a duel of persuasion and negotiation, where participants have the opportunity to put words, ideas and desires in each other’s mouth. Ideally, by dawn, solutions or compromises to the communities’ problems will have been reached.

Wayamou, recorded by David Toop [BL REF C1162/8 C1]

The controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon once described wayamou as: “something like a fast game of Ping-Pong, with the melodic, staccato phrases as the ball.”

We hear how the speakers throw these words and phrases between each other, creating colliding rhythms and echoing crescendos that are abruptly punctuated with sharp accents.

At certain points, you can even hear the respondent replying so fast that he is speaking at the same time as the lead participant, guessing what the lead is saying before he has even said it.

I was so enthralled by this amazingly fast and complex dialogue that I didn’t even stop to think about what they could be saying. However, when reading the liner notes to Lost Shadows, I was surprised to learn that there was a false start to the recording:

The recording seems to be going well, but Emilio jumps up, clearly angry, and stops them. What they have been saying is that the foreigners are stupid to want to record their music and they are going to trick us out of many gifts.

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Here the wayamou had been stripped of its social function: there was no relationship to negotiate, no conflict to resolve or peace to maintain. When asked to perform under these conditions, what would there be to speak about?

Even if they are just talking about how foreigners are stupid to want to record their music, it is still an undeniably captivating recording ... and I don’t think we are stupid for wanting to listen to it!

If you are interested in learning more about the Yanomami, photographer Claudia Andujar’s exhibition The Yanomami Struggle will be running at the Barbican from June 17 to August 29 2021. Filmmaker and anthropologist Luiz Bolognesi’s film A Última Floresta (The Last Forest) will also be showing at the Berlinale on 19 and 20 June, 2021.

Further reading and listening:

Kelly Luciani, José Antonio. 2017. “On Yanomami Ceremonial Dialogues: A Political Aesthetic of Metaphorical Agency.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 103, no. 1: 179-214.

Chagnon, Napoleon A. 1992. Yanomamö: The Last Days of Eden. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Toop, David. 2015. Lost Shadows: In Defence of the Soul (Yanomami Shamanism, Songs, Ritual, 1978). Sub Rosa.

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

13 May 2021

Eid Mubarak: Celebrations marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month

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In today’s blog, Charlotte Wardley, Project Support Officer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), shares some recordings from our sound archive related to Eid. Charlotte is joined by Saba Syed, Chair of the British Library’s BAME Network, to talk about Ramadan and Eid.

Today is Eid, marking the end of Ramadan. Eid Mubarak!

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and each month is 29 or 30 days long. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims across the UK and worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, community and reflection.

Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory festival which marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new month. That makes ‘Eid eve’, otherwise called ‘Chand Raat’ (meaning ‘night of the moon’) in the Indian sub-continent, an exciting time. Everyone checks in with each other to see whether a new moon - which marks the new month and start of Eid - has been sighted.

New moon at sunset - photo by bartb_pt

Above: New moon at sunset,  'Ramadan رمضان' by bartb_pt  - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In some Islamic communities you will find people on the rooftops, eagerly scouting the sky for signs of a thin new crescent moon. If it is sighted, then Eid is declared for the following day by local mosques. If a new moon hasn’t been sighted, then it’s another day of fasting with confirmation that Eid will follow the day after.

In the following recording from 2008 from the Moroccan Memories in Britain collection (C1237), interviewee Fatima Serroukh recalls how Ramadan was an exciting time for her as a young girl and she describes the traditional Moroccan foods her family would eat during Iftar. These include dishes such as ‘harira’, which is a soup with lentils, tomato and chickpeas, and ‘chebakia’ which are sesame and honey cookies. Iftar is the meal served after sunset during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast. Iftar is often a social event where many friends and family come together.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 1

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 1

Fatima then describes the anticipation of Eid and how her family would prepare for celebrations. She describes the traditional Moroccan outfit called ‘takchita’ that she would plan on wearing. Then on the day of Eid her family would celebrate together by eating breakfast and going to meet friends and family.

Listen to Fatima Serroukh interview - clip 2

Shelfmark: C1237/118 © Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, now called Migrants Organise. Download Transcript - clip 2

Saba recalls similar feelings of excitement ahead of Eid and when the new moon sighting was finally announced and celebrations would begin:

Growing up, I remember the flurry of activity and excitement that would follow the declaration of the sighting of the moon. My sister and I would pull out new clothes and set about ironing them for the family. My mum would be in the kitchen preparing favourite food items for the next day. New outfit, new underwear and bangles, and anything else festive would be laid out in preparation. Then we would sit down to apply henna on each other’s hands. My dad would be liaising with friends as to which morning service we would all aim for. When I was younger, we would all attend Eid prayer at London Central Mosque on Regent Street, and the car journey there would be an event in itself. More recently, we coordinate and attend one of the hourly services at Harrow mosque, or one of the prayers organised in a local park.

Following the prayer we gather and meet other friends and families, enjoy the food stalls and ice cream. Then we head off to the graveyard, to pay our respects and offer a prayer to the recently deceased, followed by visiting loads of people and eating lots of lovely delicious food. As children we would also look forward to ‘Eidi’ – money handed out by the elders. Now our tradition has shifted and my family buys each other gifts, and so there will be one point in the day when immediate family will get together, hand out gifts and enjoy watching everyone rip off the wrapping and delight in their new presents.

The final recording featured on this blog comes from our Head of Sound and Vision, Janet Topp Fargion’s collection, which was recently digitised by the UOSH project. It was recorded at a fairground in Zanzibar in 1989 during Iddi Mossi (Eid al-Fitr) celebrations, where many people from the town and rural areas gathered for festivities, food and lots of fun. You can hear the celebratory atmosphere, with the adhan in the background, which is the Islamic call to prayer, and the Beni brass band in procession around the fairground. Beni is one of Zanzibar’s best-loved celebratory musics and is performed at special occasions.

Listen to Iddi Mossi fairground - Janet Topp Fargion collection

Shelfmark: C724/2/6 © Janet Topp Fargion.

It is the second year Eid celebrations will be different for many Muslims across the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Saba reflects on the ways in which her family have been finding moments to celebrate together during the lockdown:

This is the second year Ramadan has passed during lockdown, and last year there was no congregational prayers in mosques. Instead, we had our own family prayer with our immediate families socially distanced in the garden. Last year, my parents stayed indoors and observed us in the garden through the window of their house, until the final moment when they came out to pray before dashing back inside afterwards. My mum had prepared her usual feast for us, which was laid out in the conservatory, and we all helped ourselves and sat in the garden to eat as she watched us through the window, happy in the knowledge that her children were still with her on Eid, even with social distancing.

We wish our Muslim friends and family Eid Mubarak and despite the sadness, loss and difficulties many have experienced since last Eid, we hope those of you reading this blog and listening to these recordings will come together in a moment of celebration.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for updates from the UOSH Project team.

Thank you to Saba Syed for generously sharing her memories and knowledge, to those who feature in the sound recordings, and thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Andrea Zarza, Janet Topp Fargion and Mary Stewart for their help preparing this blog.

23 February 2021

250,000 sounds preserved by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

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By Katerina Webb-Bourne, Communications Intern for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Time is running out to preserve some of our most endangered sound recordings. The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project is now four years into an ambitious, National Lottery Heritage Funded five-year project to safeguard at-risk recordings.

Despite the challenges of another lockdown, the resilience and perseverance of the UOSH team has paid off. While navigating national restrictions we have reached a key milestone to save our sounds. 250,000 recordings from across the UK are now safely preserved in our sound archive.

You will soon be able to dip into our collections on our new Sounds website and enjoy sound heritage as diverse as folklore from the Isle of Man to Uyghur music with the electric guitar. The sound items we have preserved also come from ten partner hubs located around the UK, who have contributed over 35,000 recordings of their own and are helping to manage collections from 59 organisations spread throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UOSH team has adapted to current conditions to continue to provide access to sounds that inspire us and audio we can all enjoy in difficult times. Our Learning and Engagement teams and ten hub partners have launched sound websites, workshops, and a number of creative listening sessions for everyone.

To celebrate all these impressive achievements we want to share the 250,000th sound to be preserved by the UOSH project with you. In this recording you can hear Maeve and Dick discussing how one goes about making ‘Pig Lug’, a Yorkshire dish from the coastal town of Filey similar to a pie or pastry containing currants.

Grab a pen and some paper, and listen closely for the recipe:

Listen to Maeve and Dick

Maeve: aye but now then what about pig lug [= ‘type of pie with currants’] have I tae [= ‘to’] tell thee how tae mack [= ‘to make’] it and then if thou ever gets a wife thou knowest thou can tell her how tae mack it
Dick: aye why
Maeve: have I tae tell thee why dost thou think thou could tell me better Dick
Dick: I daen’t [= daePRESNEG (dae = ‘to do’)] know I daen’t know how tae mack it
Maeve: I know you you mack you mack pastry fost [= ‘first’] though knowest how tae mack pastry Dick
Dick: yes mm
Maeve: you get a bit o’ saim [= ‘lard’] and a bit o’ flour and a bit o’ salt put in and then you mix it in thou knowest and then you get a drop o’ watter [= ‘water’] and mix it tiv [= ‘to’ + vowel] a nice you know a nice movable consistency they call it these days
Dick: aye
Maeve: anyway you get that in
Dick: paste [= ‘dough, esp. pie crust’] aye
Maeve: paste aye and then you roll it out Dick then you put a bit of old blather [= ‘batter/pancake mixture’] on it butter margarine … (aside) go on tae them buns lass … (continues) and then you put some sugar on and then you put it wiv [= ‘with’ + vowel] a few currants your Joan daesn’t [= daePRESNEG (dae = ‘to do’)] like a lot o’ currants course she hae [= ‘to have’] tae she has tae heve [= ‘to have’] her own way like sae [= ‘so’] we put ’em we put ’em as though they were birds flying i’ t’ air thou knowest now and again
Dick: aye
Maeve: but thou likest uh raisins best daesn’t thou
Dick: I dae [= ‘to do’] I like raisins
Maeve: aye well next time we mack em Dick we’ll put raisins in ne’er [= ‘never’] mind about what she likes
Joan: no no no we shan’t cause I daen’t like it
Dick: thou’ll hae tae mack a special ‘un for me then wi’ nowt [= ‘nothing’] but raisins in it
Maeve: aye that’ll be better then I rolls it up and I puts it on a baking sheet thou knowest Dick puts a bit mair [= ‘more’] sugar on top and a drop o’ milk and by thou should see what a shining paste they heve when they come out o’ th’ oven
Dick: oh aye
Maeve: oh they’re grand I know there’s ya [= ‘one’] fella comes tiv our house and if you daen’t put em out o’ road [= ‘out of the way’] there’s nane [= ‘none’] for you he’ll eat lot
Dick: aye that Griffiths fella
Maeve: aye

An illustrated map of Yorkshire with Filey pictured on the coastAbove: An illustrated map of Yorkshire, featuring Filey on the coast between Scarborough and Bridlington. 

Our team enjoyed listening to Maeve and Dick revel in the comforts of baking at home, and it resonated with those of us who picked up new skills during in lockdown. We also found familiar joy in hearing them debate one other about the perfect amount of currants to include in their favourite dish. Perhaps it is time for all aspiring bakers to rediscover an old favourite like Pig Lug?

This recording featuring food from Filey was captured by John Widdowson and is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture (C1829). The collection is a diverse and absorbing treasure trove of sound recordings from the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983. It also contains dialect-related recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute, as well as many sounds recordings made for the Survey of English Dialects (SED), the first ever comprehensive, nationwide survey of vernacular speech in England. The collection was donated to us in 2019 for digitisation as part of the UOSH project.

Over 300 examples of dialect are represented in the SED, forming an important and moving record of life in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. These sound recordings provide us with a window to a vanishing world at a point where many (though not all) the old ways were dying out.

It also provides us with a timely reminder of the vital work we are carrying out and spurs us on to keep preserving sounds, as there is lots more work to do. Look out for new websites exploring the History of Recorded Sound and the speeches of famous orators on Speaking Out in the coming months.

Thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Charlotte Wardley and Andrew Ormsby for your contributions to this article, and the Leeds University Dialect and Heritage project for giving us permission to use this recording.

Congratulations are due to every member of the UOSH team at the British Library and partner hubs for all that has been achieved over the past year.

Follow project updates @BLSoundHeritage on Twitter and Instagram.

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15 February 2021

Recording of the week: the swimming songbird

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This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

The White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) is a bird that just loves water. Normally found alongside fast flowing rivers and streams, this little songbird has evolved to dive, swim and even walk underwater. Though it’s almost impossible to believe that a bird not much larger than a sparrow could survive in such precarious conditions, the dipper has a number of special adaptations that allow it to thrive. Strong legs help individuals brace themselves against the current while their feet are able to firmly grip slippery rocks and pebbles both above and below the surface. They also possess powerful, rounded wings that act much like flippers when swimming underwater.

Colour illustration of a White-throated DipperHand coloured woodblock print of a Dipper, produced by Alexander Francis Lydon for Volume 3 of A history of British Birds.

A lovely description of the Dipper's song can be found in A History of British Birds, a multi volume collection written by the parson-naturalist Reverend F. O. Morris and published by Groombridge & Sons between 1850-1857. Morris wrote:

‘The song of this interesting bird is melodious and lively, though short. It is to be heard in sunny weather at all seasons of the year – a sweet accompaniment to the murmuring music of the rippling trout-stream, which soothes the ear and the heart of the solitary fly-fisher, as he quietly wends his way along, at peace with all the world.’

This close proximity to water makes recording dippers notoriously difficult; all too often its song and calls are drowned out by the rapid current. Despite the challenges, the sound archive does have almost 100 recordings of the White-throated Dipper in its collection.

The following example was recorded near the River Vrynwy in Wales by wildlife sound recordist Richard Margoschis. A breeding pair used rocks in the middle of the fast-flowing river as their songposts and it’s from one of these that the male in this recording was captured delivering his song. Though certainly melodious and lively, the song appears to be much longer than described by Morris.

Dipper song, recorded in Powys, Wales on 16 March 1980 by Richard Margoschis (BL ref 10563)

This recording was digitised as part of the Library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. Now in its fourth year, this UK-wide project aims to digitally preserve and provide public access to some of the nation’s most unique and at risk sound recordings. Thousands of wildlife recordings from all over the world have been digitised so far and you can keep up-to-date with the project’s progress by following @BLSoundHeritage.

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17 December 2020

Oral History of Jazz in Britain: Max Jones interviews Adelaide Hall

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By Sarah Coggrave, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) Project.

In 1988, jazz author, radio host and journalist Max Jones (1917–1993) interviewed jazz singer Adelaide Hall (1901–1993) for the British Library project Oral History of Jazz in Britain (British Library ref. C122). The audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of our National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. Previous blogs about this collection focused on Kathy Stobart, Major James Howe and Champion Jack Dupree.

Adelaide Hall was born in 1901, in Brooklyn, New York, where her father, a piano teacher, introduced her to music from an early age. Hall describes an upbringing filled with musicians, instruments and music. Sadly she lost both her father and sister at a young age, and sought out work to support her mother. Her early successes in theatre enabled her to do this, and more.

In her interview with Max Jones, Hall describes three of the professional jobs that kick-started her career. The first, Shuffle Along, was a hit Broadway musical by Noble Sissie and Eubie Blake, which according to Hall, involved some dancing and a few leading parts. This was performed in New York in 1921. She later became part of an all-black revue called Chocolate Kiddies, and the group toured Europe in 1925. Some of the songs were written by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later collaborate on a career-defining recording of the song Creole Love Call in 1927. In this excerpt from the interview, she describes how this came about.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 1

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 1

The third show that helped to cement Hall’s reputation as a performer was the Blackbirds production of 1928. Based on a production staged in London in 1926, starring Florence Mills, Blackbirds was created by Lew Leslie, who planned to develop the show on Broadway. However, his main star, Mills, died in 1927, aged just 31. Adelaide Hall took her place and became one of the show’s biggest stars in 1928, along with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who she is pictured with below.

Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson

Adelaide Hall with Bill Robinson. Image from the Richmond Planet, 15 November 1930, sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Blackbirds, like Chocolate Kiddies, took Hall back to Europe. This time her destination was the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where the show was a great success. She then spent much of the early 1930s on tour, both in Europe and in the U.S.A. on the RKO circuit. During this period Hall performed at the renowned Cotton Club, as well as being accompanied by a young Art Tatum on the piano, before he found fame. She recalls encouraging Tatum to accept his first big offer, in spite of knowing that she would lose a fine accompanist in the process.

Hall's accompanists also included Francis Carter and Bernard Edison, and the piano, as an object, became an important stage prop, when Hall began to request not one, but two pianos on stage when she performed.

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 2

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 2

Adelaide Hall cites her husband Bert Hicks (1924-1963), a British sailor born in Trinidad and Tobago, as a major support and collaborator in her career. Together they devised clever, creative ways to present her performances, and thanks to his language skills (which included French), they were able to buy and run a club called the Big Apple (La Grosse Pomme) in France. Between 1935 and 1938 the couple made this venue into a success with visitors and locals alike. Hall was the resident star, performing a cabaret show nightly. Here she describes making a dramatic entrance, from a spiral staircase repurposed by her husband:

Adelaide Hall - excerpt 3

Download Adelaide Hall and Max Jones transcript - excerpt 3

Such was Hall's popularity, it would not have been practical to keep the club open without her, so when she decided to take up performance opportunities in the U.K., her husband came with her and they closed the club in 1938. They soon found a new home in the Old Havana Club in London, which they took over and renamed the Florida Club.

However, this new life in the UK had a turbulent start, and coincided with the start of the Second World War. The couple’s club was destroyed by a landmine in 1939, and Hall remembers an eerie premonition before the event, which earned her the nickname 'Miss Ouija Board'. Feeling somehow that something bad was about to happen, she told everyone to leave the club. Her husband Bert was in the cellar when the explosion occurred, although miraculously survived.

In spite of the war, Hall’s career continued to go from strength to strength, with recordings, performances, broadcasts and even her own radio show with the BBC. She appeared in an Oscar-winning film (The Thief of Baghdad), and later added television appearances to her credits. The interview also covers her stage performances in the 1950s, including Kiss Me Kate and Love From Judy, as well as the Duke Ellington Memorial and Eubie Blake's 99th birthday. She describes visiting Billie Holiday shortly before the talented singer’s premature death, as well as her friendship with Louis Armstrong and his then wife Lil.

At the time of the interview, conducted in 1988, Hall would have been in her eighties, and was still actively performing, with plans to record an album the following year. She describes having to take more care with health and sleep, but otherwise feeling as fit as a woman in her fifties!

The interview reveals a warm, funny and talented artist, with a great zest for life. In one of many touching moments she sings a song with friend and interviewer Max Jones and suggests they have a drink together.

I would like to thank Nick Jones for help with the rights to this collection (you can read more about Max Jones’s work on the Max Jones Archive web site), and would encourage everyone to check out Adelaide Hall's remarkable career. The British Library’s collections include other interviews, copies of Hall’s many recordings and even some recordings of live performances, as well as Iain Cameron Williams’s book Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (2002). Materials about her life and work can be found in various archives, including Indiana University (U.S.), Yale University Library and Archives (U.S.) and the National Jazz Archives in the U.K.

14 December 2020

Recording of the week: Gut feelings in weather forecasting

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Portrait photograph of Julia Slingo
Julia Slingo at the Meteorological Office in Exeter as its Chief Scientist, 2013

In her oral history interview Professor Dame Julia Slingo describes many aspects of her life and work as a climate modeller. Her research has focused on tropical climate variability and its impact on the global climate. She started her career at the Meteorological Office, where she received training in weather forecasting – developing a ‘gut feeling’ for the weather:

Julia Slingo speaking about 'gut feelings' in weather forecasting [C1379/61] 

Could you now then describe the practical training on this Met Office course at Shinfield Park?

Yes, so every afternoon we would take the current weather patterns and what we’d learn to do was to actually plot the charts, so in those days you learnt how to plot all the symbols that describe the weather at a particular location and then you’d draw up the chart with the pressure pat – the isobars and you’d use the observations to decide where the weather fronts must be from things about what the observations were telling you. And we learnt to work out things like … the difference between what the weather’s doing at the surface and what the weather’s doing in the middle of the troposphere, it would also tell you about how weather patterns would change with time. But we – it was all very practical because at that stage none of this was computerised; there was a lot of hand drawing and – and plotting observations and thinking about – and interpreting what they mean and so we would – that was – that was what we spent the afternoons doing and then we would make our own forecasts: what we thought was going to happen to the weather patterns over the UK the following day. And it was fascinating, because what you also learn is that – is that expert judgement comes into this as well, that it’s not just purely theory, there’s actually all sorts of local knowledge comes in. And I can still remember having drawn up this beautiful chart and put a cold front in where I thought it ought to be ‘cause of what the winds were doing and all of that and I remember the tutor, the guy who was taking the class coming round and he’d say – he’d say, ‘Well Julia, why do you think the cold front’s there?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh well that’s because, you know, the winds are doing this and the pressure’s doing that,’ and blah-de-blah-de-blah. And he’d say, ‘Well I think it’s probably going to be more over here,’ and I’d say, ‘But why?’ he said, ‘Well just because I just know.’ And there was all that – there was also that – all that element of experience that comes in so this idea that, you know, when you watch the weather day after day after day you learn about … you get a gut feeling for it, which has never left me actually. So it’s – it’s not only having the theoretical base but it’s also that sort of experience and the fact that we do experience the weather from day to day which so much of physics you can’t get that sort of feeling. And, you know, now I can sort of look at a weather map or I can look at a satellite picture and I just say, I've got that feeling that it’s going to do this.

This clip features on the website Voices of Science. Further extracts from Julia Slingo’s interview are available on her interviewee page. Voices of Science tells the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century, featuring extracts from over 100 oral history interviews.

Julia Slingo was recorded by interviewer Paul Merchant in 2011 for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

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