THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

56 posts categorized "Radio"

13 January 2021

Building a National Radio Archive - in Hastings

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The British Library's National Radio Archive pilot is collaborative venture, involving curators, technologists and three software and data partners. The day-to-day work of managing the capture of programmes, however, is mostly done by one person, our Broadcast Recordings Curator Neil McCowlen. Here he describes what it has been like keeping a pilot radio archive going, under lockdown, in Hastings.

Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes

Caption: Neil McCowlen recording radio programmes at home in Hastings

On Monday 21 March 2020 a new way of working began for most areas of the British Library, as well as many other workplaces in the UK as work shifted from office to home. This threw up many challenges. This was certainly so for the newly formed National Radio Archive at the British Library. It had started in September 2019, and in those first six months a new system had been adopted to record and archive radio programmes across 50 UK radio stations. As with all new procedures and set-ups, there had been challenges and teething difficulties as all parties began to co-operate together and a good working pattern became established. However, that all changed with Coronavirus lockdown. Now, the Library’s resources became one laptop in Hastings and remote working had to be established.

The radio stations themselves had to adapt to new working practices. The national stations continued their coverage of the main news and talking points of the day, but more importantly, the general interest programming became an important way for people to find entertainment and solace during days of isolation. For many people, being confined to their homes meant a dependence on radio for a voice to listen to as they faced a long period of isolation from friends and relatives. Keeping up with national news was important, but being aware of the local situation in their areas and nearby support and guidance became a necessity.

This is where local stations, and in particular, community stations, came to the fore. At first, many struggled with their studios having to close and volunteer presenters being confined to their homes along with the rest of the population. This proved a huge problem for the National Radio Archive too, as great community programmes were suddenly disappearing from the airwaves. The published schedules of many stations still listed shows that were now no longer being broadcast and automated playlist music now took their place. Trying to discover what was actually being broadcast became a headache, especially as only one person was now monitoring all 50 stations squashed in a corner of one room in a flat nearly a hundred miles from the St Pancras office. Social media provided a way of finding out about some of the new programmes being broadcast, but often blocks of time were recorded to see what programmes might be found in those slots, as many shows were replaced by chart music.

As things settled down, a lot of programmes were being produced at home where presenters set up equipment that allowed them to broadcast from a room at home. This led to some very interesting broadcasts. Suddenly street sounds outside windows and noises around the house were heard rather than the noise free recordings made from a studio. Some stations were able to provide equipment for some presenters, others made do with programs on their personal PCs or phones. This led to a large variety in sound quality. Many such programmes were archived by the NRA to show the range of quality across all stations.

However, the most important thing was that local information and help for the community was being broadcast. Some regular programmes returned, serving branches of the community generally not covered by national and local commercial stations. Programmes devoted to mental health, carers, those living with HIV or other specific heath matters, race, age and gender specific programming and hobbies and interests were being broadcast, giving people a chance to find ways to get them through the isolation of lockdown and discover new ideas to do in the home to boost their morale. Many of these programmes were initially discovered on social media as the schedules were still incorrect in the early months of lockdown, so it was a challenge to archive these shows, but over time patterns emerged and series became easier to follow and record.

National Radio Archive management system

Caption: National Radio Archive management system

One of the most important additions to the schedules were specific community programmes linked to COVID-19 itself and the help and advice that the health authorities within the community could provide the listeners. They also gave out helplines and gave ideas for leisure and fitness activities to help during lockdown. Stations such as Future Radio (Norwich), Resonance FM (South London), Academy FM (Folkestone), All FM (Manchester), Cornwall Hospital Broadcasting Network, Calon FM (Wrexham), Manx Radio (Isle of Man) and Radio Reverb (Brighton) broadcast such programmes, and Manx Radio also had their own government daily updates, along the same lines as Downing Street were giving out. BCB in Bradford adapted their local information show and added a further show in the afternoon to give out even more local information and stories. Siren Radio, based in the University of Lincoln, even broadcast virtual lectures for the students as term time neared its end.

These were all archived, and as the lockdown continued, stations were swapped within the NRA, so that other stations responses to the pandemic could be recorded, whilst still maintaining the maximum of 50 stations that can be recorded from at any one time on the system. Some local festivals and outdoor events had to be cancelled, but they then became virtual events and were covered by the community stations, often broadcasting parts or all of the events. 24-hour marathon broadcasts were set up to raise money, and broadcasts in different languages found within the local area became available again on several stations.

As schedules had not been updated since March on many station websites, the programme information still had to be obtained from social media, causing problems with keeping on top of the broadcasts being taken. Some replaced scheduled programmes at the last minute, due to technical problems at presenters’ homes, or they were unable to record their show due to family issues. So, even the more reliable of station schedules could not guarantee to be 100% accurate. A lot of metadata became generic and detailed programme information was no longer available on shows that were previously rich in available details. Therefore, the research to find that data became more labour-intensive.

Then there were technical issues with our equipment to contend with. There would be some days when the remote access would drop out and the laptop would need to be restarted. There could be quite a gap before a connection could be re-established. Most of the time the connection was stable, but new working practices had to be adopted. Internet speeds could become an issue, with some tasks taking longer to perform than on previous days. Meetings with colleagues were held via Zoom; technical problems were handled remotely (the NRA’s main software provider, SCISYS, is based in Germany).

The main thing is that even with a new way of working, the National Radio Archive continues to grow and has an invaluable range of broadcasts across this strange period in our lives. It mirrors the nation’s reaction to events in phone-ins, interviews and the programmes produced to help during lockdown. Radio has risen to the challenge of being a valuable friend in a trying period for many and has shown ingenuity and dedication in producing helpful and entertaining material. We are proud to say that those programmes and the story of this time in Britain’s history has been captured fully by the Radio Archive and will provide researchers with a rich vein of information in the future. As it now passes 140,000 recordings, the National Radio Archive continues to gather the nation’s words and give a fully rounded picture of not just Coronavirus, but all world and national events as they happen.

Neil McCowlen

03 December 2020

Piloting a national radio archive

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The new content strategy from the British Library, Enabling Access for Everyone, includes a section on COVID-19, showing how different collecting sections of the Library have responded to the pandemic. Listed among what we have collected are radio broadcasts from some sixty stations, national and regional. This is the first public report on the progress of a pilot project that officially began operations at the start of 2020, entitled National Radio Archive.

National Radio Archive graphic

The National Radio Archive pilot is part of the British Library’s Save our Sounds programme. Scheduled to run over two years, its aim is to create a digital radio archive which will preserve a representative proportion of ongoing UK radio output and make this available for research. This intervention was needed because most UK radio output was not being preserved long-term or was inaccessible for research and education. We estimate that of around 3 million hours of radio broadcast in the UK each year from 700 stations, some 92% is not being properly preserved, with only 2% being made available for potential research post-transmission. These are sounds that need saving.

In particular, we were keen to preserve some of the output of regional or community stations, whose local engagement has proven to be so vital over this traumatic year.

The pilot is exactly that - a trial service to test the parameters and capabilities of such a resource. We have gone down the route of off-air recordings; that is, recording programmes at the point of broadcast. We are capturing these from a maximum of fifty channels at any one time (some on a near-continuous basis, others on a sampling basis), taken from different broadcast streams (DAB, DVB, IP streams). The descriptive metadata likewise comes from a variety of sources: embedded in the digital signal, acquired via special arrangement with Radioplayer or added manually.

We are generating automatic speech-to-text transcriptions for a proportion of the programmes, one of the goals being to see how well such software performs on a large scale, with a rapid turnaround from capture to access, and with multiple accents.

Screengrab of National Radio Archive management system

Image caption: The National Radio Archive management system, built by SCISYS, with speech-to-text transcriptions delivered by T-Pro/Cedat85

The operation is complicated. We are still working out the best models for the selection, capture and description of the programmes. Nevertheless, at the end of the first year we have recorded over 130,000 programmes (ahead of our target of 100,000) from sixty-four stations. A list of the stations from which we have recorded is given below. It should be noted that for most stations we have only recorded selected programmes (stations we record in their entirety or nearly so include LBC, talkRadio and Times Radio).

There is no access to the National Radio Archive as yet, and when this has been developed it will be almost exclusively onsite access only, in British Library reading rooms. However, we are keen to start working with researchers who may find such a resource useful, so please do get in touch (email us at radio@bl.uk).

Further blog posts will follow, covering particular aspects of our pilot archive, including COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter and the US presidential election.

For more information please visit the project page for the National Radio Archive.

 

UK radio stations covered by the National Radio Archive pilot during 2020

(Note that for most stations we take sample programmes, not their entire broadcast output)

BBC network

  • BBC Asian Network
  • BBC Radio 1
  • BBC Radio 2
  • BBC Radio 3
  • BBC Radio 4
  • BBC Radio 5 Live
  • BBC Radio 6 Music

BBC nations and World Service

  • BBC Radio Scotland
  • BBC Radio Ulster
  • BBC Radio Wales
  • BBC World Service

BBC local

  • BBC Radio Cornwall
  • BBC Radio London
  • BBC Radio Jersey
  • BBC Radio Leicester
  • BBC Radio Newcastle
  • BBC Radio Oxford
  • BBC Radio Tees
  • BBC Three Counties
  • BBC Radio Wiltshire
  • BBC WM (West Midlands)

Commercial

  • Absolute Radio
  • BFBS
  • Classic FM
  • Island FM
  • LBC
  • Manx Radio
  • Metro Radio
  • Radio City Talk (Liverpool, now defunct)
  • Radio X
  • talkRADIO
  • talkSPORT
  • Times Radio

Community radio and Restricted Service Licence (RSL)

  • Academy FM (Folkestone)
  • All FM (Manchester)
  • Bradford Community Broadcasting
  • BCfm (Bristol)
  • Calon FM (Cheshire)
  • Cam FM (Cambridge community/student)
  • Radio Cardiff
  • Celtic Music Radio (Glasgow)
  • CHBN (Truro hospital/community)
  • CSR (Canterbury student/community)
  • East Leeds FM (aka Chapel FM)
  • Fix Radio (community radio for building trade)
  • Future Radio (Norwich)
  • Gaydio (Manchester)
  • GTFM (Pontypridd/South Wales)
  • Oldham Community Radio
  • Panjab Radio (West London)
  • Phoenix 98 FM (Brentwood/Billericay, Essex)
  • Podcast Radio (London)
  • Radiophrenia (temporary art radio station)
  • Reprezent (South London youth-led station)
  • Resonance FM
  • Resonance Extra
  • Radio Reverb (Brighton/Hove)
  • Siren (Lincoln student/community)
  • Soundart Radio (Devon)
  • Spark (Sunderland community/student)
  • Ujima (Bristol)
  • Radio Verulam (St Albans)

Internet radio

  • Monocle FM
  • Totally Radio 

 

Neil McCowlen, Luke McKernan, Paul Wilson

12 October 2020

Recording of the week: Radio’s Holy Grail

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This week's selection comes from Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio Broadcast Recordings.

Given that the surviving recordings from British radio’s first decade, the 1920s, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that most of those are unintelligible, it was astonishing when proof finally emerged of something long rumoured – that professional sound recordings had been made of Marconi’s legendary experimental broadcast of 15th June 1920.

Featuring the Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, the event, two and a half years before the launch of the BBC, is chiefly remembered as the moment when the full potential of radio as a medium of mass popular entertainment was established beyond all doubt.

Dame Nellie Melba at Chelmsford  15 June 1920
Dame Nellie Melba photographed at Chelmsford, 15 June 1920

Britain’s first scheduled radio programmes, combining newspaper readings with performances by local amateur musicians, had been transmitted three months earlier and generated considerable press interest. So it was no surprise when, soon after, newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe offered to finance a programme designed to grab headlines around the world. The idea was simple – offer £1,000 to one of the world’s most famous singers to perform live in a broadcast of sufficient power to reach every home in Europe.

Fascinating stories are told of the prima donna’s arrival at the Marconi Company’s Chelmsford works and her oft-quoted comment to the Chief Engineer on being shown the 450 foot transmitter mast from which her voice would be radiated across Europe – “Young man, if you think I’m going to climb up there you are sadly mistaken!”

Yet one of the most remarkable innovations of the event – a set of wax disc recordings made in a Paris laboratory – was largely forgotten for the next eighty years. Historian Tim Wander eventually followed a trail which uncovered an article in a 1920 edition of the journal of the Société française radio-électrique (SFR) and, back in London, this archival photograph of the recordings being made at the SFR’s factory in Levallois-Perret, a suburb of Paris:

SFR Paris recording Chelmsford broadcast on 15 June 1920
SFR Paris recording Chelmsford broadcast, 15 June 1920 - Photo courtesy of Tim Wander

It shows the SFR engineers operating wax disc cutting lathes linked to one of three receivers set up to capture the event. Since each disc could capture just a few minutes of sound at least two lathes were needed to ensure that recording would continue on the second while the disc was being changed on the first. We can also see the heavy brass canisters used to protect the discs after recording. So fragile were the wax discs, which degraded on every pass of a playback stylus, that in reality they were only likely to survive if they were subsequently electro-plated, then re-pressed to a more durable medium such as shellac. This was an expensive business and might explain why, as far as we know, the recordings do not survive.

Or do they? And what might we hear in those long lost recordings, the ‘Holy Grail’ of British radio historians, should they ever turn up?

Most likely the hiss of the ‘ether’ was firstly interrupted at 7.10 pm by Marconi engineer W.T. Ditcham in his usual fashion:

MZX Calling! MZX Calling! This is the Marconi valve transmitter in Chelmsford, England, broadcasting on a wavelength of two thousand, seven hundred and fifty metres... Stand by for Dame Nellie Melba...

Then, perhaps, a pause as Marconi staff rushed to pull aside the specially laid carpet which the ‘Australian Nightingale’ kicked at disapprovingly for reasons unknown. Ditcham again returned:

Hallo, Hallo, Hallo! Dame Nellie Melba, the Prima Donna, is going to sing for you, first in English, then Italian, then in French.

Melba then announced her presence with a vocal ‘trill’ which also served to prime her vocal cords. Meanwhile, her accompanist Frank St Leger no doubt readied himself at the piano and the babble from the assembled throng crammed into the New Street Factory’s makeshift studio was hushed to silence.

Finally, as the Mail reported, “Punctually at a quarter-past 7 the words of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ fitted to the familiar melody, swam into the receivers” – and into the homes of astounded listeners all over Europe and the Middle East.

This studio recording of the song which Melba recorded in London eleven months later, is today the closest we can get to experiencing the sound of that first ever British radio performance by a professional musician.

Dame Nellie Melba - Home Sweet Home - May 1921 (HMV DB 351)

But this story also reinforces an important point – that sound recording alone is no guarantee that the sounds of today, or of a century ago, will be preserved for future generations. And of course that is the whole point of the Library’s Save Our Sounds initiatives.

Further reading:

Tim Wander, From Marconi to Melba: The Centenary of the First British Radio Broadcasts, TRW Publishing, 2020 (limited edition).

Tim Wander, 2MT Writtle: The Birth of British Broadcasting, 2nd edition, Authors Online Ltd, 2010.

Tuning in on the first days of broadcasting (British Library blog, 15 Nov 2012)

10 August 2020

Recording of the week: Do you know what a paternoster is?

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This week's recording of the week comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Photograph of colleagues Sharon and Jonathan

Sharon and Jonathan are colleagues who work together in the Finance department of the British Library, based in Boston Spa in Yorkshire. Sharon has been employed by the library for 42 years whereas Jonathan is the newest member of the team. They discuss their experiences of work and how expectations and attitudes have changed over time. Sharon talks about what it was like to work for the British Library in the past and describes some of the old equipment that was used, including a paternoster. She also mentions the surprising lack of health and safety regulations back then which meant that employees were actually allowed to smoke inside the library buildings, something that Jonathan can’t even imagine happening now.

Sharon and Jonathan (BL REF C1500/845)

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Sharon and Jonathan can be found on British Library Sounds.

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

20 November 2019

Hollywood Fights Back

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Written by Delaina Sepko, Sound Collections Researcher.

Hollywood Fights Back is a two part radio programme made and financed by the Committee for the First Amendment and broadcast on the American network ABC.

The episodes aired on 26 October 1947 and 2 November 1947 respectively.

The programme's content is spread across 6 shellac discs - also called 78s - which are automatically coupled for seamless broadcast playback.

This programme was made in reaction to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings led by Representative J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey into so-called subversive, Communist activities of private citizens, government officials and businesses.

In November 1946 Thomas took over HUAC, which had been running in various forms since the early 1930s, and he immediately took aim at Hollywood and what he considered a Communist influenced motion picture industry. He targeted actors, producers, screenwriters and directors for their suspected Communist beliefs and for supposedly spreading propaganda in their films.

In September 1947 Thomas summoned dozens of Hollywood actors and screenwriters before HUAC but only ten appeared for questioning. This group would become known as the Hollywood Ten. Thomas opened the hearings with an imposing line up of ‘friendly’ witnesses ready to name names and publicly out colleagues they thought might be guilty. In this case, guilty could simply mean suspected. For example, Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan - then President of the Screen Actors Guild - were both willing and generous when offering up names of suspected Communists and their sympathisers. Disney and Reagan merely mentioning colleagues or employee names during the hearings was enough to incriminate them. Despite these accusations and in the face of great pressure, the Hollywood Ten refused to answer any of the Committee's questions and citing the 5th Amendment to support their silence. Making an example of their insubordination, Thomas fined and sentenced the Hollywood Ten to jail for up to a year for their contempt of Congress.

Reacting to such a devastating blow dealt so close to home, Phillip Dune, Myrna Loy, John Huston and William Wyler formed the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) in September 1947 and met for the first time in Ira Gershwin's living room. They were sympathetic to the Hollywood Ten's plight but they were also worried for their own careers. If the Hollywood Ten could be summoned before the HUAC and have their reputations and personal beliefs laid bare and publicly scrutinised, then so could Dune, Loy, Wyler or anyone else from the film industry. They described the CFA as a non-political group of stars, writers, producers, scientists, senators and men of letters.

Timed to coincide with the first episode’s broadcast, the CFA flew in two groups to Washington D.C. – one departing from Hollywood and the other from New York - to observe the hearings and to deliver a petition for redress of grievances to the US government, which is part of the First Amendment and a basic tenant of American democracy. In this case, the petition was a formal complaint made against the US government and under the Bill of Rights, any American citizen can lodge one. 

Marsha Hunt reads the CFA petition:

 Marsha Hunt (9CL0041856)

Redress petition coverRedress petition cover (Item 25466014, the National Archives, Washington, D.C.)

Accompanied by a PR campaign filled with photo shoots and interviews, this trip to Washington, D.C. was choreographed to make the most of the stars' high profile status, popularity and beloved public opinion and do so using as many mass media outlets as possible. This method ensured the CFA shared their message with as many Americans as possible, as many ways as possible. Hollywood Fights Back was one part of that campaign.

Hollywood Fights Back episode 1 disc labelHollywood Fights Back episode 1 disc label

The first episode served as an introduction to the HUAC, its hearings as well as the CFA and its objections to both. It was opened by Judy Garland and followed by Gene Kelly, who suggested that if Americans liked films made by those subpoenaed by HUAC, then they could be called subversive too. Kelly suggested the HUAC objected to and dismissed average Americans’ sensibilities and points of view.

Gene Kelly (9CL0041852)

The episode's contributors are quick to ask who is behind HUAC and what is its purpose? 

William Holden explained who spearheaded HUAC and should be held responsible for its members' actions.

William Holden (9CL0041854)

Its purpose, John Huston continues, was to propose legislation that counters subversive activities. By the time Hollywood Fights Back was broadcast, the HUAC had been in existence for nine years and in that time, it proposed only one piece of legislation that was eventually rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Hollywood Fights Back made a clear distinction between what it found unsavoury about HUAC investigations and what it considered unlawful. The CFA did not approve of the topics addressed at the hearings but their real objections were directed at the way the hearing were conducted. 

Myrna Loy (9CL0041854)

Lucille Ball, famous for her comedy routines and ability to make people laugh, was profoundly serious when she explained how she and her fellow CFA members thought HUAC was tarnishing the Bill of Rights. This document, fundamental to American democracy, and the civil liberties it granted to American citizens, she explained, was only one pillar of their democratic society and if that pillar were knocked over, then the rest could fall too. Ball was keen to make listeners understand that HUAC and the hearings threatened much more than the careers of Hollywood film stars.

Lucille Ball (9CL0041854)

And if Ball's comments fell on deaf ears, the CFA enlisted WW2 veteran Audie Murphy to help listeners appreciate the CFA's concerns. Murphy was the most decorated WW2 American veteran and was well known and well respected across America. Murphy explained how the HUAC was undoing all the hard work he and his fellow veterans did to win the war and protect democratic values and rights not just in the United States but across the globe.

Audie Murphy (9CL0041854)

Once so-called Communist propaganda was removed from Hollywood, who would the HUAC’s target next? How long would their hunt for allegedly subversive thoughts and activities continue? CFA members feared that other creative industries such as theatre and literature would come under the same devastating scrutiny. John Garfield explained some of the investigations already taking place into people working in these other fields.

John Garfield (9CL0041853)

As the episode concludes, Judy Garland makes another appearance and her pleas were aimed straight at the heart. She issued a call to arms inspired by duty and driven by fear of complacency.

Judy Garland (9CL0041852)

Hollywood Fights Back episode 2 disc labelHollywood Fights Back episode 2 disc label

The second episode focused on what the CFA considered HUAC civil liberty violations, a claim as dangerous for them to make as it was for those accused. If CFA members were not already under HUAC scrutiny, then they were aware they probably would be after their campaign. Simply mentioning sympathy for HUAC targets was enough to raise suspicion and potentially damage careers.

Danny Kaye voiced these concerns:

Danny Kaye (9CL0041856)

Nonetheless, the second episode addressed what CFA members believed was the heart of the matter: a committee acting with the government's blessing and devoted to rooting out un-American activities was conducting its affairs in an un-American way. Of course, the measure of 'American' was different for both sides and each would have argued their perspective was the true democratic one. CFA members were dedicated to the First Amendment, freedom of speech and the right to defend oneself against accusations; the HUAC was committed to identifying and stopping real or perceived ideas and individuals who they felt challenged and threatened democratic values and the historical status quo. Contributors to Hollywood Fights Back lambasted the HUAC again and again for treating witnesses as 'friendly' or 'unfriendly,' a practice they feared prejudiced public perception of the hearings and the people they targeted. HUAC did not, in the contributors' opinions, give the accused a fair chance to defend and protect themselves.

Using transcripts from their 27 October hearing visit, June Havoc, Groucho Marx and Keenan Wynn demonstrate the different approaches the HUAC took when questioning the two types of witnesses:

Havoc, Marx and Wynn (9CL0041856)

The HUAC offered one perspective - subversion and guilt - and in an attempt to balance the debate, Hollywood Fights Back offered alternative opinions. To accomplish that, the contributors read newspaper articles, editorials and public statements published around the country in which the authors questioned HUAC’s ethics or disagreed with its methods. These other voices in Hollywood Fights Back belong not just to film stars and other celebrities, although these high-profile figures were the ones that helped get peoples' attention, but also to average American citizens expressing their concern: if the HUAC’s reach extended to Hollywood, then it could certainly reach their home towns. How far would HUAC go, they asked?

Hollywood Fights Back set out to counter the HUAC and its sympathetic media presence and balance opinions about the ethical and legal nature of HUAC hearings. Yet its ultimate aim was higher. Contributors wanted the hearings abolished and buried so that they could never happen again. The episode concluded with another rally cry and encouraged listeners to consider what the HUAC was doing and to write and condemn its investigation.

Episode 1 contributors: Charles Boyer, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, John Huston, Danny Kaye, Marsha Hunt, Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Evelyn Keyes, Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid, William Holden, Robert Ryan, Florence Eldridge, Myrna Loy, Robert Young, Lucille Ball, William Wyler, Fredric March, John Garfield, Deems Taylor, Artie Shaw, Elbert Thomas, Harley Kilgore, Archibald MacLeish, Claude Pepper, Glen Taylor, Vincent Price, Edward Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Audie Murphy, Humphrey Bogart, Van Heflin.

Episode 2 contributors: Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks, Rita Hayworth, Florence Eldridge, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster, Danny Kaye, Evelyn Keyes, Paul Henreid, June Havoc, Groucho Marx, Keenan Wynn, Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, Marsha Hunt, Hurd Hatfield, Peter Lorre, Burt Ives, Geraldine Brooks, Jane Wyatt, Vanessa Brown, Arthur Webb, Gene Kelly, George Kaufman, Moss Hart, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Thomas Mann, Dana Andrews, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Richard Conte.

N.B. Most contemporary references to Episode 1’s broadcast date list it as 27 October 1947. The disc label for that episode and several newspaper articles from that time show that it was, in fact, 26 October.

Hollywood Fights Back episode announcement in The Evening Star, 25 Oct 1947Hollywood Fights Back episode announcement in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 25 Oct. 1947 (taken from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress)

The British Library Sound Archive has physical copies of both episodes:

Episode 1 - 9CL0041852, 9CL0041853, 9CL0041854

Episode 2 - 9CL0041855, 9CL0041856, 9CL0041857

They are also digitally available for on-site listening.

Follow @delainasepko, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news about our sound collections.

17 September 2019

Beginnings: Arabic music in the 'Ezra Hakkāk and Emile Cohen Collection

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. Over the next 2-3 years he will be working on the Library's audio collections connected with the Gulf region to scope, catalogue and research them, to manage their preservation and access and to write about them. In this blog Hazem talks of his introduction to the collections.

 

It was at the very beginning, less than three weeks into my role as Gulf History Audio Curator that I found myself with British Library Sound Archive doyen Ian Macaskill in the disc and tape-bestrewn room through which newly acquired sound and moving image materials enter the British Library’s collections. At the end of this audio-cataloguer rite of passage, one foot already out the door, I was beckoned back into the room to describe my role at the Library to another veteran of the accessioning team. As if awaiting confirmation that I would work with Arabic language materials, a bemused Jowan Collier rose from his seat and began the dance around the stacks of CDs to the other end of the room. “I imagine there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.” A few dozen shellacs in an assortment of discrepant sleeves lay in a dark wooden box marked “532: Emile Cohen Collection.” A yellow sticky note, curled up like a delaminated lacquer disc on the side of the box announced October 25, 2016 as the donation date.

Image of Emile Cohen Box
“…there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.”


I eventually found out that it was my predecessor on the British Library-Qatar Foundation partnership, Rolf Killius, who had arranged for this gift. Rolf had delivered a lecture about Iraqi music at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq after which an elderly gentleman introduced himself, and soon thereafter offered to donate a collection of shellacs to the British Library. This was Emile Cohen. Born in Baghdad in 1943 to a secular scion of a rabbinical family, Emile spent the evenings of his youth listening to the dozens of guests who would assemble at his grandfather’s house for edifying conversation. Given the centrality of Baghdad’s Jewish community to the city’s musical life, much of this conversation centred on things musical. It didn’t hurt that from the roof of their house they could eavesdrop on the regular musical performances at the nightclub next door. Cohen had obtained the recordings from 'Ezra Hakkāk. The Hakkāk’s owned a shop on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad and another in Tehran that started off selling leather goods, branching out into sewing machines, electronics and, ultimately gramophone machines and records.

Emile narrates much about these and other stories in an oral history interview conducted by Richard Green and held at the Library as part of the Sephardi Voices UK Collection (C1638), and which comprises oral history testimony about the settlement of Jews from West Asia and North Africa in the UK.

Image of Emile Cohen with Collection – photo by Rolf Killius 2016
Emile Cohen just before a trip to the British Library to donate his shellac collection. Photo: Rolf Killius, 2016.

Much can be said about what was in that little box, but ‘beginnings’ might be ‘a very good place to start’ given how many of the recordings contained in that box of wonders embodied career-launching events in the contributing artists’ biographies. At the very top of the box’s stack of discs lay two Baidaphon records by the legendary Laylā Murād (1918-1995). Though Murād had achieved enough fame as a teenager in one of Cairo’s top music halls to be cast in one of the earliest full length Egyptian films (al-Dhaḥāyā [The Victims], 1932, dir. Bahija Hafez and Ibrahim Lama), hers was a minor role in the silent film. She achieved a bit more notoriety when that film was reissued as a ‘talkie’ a few years later, landing her a recording deal with Baidaphon that resulted in Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr (I've loved and seen a great deal), which was also in the box. But it was not until her 1938 collaboration with Moḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb on the film Yaḥyā al-Ḥubb (Long Live Love, dir. Moḥammad Karīm) that her career as a superstar singer and actor began. Indeed, the two records at the top of the delightful box were Yā mā ʼaraqq al-nasīm (oh how soft the breeze) and Yā qalbī mālak (oh my heart, what is the matter), both written by Aḥmad Rāmī and composed by ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, and both from that film’s soundtrack.

Image of Habbayt w shuft kteer on the Baidaphon label
“Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr” on the Baidaphon label. Recorded when she was 19 years of age, it was one of Layla Murad’s very first recordings.

Nestled among the shellacs in the box of wonders was a little 17cm disc in its original sleeve proclaiming the artist as “Om Kalsoum”, one of more than a dozen variations on the Egyptian diva’s name. The recording is “Enta fein wel ḥobb fein” which roughly translates as “love is here, and you are way over there”, a song much better known after its opening verse "ḥubb eh illi-inta gayy tʼūl 'aleh" (what love is it that you speak of). By 1960, when this song was first performed, Um Kulthūm was already well established as the pre-eminent Arab artist across the region. Indeed, at that time Egypt and Syria had united into the United Arab Republic, and Um Kulthūm had been chosen to sing the union’s national anthem. But it was the largely unknown composer of this runaway hit who skyrocketed to regional fame when it was first performed. Balīgh Ḥamdī (1931-1993) had studied music since the age of nine, spending his college years between law school and the music academy before trying his hand as a singer in the late 1950s. It was around this time that Um Kulthūm was looking for a new sound, meeting Ḥamdī at the recommendation of singer (and Misrphon label owner) Moḥamad Fawzī. In the two decades that followed the success of ḥubb eh, Ḥamdī became one of the most sought after composers in the Arab world, composing for every major artist of the mid-twentieth century as well as for radio, television, theatre and the cinema. Hip hop aficionados will be very familiar with Timbaland’s sampling of the melody from Ḥamdī’s Khusāra khusāra on Jay Z’s first major hit single, Big Pimpin’. Intellectual property enthusiasts are likely also familiar with it after Ḥamdī’s nephew sued Jay Z, Timbaland and EMI in 2007 for copyright infringement. The court summarily dismissed the case in 2015, finding that Egyptian law was not applicable, and that as a result the artists and the recording company were under no obligation to seek the permission of Ḥamdī’s family for what the family considered a debauched use of Balīgh Ḥamdī’s work.

Image of Um Kulthūm on the cover of Enta Fein wel Hobb Fein
The original sleeve of Um Kulthūm’s ḥubb eh, composed by Balīgh Ḥamdī


In addition to a host of other career-making recordings, Emile Cohen’s gift can tell the tale of another sort of beginning; the beginning of Egyptian music’s regional dominance in the interwar period. Many of those involved in the development of cultural production in Egypt since the nineteenth century were artists whose families had moved to Egypt from Greater Syria, a trend that continued well into the twentieth century. From this collection alone, some names that stand out include:

  • Ṣabāḥ, who was brought to Egypt from Mount Lebanon by filmmaker ’Āssia Dāgher and ultimately recorded over 3000 songs and performed in over 100 plays and films;
  • Moḥammad Salmān, who moved to Cairo from Mt. Lebanon to pursue a career in music but would later find his passion as an actor and filmmaker in the Egyptian capital;
  • Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, who grew up in Palestine performing as an amateur until he was sent to study at the music academy in Cairo in 1937. There, he became deeply involved in composing and performing for radio audiences before eventually becoming head of music programming at the Near East Broadcasting Service in Palestine until the expulsion of, and denial of return to, two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1947-1948. After a few years with the broadcast service which had moved to Cyprus, he moved to Lebanon to head the music department at the Lebanese radio service al-Sharq al-Awsat;
  • Najāḥ Salām’s Beiruti father was a well-known composer and ‘ūd player and took the chanteuse, already known in Lebanon, to Cairo in 1948 to meet many of the leading musical figures of the Egyptian capital. This, of course, did wonders for her career. So much so that by the mid-1970s she was granted honorary Egyptian citizenship.
  • Sihām Rifqī who moved from Syria to Egypt for a music and film career, recording over a dozen hits before an early retirement;
    and of course
  • Farīd al-‘Aṭrash and Amal al-‘Aṭrash (aka Asmahān), brother and sister born to a notable Druze family that had led the resistance against the French occupation of Syria, moving to Egypt because of the anticolonial connections between their family and that of the Egyptian independence movement’s leader Sa‘d Zaghlūl. The siblings rose to dominate the music and musical film scene in Cairo by the 1940s.
Image of Baidaphon sleeve featuring their top recording artists
Baidaphon was a Beirut-based record label, and possibly the first homegrown music recording company in the Arab world. This sleeve from the 1940s showcases the company’s top recording artists. It is notable that all of these artists hail from Greater Syria, and all of them launched their stardom and regional celebrity in Egypt. Clockwise from the top: Asmahān, Najāḥ Salām, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, Sihām Rifqī, Moḥammad Salmān, Ḥanān. The record in the photograph is by an Egyptian dancer of Syrian origin, Bibā ʻIzz al-Dīn, who achieved far more notoriety for her live shows in Cairo’s music halls than she did for her recorded output.

Those familiar with postcolonial dynamics will be particularly aware of just how politicised cultural battles between former coloniser and colonised can be. In the case of Arab states emerging from British, French and Italian colonial rule, and in light of the centrality of Cairo described above, the battle over national culture was also waged with an eye to Egypt. Whether in Tunisia, Iraq, or elsewhere, the mid-twentieth century witnessed an immense amount of activity that practically accepted Egyptian cultural production as the language of Arabic culture, but each of these fledgling nation-states sought to develop and elevate their own dialect within that. The dynamic between language and dialect is not only metaphor; any composer in the interwar period who wanted to produce 'serious' music had to do so in either classical Arabic or an Egyptian dialect, while other dialects were reserved for their own folklore. After the post-WWII wave of postcolonial independence, composers and lyricists beyond the confines of Cairo sought a legitimacy for their own dialects, including other Egyptian dialects, as ones that could convey a cultivated urbanity.

The recordings in this collection help tell that story as it unfolded in Lebanon. The early recordings by Ṣabāḥ and Wadī‘ al-Ṣāf ī in the collection typify the folkloric bent of the music recorded in Lebanon well into the 1940s. One of the more significant recordings in the collection is the song Waynik yā Laylā (Where are you Layla) by Sāmī al-Ṣaydāwī, who originally composed the song for Lebanese singer Kamāl al-Ṭawīl. Both Ṣaydāwī and Ṭawīl had built careers performing in the Egyptian dialect to audiences in both Egypt and Greater Syria; Waynik yā Laylā was one of the early non-folkloric songs performed and recorded in the Syro-Lebanese dialect, forming part of a trend that would continue and grow over the decades that followed.

Image of the iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)
The iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)



The artists who did the most to propel Lebanese song into the more exalted register regionally all had a part to play in yet another item in the box of wonders. The song ʻItāb (reproach), appearing on the Zodephone label in the early 1950s, was an instant hit, one that proved momentous for the emergence of Beirut as Cairo’s main musical rival. The vocalist, Nuhād Haddād, had been 'discovered' a few years earlier by Mohamad Flayfel, composer of such songs as Mawṭini (‘my homeland’, the popularly accepted national anthem of Palestine, and the post-2003-occupation anthem of Iraq) and Ḥumāt al-Diyār (‘defenders of the home,’ the national anthem of Syria). Flayfel encouraged Haddād to study music at the conservatory, and to immerse herself in that repository of vocal technique at the heart of ecstatic Arabic song: Qur’anic recitation (tajwīd). While at the conservatory, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī heard her sing and decided to take her under his wing, introducing her to his friends the Raḥbānī brothers, ‘Assī and Manṣūr. Rūmī also decided to pick out a stage name for her, one that means turquoise, and that millions of people now associate with their morning coffee: Fairūz.

As a romance blossomed between ‘Assī Raḥbānī and Nuhād (they married in 1955), so did their creative collaboration, the first fruit of which was the song ʻItāb that is on this recording. The airing of this song on Lebanese and then Syrian radio in late 1952 launched Fairūz’s regional fame, enabling her to sign her first recording contract with Zodephone. Indeed, Zodephone's early success as a record company was based on the company's recordings of Fairuz songs.

All that’s left to say is a big warm thank you to Emile Cohen and ‘Ezra Hakkāk for such wonderful beginnings!

 

Written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow the BLQF Project @BLQatar

Follow The British Library’s World and Traditional Music team @BL_WorldTrad

Follow Unlocking Our Sound Heritage updates @BLSoundHeritage

09 August 2019

The nightingale sings again - the life, career, and recordings of Beatrice Harrison

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Beatrice Harrison with celloBeatrice Harrison with cello (BL Collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Chas Helge who is currently writing his dissertation on Beatrice Harrison

Suddenly, the door opened and the King came in. He was quite alone. He came up to me… saying, 'Nightingale, nightingale,' he said, 'you have done what I have not yet been able to do. You have encircled the empire with the song of the nightingale with your cello.'

These are the words spoken by the cello virtuoso Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) in 1955 for the BBC Home Service programme Scrapbook for 1924. Harrison, who was once a household name at the height of Great Britain’s colonial empire, lent her first-hand account to help create an historical snapshot of 1924. The monarch she is referencing is King George V. This interview is just one of the rare resources found in the Sound and Moving Image collection at the British Library. My Edison Fellowship facilitated travel to London to access this and many more primary sources for my dissertation exploring the career, life, and recordings of this outstanding early 20th century performer.

Beatrice Harrison’s development was meteoric. She was second of four prodigiously talented sisters: May, Beatrice, Margaret, and Monica. Their early musical studies were supervised by their firebrand of a mother, Annie Harrison. Annie was a talented amateur singer and pianist, and perhaps because she was not able to pursue a musical career herself, mobilized all of her family’s resources to the careers of her children as professional musicians. One of the most fascinating windows into the Harrison family’s lives are their practice journals. The girls were expected to keep meticulous records to document every hour of every day’s productivity. Annie’s devotion and tenacity paid off. Beatrice received exceptional training at the Royal College of Music, the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. While studying with the famous German cello pedagogue Hugo Becker (1863-1941), she won the Mendelssohn Prize at age seventeen.

In their early 20s, Beatrice and her elder sister May Harrison toured Europe and Russia performing the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello some fifty-nine times. During their travels, they met Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Glazunov, Gustav Holst, and David Popper. The Harrison sisters also brushed shoulders with the world’s political elite including European royalty, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in England, King George V and his sister Princess Victoria. 

Beatrice and May HarrisonBeatrice and May Harrison (BL Collections)

Beatrice became close friends with Princess Victoria, so close, that it was Princess Victoria who paid for Harrison’s beloved cello, the great ‘Pietro Guarnieri’.  In August 1928 HMV made some private recordings for the Princess.  Here is one of the third movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor featuring Beatrice on the cello and Princess Victoria accompanying her on the piano.

Elgar Adagio with Princess Victoria

Another recording, which can be heard at the British Library, is an interview conducted in 1986 with Margaret Harrison (1899-1995), Beatrice’s younger sister. Margaret herself was a prodigy as the youngest pupil of the Royal College of Music (age 4) and her piano skills were extensive enough that she toured with Beatrice in the United States (they even made it to Texas). Here, we can listen to Margaret create a portal, not only into the life of the Harrison family, but also into the private life of Princess Victoria.

Margaret Harrison interview

Harrison’s greatest claims to fame straddle two different sides of the music world during the 1920s. Today, Harrison’s legacy endures for her recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto recorded under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar himself. She was his preferred cellist for the concerto and he credited her for popularizing it after its disastrous premiere.  They first recorded it together in 1919 and 1920 by the old acoustic process.

Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920

A new recording was made by the electric process on 23rd March 1928 where two turntables were recording simultaneously.  Using modern digital technology, these two recordings made at the same session have been combined to create a new stereo version.  It also stands as the most accurate representation of what Elgar intended his famous concerto to express.

Elgar Cello Concerto 1928

The second contribution Harrison made was as an international radio superstar.  In 1924, she had a 'hard tussle' (her words) to convince managing director of the BBC Sir John Reith to have sound engineers go to her garden near Oxted in Surrey.  Her vision was to recreate on live radio what she had successfully accomplished herself many times: marry the rich sound of her cello with the song of the nightingale.  In the dark, positioned under an oak tree, surrounded by rabbits, microphones, and wires, Harrison performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chant Hindu accompanied by the sound of nightingales to a radio audience of a million people.  Four years later she recreated this for the HMV microphone.

Chant Hindu

HMV label of B2470Label of HMV B 2470 (BL Collections)

Meanwhile, the live broadcast was a hit. It was the first time the BBC had broadcast the sound of birds in their natural habitat. Harrison received more than fifty thousand fan letters and welcomed hundreds of visitors to her estate from every corner of the British Empire. They all hoped to meet ‘The Lady of the Nightingales.’ Harrison and the BBC recreated their broadcast every springtime for twelve consecutive years and later, in the 1955 Scrapbook programme mentioned above.  Here is an excerpt from that broadcast describing what happened in 1924 and ending with her recollection of the King's comments mentioned above.

Scrapbook for 1924 excerpt

Harrison’s success even led to her appearing as herself in the 1943 British propaganda film The Demi-Paradise, and extraordinary scene where she plays in a garden with nightingales during an air raid for a radio broadcast.

Harrison embraced her status as an international British cultural icon and thus named her memoir The Cello and the Nightingales

As an American, the Edison Fellowship was my ticket to accessing not only the British Library’s resources, but many institutions and individuals in London. The Harrison Sisters’ scores at the Royal College of Music and Harrison’s correspondence (contracts, internal memos, and letters) with the BBC at their archives in Caversham. Both the RCM and the BBC Archives were so very kind and helpful, especially the RCM librarians who made dozens of trips into the basement to pull up heavy boxes of music, I thank you for helping this helpless American. 

While in London, I was privileged to meet the two leading Beatrice Harrison historians, David Candlin, Chairman of the Harrison Sisters Trust and Patricia Cleveland-Peck, author of many beloved children’s books and the annotator/editor of Beatrice’s autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales. David was kind enough to invite me into his home and show me the Harrisons' church and graves and the Music House in Surrey. He also provided access to documents and countless photos I had never seen before. 

Special thanks to Jonathan Summers at the British Library Sound Archive who manages the Edison Fellowships for help and guidance during my stay in London, and for accompanying me in Anton Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata and a Beatrice Harrison manuscript!  Finally, thanks to Cheryl Tipp, curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, for the use of a recording studio to finish the transcriptions of the recorded interviews. 

Thanks to Somm Recordings for permission to use the Elgar recordings

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

21 July 2019

Recording of the week: Nelson Mandela in the UK

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This week's selection comes from Adonis Leboho, Communications Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Last Thursday, people all over the world marked Mandela Day through commemorative events celebrating the legacy of the heroic anti-apartheid revolutionary.

Nelson Mandela fought against institutionalised racial segregation in South Africa for decades, enduring twenty-seven years of imprisonment until the ruling regime finally gave in to domestic and international pressure and released him. Eventually succeeding in the fight against apartheid, Mandela went on to lead South Africa as its president, setting about the difficult task of healing the nation’s deep wounds after years of division.

In a recording digitised through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, Mandela addresses gathered journalists at a press conference during his visit to the UK following his release, likely at the International Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1990.

Photograph of Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela photographed smiling in Johannesburg, Gauteng, May 2008 (courtesy of South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za via Wikimedia Commons)

Still full of energy and resolve, Mandela uses this platform to draw attention to the continuing struggle to dismantle apartheid. In his clear and considered way, Mandela also responds to difficult questions about the state of his political party, the ANC, and the struggle for human rights around the world.

In the clip I have selected, Mandela discusses the role of artists in successfully communicating political messages, especially in ways politicians just aren’t able to manage. Though he admits he didn’t have much time to keep up with the latest musical trends because of the demands on his time and lack of access to music, Mandela talks about how he came to develop an appreciation of the work of musicians, as they used their art to campaign for his freedom.

Nelson Mandela (C1132/148)

Found in the Rob Waldron Radio Broadcasts collection, this recording captures Mandela’s integrity, dedication and compassion right at the moment when he is forging South Africa’s democratic future.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for regular updates on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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