Tuning in to Soundwriting

Resounding History: A Rhetoric of Sonic Historiography (in Two Parts)

by Jonathan W. Stone


Resounding History: Introduction: Transcript

Timestamp: 00:00 | Source: Hall (1948e), "The Little Wood Church"

Vera Hall: [Singing "Little Wooden Church on the Hill." African American woman with an alto voice singing a cappella. The recording is clear but imperfect, with occasional echoes and reverberations from the recorded audio mirroring in the background.]

Was in my childhood
'Twas many years ago
And the spirit of thee I was filled
There was no forms or fashion
Just plain ol' spirit feel
In that little wooden church on the hill

There was no well-dressed people
Just plain folk everywhere . . .

Jon Stone: [singing continues behind narration] Right now, you are listening to history.

Hall: They wore just plain ol' fashioned ruffles, frocks, and frills . . .

Stone: "Little Wooden Church on the Hill" is part of a recording made in 1948 by Alan Lomax using a reel-to-reel tape machine—and the voice on that tape? It belongs to Vera Hall. Hall was one of thousands of people that Lomax recorded during the twentieth century, but incredibly, this is one of the first times this particular part of Hall's sonic archive has been published.

Timestamp: 01:04 | Source: Lomax & Hall (1948d), "Commentary by Vera Hall on Her Favorite Songs"

Hall: [speaking] I wanted to learn all that so bad, I didn't know what to do!

Alan Lomax: That's pretty! It's beautiful.

Hall: It is pretty and I like it!

Stone: Listening to any archival history in this way is still a pretty unique experience—and using sound in scholarship is equally unique. This collection is an experiment with utilizing sound to teach topics within rhetoric—one that we hope inspires readers and listeners to think about how they might bring sound into their own scholarship and teaching. [Ryan Anderson's (2018) "Flawless" begins. "Flawless" is a melodic piano-based instrumental.] This chapter is about bringing sound to history, seeking out sonic archives, and mixing up sound studies with rhetoric and writing studies. And while I hesitate to argue that this chapter will revolutionize any of those areas of study, work with a sonic archive is an opportunity to revise—or as I call it throughout this piece, resound—the ways we think about history and rhetoric and the composing practices that surround them.

Resounding history is also an opportunity for rethinking the possibilities of archival research. The archive, of course, is a key to composing histories, but sonic archives are sometimes left out of that process—and for a variety of reasons, really. Foremost among them is the simple fact that scholarly history is generally a textual art, printed in books. Indeed, audio recordings themselves have only existed in ubiquity for the last hundred years or so. So sonic history is an incredibly contemporary possibility, especially when one considers that "recorded" textual history spans around 5,000 years. The other exciting reason is that technology has simply not allowed for sonic material to be taken up by historians in the same ways that text, illustration, and photography have. That has begun to change. Case in point: You are listening to an academic book and one that features sounds from a sonic archive.

Let me acknowledge up front, however, that sonic history isn't better than textual history. Using sonic tools and objects to both analyze and compose histories does not render those histories more legible, accessible, or more "true" or "authentic," though this is sometimes the false promise that sonic studies seems to offer. In fact, it may be the opposite. Instead, I hope to argue here that the study and practice of writing history is always a work of incomplete assemblages that parade around in their final product as "complete."

In this chapter, I hope to show how a sonic rhetorical study brings the messy details of historical composition, the practice known as historiography, to the surface in ways that an alphanumeric rendering of history may more easily elide. This goal is accompanied by the assertion that the acknowledgment of this messiness is a good thing both for history and for rhetoric. The lack of historical certainty is always more useful than its opposite, and therefore that uncertainty itself is an important hallmark of sonic rhetorical study, as is the notion that all histories are composed.

Like all the chapters in this collection, this chapter is intended to be pedagogical—that is, as an aid, guide, or supplement to teaching or learning about composing sonic rhetorical histories. The word "rhetoric" in the title has a few meanings, one of which is its technical sense as a manual or a guidebook. In short, I hope what follows is useful, practical, and assignable in any number of contexts—rhetoric and composition classrooms, to be sure, but also in contribution to conversations and instruction in sound studies, history, and library studies, and wherever else sonic archives are being discussed and utilized.

To meet those goals, this chapter is presented as two parts. The first part is explicitly instructive, and the second is offered as an example of a sonic historiographical study—an essay and composed sonic history about Vera Hall, the African American woman you heard at the beginning of this recording. As mentioned, the archivist Alan Lomax is known for his work as a field recorder and music archivist for the Library of Congress during the interwar period, but much of Lomax's independent archival work is collected under the organizational moniker of "The Association for Cultural Equity," or ACE for short. ACE is now a digital archive, maintained by custodians of Lomax's massive collection, and has a variety of sonic, visual, and video materials, all of which Lomax collected between 1946 and 1996. The sound recording catalog alone comprises more than 17,400 digital audio files. The second part of this chapter is an analytical history of Vera Hall and will utilize and integrate several recordings from ACE that feature Hall singing and telling stories about her life. And while Hall's status as an impoverished African American woman constrained and precluded many of the possibilities afforded other rhetors of her time, the power of her sonic history and rhetoric is powerful, persuasive, and crucial to understanding life in Livingston, Alabama—her hometown—in the early twentieth century.

The first, more instructive essay is in many ways a "making of" the second piece on Vera Hall. In that part, I detail the strategies and methods that went into curating and composing that sonic history, including the ideas, decisions, and even mistakes I made along the way. I'll also introduce some of the theory and the scholarship that undergirds and informs my process. In this way, I hope to provide a model for understanding the historiographical process and give folks a chance to see and hear how "history" gets written. As mentioned earlier, it's messy. Even so, I hope my efforts to acknowledge and display that mess will be useful to teachers and students. In short, by explicitly separating the methods and case study sections of my chapter into these two parts, I hope to offer both the recipe and the finished entree for reader-listeners.

Sound good? Let's hope so. Sounding good always helps. (And to be clear, what you just heard was not a single take of masterful oratory, but took about 100 takes and 1000 edits to get right—but tips on the more technical aspects of sonic composition are the subject of another chapter.) So, with no further ado, let's begin this one. It's called "Resounding History: A Rhetoric of Sonic Historiography (in Two Parts)."1 1 "Resound" is a very useful and pliable rhetorical term, especially for those of us in the field of rhetoric and composition, where the notion of revision has been so important, even foundational, to writing studies practices. Like "revision," "resound" offers scholars a number of practical and theoretical possibilities and should not be relegated to the work of one corner of the discipline. Rather, "resounding" can offer one way that sound studies work in rhetoric might influence the field at large. As such, we need many renderings of the term. My use here and throughout this piece is in the context of rhetorical historiography. This is resonant with (though in a slightly different key than) Byron Hawk's (2018) use of the term in his book Resounding the Rhetorical. "Resounding," Hawk entoned, "suggests that the materiality of past conditions, embodiment in present listening practices, and the future impact on other bodies and ecologies is all part of the same process" (p. 15). Resounding is an equalizing force, then, with the power to bring all bodies, all contexts, all histories into concert with one another, thus forcing us to reconsider the orthodoxies that generally hold our disciplines in place.