The Great Bittern and the Measurable Ineffable

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Great Bittern. Archibald Thorburn. Lithograph, ca. 1885.

This is the story, and we are to believe its ending is a happy one. Its hero, a young boy, can repeatedly attempt to solve the problem the story presents, but he will never reach its core. This is because he and the community in which he lives exist at different levels of consciousness, within different realities. Ultimately he will be forced to leave his village, to distance himself from the culture that created him. He is an anomaly, an outlier, an ontological naturalist born into a world of fundamentalists. Even if he manages to find peaceful détente with his native culture, it can never be home, not in any deep sense. There is no happy ending for him.

Near a small Bosnian Serb village, some time between the wars, a group of men hear a strange sound in the reeds while fishing: a sort of hollow booming, vaguely like someone blowing across the mouth of an oversized jug. Having never heard anything like it, they are terrified. When practical understanding fails them, they turn to a cultural understanding. They conclude that it is the voice of the drekavac, a demon of the wild places, only encountered by humans when death is near. A local boy refuses to believe in this fear. So he sets off to discover the true source of the sound. Stalking through the reeds, he hears something in front of him. He pauses and listens closely. The low thumps ripple through him and make his stomach tingle. Despite this odd feeling, the sound is not unpleasant. A dull booming of sorts, yes, but just before each burst there is what he can only describe as an intake of breath. No, an intake of sound. As if whatever were making it were drawing sound itself into its lungs in order to release it multiplied, deepened, transformed. After a moment, he carefully creeps forward. Parting the stalks, he sees a large, drab-colored, long-necked bird: Botaurus stellaris, the great bittern, rare in these parts. His testimony alone will not be enough, so he captures it to take back and prove to the villagers that they are safe from forest demons. His feat is hailed as heroic and brave. His neighbors are relieved and can now enjoy restful sleep.

But his heroic act has only proven the physical source of the sound. As an ontological naturalist he has missed what is perhaps the most important part of the scenario: how a sound with an unknown origin is received in a given culture. In human terms, its mythological reality is every bit as important as its measurable reality. In later life the boy will learn to bridge this gap. He will also learn that ontological naturalism is as much a dogmatic reality tunnel as superstition or fundamentalism. This bridging, this knowing, this becoming unstuck from described realities, is gnosis. But humans are social creatures, and their social structures are built upon fragile subjectivities. Happy endings are always compromises. There is no room for gnostics.

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The MV Olga Patricia, somewhere in the North Sea, 1960s.

It is the summer of Swinging Radio England, 55,000 watts of mainstream pop rock broadcast across the North Sea basin from the MV Olga Patricia, a ship anchored just off the coast of Essex. By winter it would be gone, its place on the radio band replaced by jittery static. Later in the century rumors touching upon the US intelligence community would swirl around the ship. A couple of hours up the coast, near the Norfolk village of Hickling Heath, an Austin A40 Farina is parked at the side of the road. The sun has not yet broken over the eastern horizon. A path through a marsh leads to Hickling Broad, one of the many brackish inland lakes that dot this part of the county. A lone figure stands silhouetted in the midst of the reeds. In his right hand he holds what appears to be a small satellite dish. He sweeps it across the landscape as if searching for something. It would be easy for the casual observer to mistake both his identity and intent. A character from a science fiction novel? A foreign spy? Then, from an indeterminate point in the reeds comes a low thumping sound. He swings his device towards it and remains very still as the bass notes ripple across the broad. Is it bird, demon, or something else? The observer changes the observed.

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The Norfolk Broads. Peter Henry Emerson, 1886.

In 1965, the British arm of Royal Dutch Shell began releasing a series of seven inch EPs of field recordings of birdsong. Not being expert in the manufacture of records—despite the fact that vinyl records are effectively made from crude oil and salt—Shell subcontracted the run to the Discourses label out of Tunbridge Wells, Kent. The label was primarily known for its light classical and educational material. Much of its catalog was instantly forgettable, but the company did release a few interesting curiosities such as a pair of ten-inch discs of ancient Greek literature read aloud by classical scholars, a rare chance to hear Homer as he may have sounded to his contemporaries. Discourses had also released a handful of field recordings, so Shell’s partnering with the label to release its British Bird Series made sense. At first glance it might seem odd for Shell to enter the recording field, but just about every major oil company that existed during the golden age of vinyl released records at some point. Most of these were created as promotional items or as premiums to give away to customers, but it’s not clear whether the British Bird EPs were distributed at petrol stations in Britain, sold in record stores, or both.

In a practice now known as “greenwash,” Shell was as early as 1955 disingenuously attempting to associate its brand with environmentalism via a series of magazine advertisements called Shell Nature Studies. The logic seems to have been that to escape from urbanization and reach nature in its most untouched form required a car, and a car required petrol. February’s advertisement from that year showed a tableau of various birds that Britons might see in late winter, painted by Maurice Wilson. A collection of the paintings that Wilson created for Shell was released the following year as a 48-page booklet called Shell Nature Studies: Birds and Beasts. Later books followed, featuring other artists illustrating other aspects of the natural world. By the 1960s bookstores were carrying titles such as Shell Nature Lovers Atlas and the Shell Bird Book.

When Shell decided to begin releasing field recordings in 1965, it initially planned to release a series of records for children. For the first of these— Sounds of the Countryside, Shell Junior Record No. 1—the firm recruited Johnny Morris, the presenter for the popular BBC television program Animal Magic, to provide lighthearted voiceovers to John Kirby’s recordings. The sleeve notes very specifically stated that the disc was intended for use in primary schools.

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By the time the second installment appeared in 1966 Shell had shifted its focus. From this point on, and throughout the life of the series, the sleeve notes made no more mention of children or of schools. The language and presentation were now pointedly angled towards the adult market. Beginning with catalog number DCL-701, the next nine releases bore the subtitle, A Shell Nature Record—British Bird Series. With this change of focus also came a change in personnel. Shell now turned to Lawrence Shove for its field recordings. In 1963 Shove had released a seven-inch EP called The Country Sings: Songs and Calls of British Birds for the Midriver Recording Company in Gloucestershire, a tiny label that seems to have specialized in recordings of birdsong (although only two releases by the label have so far been identified.) In 1964 he won first prize in the BBC’s Council for Nature wildlife tape recording competition. Because of his association with Shell’s British Bird Series, by the end of the decade Shove would become one of the most recognized names in British field recording. In 1968 the BBC described him as “the only full-time freelance recordist of wildlife sounds in Britain.” He also appeared regularly on television and radio into the early 1970s, at which point he hung up his parabolic reflector and became manager of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Birdsong is language. In many folklore traditions, understanding this language is seen as a sign of great wisdom. Both the Quran and the Talmud mention Solomon’s ability to understand the language of the birds. Indeed, to the uninitiated birdsong can sound like nothing more than abstract noise. But as one learns to identify the sounds of individual species and then the purpose of the various calls, the meaning behind this Babel is revealed.

In a 2014 article for Fact magazine, sound artist Lawrence English pointed out that mid-century sound recordists worked in an environment in which it was believed that they were transmitting objectivity: “The pretense to being objective brought with it an inferred negation of agency, that somehow the recordist was simply capturing moments of the real when they started the tape rolling.” Perhaps a naïve recordist, one with no knowledge of the natural world who simply pointed a microphone in a random direction, might be able to claim a “purer” objectivity than one who was familiar with the sounds being captured. From this point of view, as knowledge increases, so does the level of mediation. As the majority of Shove’s recordings were intended to demonstrate the sound of a particular bird, there is no question that he was a knowledgeable observer who went into the field fully intending to capture subjective, edited sonic events.

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The little that has been written about Lawrence Shove often highlights his 1966 recording of the great bittern at Hickling Broad—released by Shell on a 1967 EP called Marsh and Riverside Birds—and its inclusion as the first item in the British Library’s British Wildlife Recordings collection. The great bittern is extremely rare in England. Although numbers have rebounded, by the late 1990s you could nearly count the number of male birds in the country on your fingers. The bird is also nearly impossible to see, a master of camouflage, and has even been known to move in sync with swaying reeds in order to better blend into its habitat.

I would suggest that Shove, in his pursuit of these rare sounds, could be viewed in two ways, sometimes simultaneously: as collector or as ghost hunter. The collector analogy should be fairly obvious. There are a finite number of bird species native to Great Britain and, as a collector of their sounds, he could simply tick them off a list as he captured them. This would naturally lead to a handful of difficult species left at the end, just as a collector may spend years tracking down the very rarest piece of Mauchlin ware or an impossible to find postage stamp. The ghost hunter analogy may be less obvious, but I would argue that ghost hunters do not actually hunt ghosts. They hunt measurable phenomena that they, and sometimes their audience, interpret as ghosts, often in the form of recorded sound. It is unlikely that Shove ever saw his famous great bittern, just as a ghost hunter never sees the source of a mysterious rapping caught on tape. Both the bittern’s foghorn call and the unexplained sounds from a “haunted” house can be measured, captured. The methodology for their capture is the same. The difference is in our interpretation of them.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Lawrence Shove Discography

Lawrence English. A Beginner’s Guide to…Field Recording

 

Mrs. Shaw Conquers the World; or, Adventures in 19th-Century Discography

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Phonograph parlor, mid-1890s.

Prior to 1895, the average person was only likely to come into contact with a phonograph at a demonstration presented by an exhibitor or at a phonograph parlor, an establishment that offered coin-operated machines at which customers could listen to records through tubes resembling a stethoscope. For the most part during this early period, it was only the wealthy—or at least the very comfortable—who actually owned machines in their homes. This means that the vast majority of records produced in these earliest days were sold not to individuals, but to these parlors and exhibitors. Local newspapers from the era are excellent sources of information on early phonograph culture. They would often mention the most popular selections that an individual parlor or exhibitor was featuring during a given week. These advertisements were not trying to sell phonograph records to the public, but to lure customers in to pay a fee to hear the recordings. To be clear, we’re primarily talking about cylinders here, the flat disc being still in its infancy. These announcements of local phonographic events often contain surprising details and can be extremely useful to the discographer of early material, but they can also create just as many puzzles as they solve.

On June 16, 1889, The Boston Globe reported that an Edison phonograph could be heard—“experienced” might be a more apt word at this early date—at the recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg that was currently drawing crowds in the city. Visitors to the exhibit could hear the voice of the English actress Ellen Terry, or Marie Jansen’s rendition of the slightly risqué “Be Good” from the comic opera The Oolah, which was still running on Broadway that summer. The third recording highlighted by the article was a rendition of an aria from Verdi’s Il Trovatore by a “lady whistler” named Alice J. Shaw. The tone of this announcement implied that all three women were more or less household names to Bostonians. As obscure as they now may seem, the careers of both Terry and Jansen are well documented in works on theatrical history. But history has not treated Alice J. Shaw as well. Despite her widespread fame and success, her story seems to have faded into the archive, treated as just another late 19th-century novelty act.

What is known about Mrs. Alice J. Shaw comes mostly from publicity material and newspaper accounts. She was born Alice Horton about 1855 in Elmira, New York. Her father was a businessman, and evidence suggests the family was seen as cultured as well as financially comfortable. She married W. W. Shaw in 1873, and soon thereafter the couple moved to Detroit, where their first two daughters were born. After Mr. Shaw’s business failed, the family relocated to New York City in search of financial salvation. This was not to be found there, however, so Alice was forced to make “a bitter struggle to maintain the family by dressmaking.” In the meantime, she gave birth to a set of twin daughters. Unable to make a living in the city, the family of six moved back to Elmira to live with Alice’s parents. Some time in 1885, Mr. Shaw left the family in Elmira and headed to parts unknown in search of opportunity. It was shortly after this that Alice Shaw came up with an unlikely way to support herself and her four daughters: she would become a professional whistler.

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Mrs. Alice J. Shaw, 1905.

At the time, her choice was not as unlikely as it may now seem. Whistlers were relatively common on the stages of theaters that offered “polite variety,” a theatrical form that was just beginning to be called by a new name: vaudeville. Alice reportedly returned to Detroit to try her whistling act on the stage there. Audiences responded so well that she was encouraged to continue with her newfound career. But this is all backstory. Alice Shaw first appears in the record in her musical role in New York City in May 1886, whistling the light classics at society charity functions. By all accounts, although her act was most decidedly received as a novelty, she was charming, cultured, talented, tasteful in her selections, and could sight read. Audience members often entered her performances as skeptics, but left as converts.

In 1888, she traveled to London, armed with introductions provided by Mrs. Vanderbilt. These were sufficient to gain her entrée into the drawing rooms of the aristocracy, which eventually landed her at the dinner table of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. She charmed the prince, and later played up this royal connection when touring American theaters. There, to evoke a touch of Continental flair, she was often billed as La Belle Siffleuse. Eventually adding her youngest two daughters to the act, she toured extensively, not only on the US vaudeville circuit, but worldwide. During her career she performed, either solo or with her daughters, in Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and India, and she even began a tour of South Africa that was cut short by the outbreak of the Boer War.

Audiences love a bit of scandal attached to their celebrities and Shaw’s story, though not exactly scandalous, was not without its spice. When the press talked about her at length, a standard part of the story was that she was forced into the entertainment field to support her four daughters. The exact circumstances were discreetly rarely mentioned. However, in late 1888, newspapers reported that she had obtained a divorce from W. W. Shaw, her husband of fifteen years. Most articles of the period only hinted that Alice was an abandoned woman, that Mr. Shaw had shirked his responsibility and left her and their four children to fend for themselves. When her divorced status was mentioned it was done as a statement of fact; there was no noticeable whiff of censure for her part in the situation. After the divorce, however, newspapers did from time to time exhibit an interest in her love life. In the 1890s, there were various reports that she had turned down offers of marriage from British and European nobility. One report even claimed that the Shah of Persia had offered to buy her and take her back to his country. Most bizarrely though, in October 1888, just after her divorce was announced and as her fame was just beginning to grow, there were short-lived reports in both the American and British press that she was engaged to be married to Buffalo Bill Cody. This rumor vanished as quickly as it appeared.

In 1889, Alice J. Shaw’s act reportedly earned her $25,000, a huge sum at the time. But by 1903, she and her three youngest daughters were living with an aunt in upper Manhattan. Although she was still performing in theaters, by this point she was living paycheck to paycheck. In 1907, already a fading star, she made her only confirmed commercial recordings. She died on April 22, 1918, at her home in Brooklyn. After a funeral in New York City, her body was brought back to her hometown of Elmira, New York, for burial. Although the Elmira Star-Gazette carried a prominent article about her—albeit on page 10—The New York Times announcement of her death was much more succinct: “At her residence…Alice J. Shaw. Funeral private. Omit flowers.”

The announcement by The Boston Globe in 1889 that an exhibitor in that city possessed a recording by Alice Shaw presents something of a discographical problem. Although evidence suggests that she recorded at least three times in the 19th century, the only documented commercial recordings by Shaw date from 1907, these being two Victor discs and an Edison cylinder on which Shaw—accompanied by her twin daughters and a backing band—whistles a tune called “Spring-Tide Revels.” There is no direct evidence, physical or otherwise, that a commercial recording bearing her name was released before this time. So what are we to make of this?

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Although it occurred in a private home, Alice Shaw’s first encounter with the recording horn is actually well documented. On August 14, 1888, Colonel George Gouraud, a colorful American Civil War veteran and Thomas Edison’s agent in England, held a press conference at Little Menlo, his house in London. The intention was to inform the British public that the Edison phonograph had arrived on its shores. Afterwards, he held a number of well-publicized parties at his home at which notable personalities were encouraged to perform for, or send greetings to, Thomas Edison by way of recorded cylinder. Wooden crates of these “white wax” cylinders were then sent back to Edison in New Jersey. Mrs. Shaw was present at the first of these parties and recorded one of her whistling specialties. Luckily, the crate containing this recording still survives at the Edison National Historic Site, and its contents were transferred to tape by the New York Public Library in 1995.

The Globe article in June 1889 reported that Alice recorded her rendition of the Verdi aria “just before she sailed for Europe.” This apparently refers to her return to London the previous month. This date is tantalizingly close to that of the first known batches of cylinders sold by the North American Phonograph Company to its licensees. In late May 1889, the company advertised “Musical phonograms [cylinders] in boxes of 6 and 12 (assorted)” at 45 cents each wholesale. When the company finally issued a list of available titles the following January, however, Mrs. Shaw’s name did not appear. But this is only the first mystery recording by Mrs. Shaw.

The November 1892 issue of The Phonogram, the house organ of Edison’s North American Phonograph Company, reported that Alice Shaw had recently “whistled into a phonograph cylinder.” The article added that it was “the intention of Mrs. Shaw to practice into the phonograph and thus preserve the permanent traces of effects which would otherwise be wasted. These will be preserved in ‘phonograph cabinets,’ and may be brought out and rendered audible at pleasure by every possessor of the instrument.” The evidence of an 1892 recording by Shaw is strengthened by the fact that a number of phonograph parlors and exhibitors in Utah, Nevada, California, Washington, and Texas between 1892 and 1897 mentioned having a recording by her in their advertisements. It is interesting that all of these examples are clustered in the western states, and that except for a single example from Seattle in 1897, all date from October 1892 to January 1894, a span just a bit over one year. This also nests conveniently well with the date of The Phonogram article mentioned above. A cynic might say that it would be very easy for an exhibitor to take any recording of a whistling solo and claim that it was by the renowned Mrs. Shaw in order to draw customers. This may be true, but the relatively tight geographical and chronological cluster lends strength to the theory that a commercial recording that we have simply not identified must have been released.

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Using the traditional approach, a discography of Alice J. Shaw’s recordings would include only the 1907 Edison cylinder and the Victor discs. Depending on scope, it might also include the 1888 “white wax” cylinder recorded in London. But such a discography would be a very long way from fulfilling its primary purpose: showing the complete picture of the complexities of the recording history of its subject. Many aspects of phonograph culture in the 19th century are unique to the era. Examples of “lost” recordings such as those of Mrs. Shaw abound throughout the period. They are “lost” first and foremost because neither physical examples nor documentary evidence of their existence have been located. Information about many of them only exists as fragments of evidence scattered throughout the archive, not as data conveniently held in company records or on the recordings themselves, as is the case with later material. Nineteenth-century discography is already an area that relies as heavily on the archival as it does on the physical. Because of the scarcity of physical examples and very sparse documentation that survives, we will likely never have a truly complete picture of the recording history of the phonograph’s earliest days. I hope to go into this in greater detail in a future post, but if something approaching a comprehensive discography of these earliest recordings is ever to be achieved, it will require a much deeper immersion into the archive as well as a new form of presentation. I have begun to refer to this as reconstructed discography, one in which the actual and the theoretical are both allowed into the main narrative.

The case of Alice J. Shaw and her lost recordings is simply one example that highlights how much discographical research is still needed into the days of the nickel-slot phonograph. Much of the excellent research that has emerged in this area over the years has been the work of avid collectors and fans, not professional scholars. As the original material becomes even more rare and harder to find in the marketplace, fewer collectors are likely to be drawn into the field. New researchers will therefore need to find the subject by other routes. At first glance, the history of the phonograph’s beginnings seems like a tale of lawsuit heaped upon lawsuit, only of interest to a patent attorney. There is a large amount of truth in this. But I think Mrs. Shaw’s case shows that there are still a great number of human stories lurking just beneath the tangled narrative of inventions, lawsuits, and countersuits, stories that simply need to be plucked from the archive and told.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Mrs. Shaw’s 1888 London Recording

Mrs. Alice Shaw and Her Twin Daughters – “Spring-Tide Revels”