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Collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I

About this Collection

The Nation's Forum recordings were made between 1918 and 1920 in an effort to preserve the voices of prominent Americans; in most cases, they are the only surviving recordings of a speaker. The project originated with St. Louis attorney Guy Golterman (1879-1967), an active supporter of the opera and other performing arts. With the endorsement of the Department of State's Committee on Public Information -- a governmental propaganda ministry -- the Nation's Forum sought speakers, and the Columbia Graphophone Company pressed and distributed the recordings under the Nation's Forum label.

The recordings fall into two distinct series. The 1918 series was devoted mostly to World War I topics and was apparently distributed only to political organizations and other groups. The notable exception is the recording of General John Pershing (with Ambassador James Gerard speaking on the reverse side), which was sold commercially. All of the recordings from the 1918 series were pressed on ten-inch discs. The 1919-1920 series was devoted mostly to postwar issues and the 1920 presidential election. Recordings in this series were released at a rate of two per month, one Republican and one Democrat. The recordings were pressed on twelve inch discs and sold for two dollars each. With two exceptions, the reverse side of the records in both series consisted of patriotic music, usually a march. These selections are not duplicated here.

The Nation's Forum project may also have planned to record foreign statesmen. The collection includes three speeches by Eamonn DeValera, who led the fight to establish the Republic of Ireland. At the time of the recordings, DeValera had escaped from an English prison and was living in exile in the United States. The label of one DeValera recording states that with the sale of each album, a royalty of twenty-five cents would be paid to Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary Irish Parliament.

The speeches included in the Nation's Forum collection are not actuality recordings -- recorded at the time of their original delivery. Instead, speakers were invited to repeat their significant orations for the Nation's Forum project at a location convenient to the particular speaker. All of the Nation's Forum recordings were acoustically made. Until the development in the mid-1920's of electrical recordings -- recording aided by microphones and electrical amplifiers during the recording process, and electrical amplification and loudspeakers for playback -- all sound recording processes were acoustic. The diaphragm and needle cutting an acoustic record were powered only by the force of a voice. A speaker making a record had to shout into a recording horn to successfully record. Thus, almost no speeches recorded in the acoustic era are actuality recordings. All of the speeches recorded for the Nation's Forum were delivered solely for the recording machine, without a public audience. Since phonograph records in this period were limited to about three minutes, someone -- presumably the speaker -- abridged or selected highlights from longer speeches. Some speeches are represented by two or three very similar takes.

The total number of recordings made by the Nation's Forum is unknown. The Library of Congress holds fifty-nine examples in a collection that has been assembled over a period of years from a variety of donors and record collectors. Of the fifteen 1918 recordings at the Library of Congress, the Pershing/Gerard record is an original shellac disc, eleven records are modern vinyl test pressings struck from original masters, and two recordings are audio tape dubs. Of the forty-four recordings from the 1919-1920 series at the Library of Congress, twenty-four are original shellac discs, seventeen are modern vinyl test pressings struck from original masters, and three are audio tape dubs.