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Nostalgia June 2013

Aid for Age

Hearing the Words, If Not the Voices of the Past

By Tait Trussell

But she hated the sound of her voice. So, she gave up the project. The sounds of our voices can be important. But in most cases, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we say.

Do you think our grandchildren will remember what our voices sounded like, much less what we told them? Would they believe our words were wisdom or important occasions of the past?

My brother and I gave our mother a tape recorder some years ago when she was 80. We urged her to record some of her life’s adventures, from her days as a young girl living in the still somewhat wild West, to winning awards for scholarship, to driving a Red Cross bus for blood donors during WWII, to her many foreign trips.

But she hated the sound of her voice. So, she gave up the project. The sounds of our voices can be important. But in most cases, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we say.

Still, it would be interesting if we knew what Abe Lincoln sounded like when he gave his Gettysburg address. We know it wasn’t a voice like that of Daniel Day-Lewis spoken in the movie “Lincoln.” At least all the historians say otherwise. They write that Lincoln’s voice was high-pitched, even squeaky. But somehow it carried to the ears of large crowds.

Many of us alive today heard Jack Kennedy’s voice, in his Inaugural address or speeches. Yet many years from now, young people reading of Kennedy will imagine — because of what he said — that his voice boomed out those well-crafted lines, not with his relatively high-pitched Boston accent.

Many of the voices we — young and old — hear today we could care less about. Ahmadinejad, U.S. Senate Leader Harry Reid, Bill O’Reilly, Justin Bieber (except in case of young girls), Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi.

We can’t even hear the voices of some friends who we email back and forth. Tweeters get no more than abbreviated, soundless messages.

H.L. Mencken, in his enormous book, The American Language gives us many specific indications of the differences in speech in different parts of our country and how speech changed over generations of time.

“Vulgar American is virtually identical throughout the country, however,” he wrote, “whereas the British dialects differ so greatly that some are mutually unintelligible. In America, there are regional peculiarities,” he writes. “But a Boston taxicab driver who moved to San Francisco would find the everyday speech of his fellows, save for a few vowel sounds, very much like his own.”

I still remember how my grandmother’s voice sounded as she sang and played the piano. But even more so, when she made us laugh by mimicking political figures – friends of my grandfather when he was in politics.

Fortunately, both my father and my grandfather wrote extensively. So, their words, if not the sounds, are still available. My father won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing.

My grandfather’s gift for storytelling was apparent in his book, Western Pioneering. An example:

“Hollywood, in its over-dramatized perversions of western history, depicts these saloon, gambling and dance hall hostesses as sleek, handsome sirens in décolleté satin evening gowns…”

“In truth, these hostesses were hard little pony dancers and drink cadgers…; in one joint they wore short dresses of checked red and white calico or gingham…These gay delinquents after their fevered lives were spent might well have earned the ribald west epitaph of a sister of the scarlet letter:


“Here lies the body of Mary Moore.

Born a virgin, died a whore,

For sixteen years she preserved her virginity,

A damn good record in this vicinity.”


Tait Trussell is an old guy and fourth-generation professional journalist who writes extensively about aging issues among a myriad of diverse topics.

Meet Tait