The Gettysburg Address19 Nov 2013
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest speeches in American history, I wanted to post one of my favorite recordings in American history: Orson Welles reading the Gettysburg Address. I actually don’t have much to say about the audio itself, except that it stands in my mind as one of Welles’ best performances. He has me from the preface before the speech even starts.
That recording was released on the fantastic LP, Abraham Lincoln (as read by Carl Sandburg, Walter Huston, Orson Welles, and Agnes Moorhead). The album came out on the Decca Gold Label Series in February of 1951 for the premium price of $4.95 (source). It’s filled with great voice actors reading great texts, and thankfully only half of the tracks feature the era’s penchant for pairing spoken word with sappy music.
Walter Huston was a logical choice for the album, still remembered for his portrayal of Lincoln twenty years earlier in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. The screenplay for Griffith’s Lincoln was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, whose wife, Rosemary, wrote a poem called “Nancy Hanks,” which appears here read by Agnes Moorehead. Moorhead and Huston did not get any of Lincoln’s famous speeches, but instead serve to voice deceased poets. Moorehead reads Benet, and Huston reads “Lincoln, Man of the People” by Edwin Markham, “O Captain, My Captain,” by Walt Whitman, and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” by Vachel Lindsay. All of these tracks feature overrought orchestration, none as revolting as “Nancy Hanks,” which ends with a kind of mashup of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “America, the Beautiful.” Still, these are solid selections from the Lincoln literary canon.
The heavy hitters here, Sandburg and Welles, aren’t subjected to the orchestral treatment, and because of that—coupled with their incredible voices—their work stands out. Sandberg reads from his 3 volume biography, Lincoln: The War Years, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1940. He was clearly fond of doing Lincoln readings of all varieties—in 1959 he narrated Aaron Copeland’s symphonic Lincoln Portrait and won a Spoken Word Grammy for it. (As an aside, all of these people have also narrated that piece. What?) Sandburg’s reading here is interesting because it sounds rather poorly recorded (even considering my record’s scratches), yet the musicality and versatility in his voice comes through remarkably clear. He’s loud then soft, high then low, solemn then spirited.
Unsurprisingly, though, Orson Welles steals the show. An absolute titan of radio, his Mercury Theatre on the Air is certainly best remembered for “The War of the Worlds,” broadcast on October 30, 1938. However, back in August they did a production called “Abraham Lincoln,” in which Welles collected a variety of Lincoln’s writings and speeches into a radio play and cast himself in the title role. It’s likely that Agnes Moorhead was also in this production—she was a friend of Welles and a regular member of the Mercury Theater. In assembling Lincoln’s speeches, Welles seemed to focus on racial issues, prominently featuring excepts from the first Lincoln-Douglass Debates, where Lincoln said, “There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence…” The whole radio play is pretty incredible. You can listen to and download all of the Mercury Theatre broadcasts here.
To hear more from this particular album, including Welles reading from the Second Inauguration Address, you can download the entire Lincoln album here.
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