[Marxism] Is it really Debs's voice?

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Mon Jan 2 23:05:33 MST 2006

A quick internet search reveals what at first glance seems to be like an
authoritative debunking of the genuineness of the recording.

>From the "History Matters" website

Dubbing Debs: An Actor Records a Speech by Eugene Debs

Socialist leader and four-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was
known as one of the most gifted orators of his generation. One listener
recalled his impact as “something more powerful, penetrating, and
articulate than mere words.” Although Debs apparently never entered a
sound studio, a recording of a Debs speech was widely circulated in the
first decade of the 20th century. For many years, the speech was
believed to have been in Debs' voice, and it was catalogued as such in
libraries and record collections. In fact, the speech was written by
Debs but recorded by actor Leonard Spencer, who was famous for his
recorded versions of comic and dramatic monologues. It was not uncommon
in the early days of recording to have actors read the words of
politicians. (This was before actors became politicians.) Even if this
recording does not give us Debs‘ actual voice, its circulation indicates
his popularity. Faithful socialists wanted to be able to listen at home
to Debs’ attacks on the rapacious nature of capitalism and his argument
that socialism was the only answer to human problems. 

*  *  *

This explanation is followed by a transcript of the text, as well as
what appears to be a link to a QuickTime version of the recording, which
didn't work in Opera but I assume is the same recording. 

The "History Matters" website is a very professional effort. From its
"about us":

History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web was first developed
in 1998 by the American Social History Project/Center for Media &
Learning, City University of New York, and the Center for History and
New Media, George Mason University, with initial funding from the W. K.
Kellogg Foundation. Over the past several years, it has become a highly
regarded gateway to web resources as well as a repository of unique
teaching materials, first-person primary documents, and guides to
analyzing historical evidence for high school and college students and
teachers of American history. In January 2005, the American Historical
Association awarded History Matters the James Harvey Robinson Prize for
the site’s “outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of
history.” In April 2005, the New York Public Library selected the site
for its “Best of Reference 2005.”

The authentic history website, which offers the recording as being of
Debs, while it has a wealth of fascinating material, is an individual
enthusiast's effort and as such unlikely to have the level of expertise
as the other one: "The Authentic History Center is independently owned
and operated by Michael S. Barnes, a teacher at Byron Center High
School. Students are active contributors and users of the site."

This presumably would be the same recording an excerpt from which caused
a minor controversy in 2002 when posted on the web site of a publisher
of educational materials called Ibis. An AP article I was able to access
only through Google's cache reports that "Jonathan Davis, president of
Ibis, which produces interactive multimedia educational materials, said
the recording was listed at the U.S. National Archives & Records
Administration." The History Matters account seems to be one of the main
sources for that article questioning the authenticity of the recording.

The AP account cites two other experts.

"Debs Foundation spokeswoman Karen Brown said, however, there is no
evidence that the recording was actually made by Debs." 

"'I have no doubt that they, in good faith, think that it is authentic.
They're not trying to fool anyone,' Brown said. 'Apparently, it was even
catalogued as being authentic.'"

This is very odd because the assumption is that the speech is not
genuine, despite the evidence to the contrary (catalogues), and the
discounting of the evidence is presented by the AP reporter as a showing
of "no evidence that the recording was actually made by Debs." 

This is the other expert: "Jan McKee, reference librarian in the
Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress, said such an
early 1900s recording likely would not be authentic if there were no
notes of it in Debs' journals or others' writings on Debs."

But almost certainly there were writings attributing it to Debs, if the
recording was widely distributed, as History Matters suggests, it is
hard to imagine how else it would have been publicized.

So all the AP story contributes is that the recording is listed (I
assume as being of Debs) by the National Archives.

Unfortunately, and to me surprisingly for such an ultra-professional
site by historians, the History Matters account offers no sources,
direct quotes, or other evidence for its version of events, nor does it
list the individuals responsible for the account. (The notation "Source:
Courtesy of the Michigan State University Voice Library" at the bottom
of the page is, I assume, for the recording itself and perhaps the
transcript; though maybe it is meant to be taken as the source of the
entire account. But if that's the case, then it should have been made
explicit and it would still have been necessary to explain the original

But if the recording was widely distributed it was done on an organized,
perhaps commercial basis and probably publicized in the socialist press
of its day and, one assumes, not misrepresented as being Debs's actual
voice; and since many, many tens of thousands of people precisely in the
circles that might have been attracted to obtaining this recording knew
what Debs sounded like, a confusing presentation or blatant
misrepresentation of the true nature of the recording is likely to have
generated controversy that may also have been reflected in the socialist
or other press of its time, as well as in personal memoirs, etc.

Moreover, if the recording is of a Debs speech, then it would almost
beyond a doubt been made with his cooperation, and it raises the
question, why didn't he do it himself, since he was widely hailed as one
of the greatest orators of the age, something he could not have been
unaware of, since he made a point of placing his oratorical skills at
the service of the movement. And if the contemporaenous belief that it
was Debs's voice was wrong, how can people now be so sure it was his
words that were read, unless there is a letter by Debs or similar
authoritative source explaining the whole thing.

What seems unlikely to me is that a recording presented as if it had
been made by Debs himself, but actually featuring another voice, could
have circulated in the socialist movement and that this would generate
so little comment that it would have been handed down in university
archives and record collections as genuine.

Yet this is precisely what the History Matters account insists was the
case: "For many years, the speech was believed to have been in Debs'
voice, and it was catalogued as such in libraries and record

This sentence is preceded by the suggestion that "Debs apparently never
entered a sound studio," but assuming what it is meant to convey is that
Debs never went to a studio to make a recording, it is hard to see how
one could make such an assertion without a direct statement on the
matter by Debs or perhaps a member of his immediate family that's been
handed down to our days.

So really there are two central things that desperately need very
heavyweight sourcing a) the debunking of the contemporary belief that it
was Debs's voice and b) the proof of the current belief that it was
actually Debs's words.

At first blush the History Matters account sounds like a straightforward
account of an historical curiosity. Actually, when you think about it
--as one assumes especially critical minded historians would do-- they
would realize the account really cries out for, in fact, requires,
direct references and quotes from named, specific and presumably
verifiable sources to be at all credible. 

Even such basic things as the original form in which the recording was
reproduced and distributed would, one imagines, have been preserved and
the exact labeling of the recording would provide very good evidence of
the true nature of the recording. Yet there is no reference to anything
like that here, just assertions.

Googling around I wasn't able to find any other sources on the Internet
to shed any light on this, nor references to other recordings or
activities or the existence of anyone who seemed to be THIS "Leonard
Spencer." And a comparison of this "Leonard Spencer" recording with
others attributed to him would also be pretty clear evidence. 

The idea that *at the time* when many many thousands of people all over
the country knew what Debs sounded like a recording of a speech by him
could be "widely circulated," was archived as such, and it only became
known at some unspecified later time by testimony or other evidence that
goes unmentioned that the recording was actually of someone else, on the
face of it, it just doesn't have the ring of truth.

And therefore one would have thought well-funded professional historians
would have realized that and made a stronger presentation.

Especially because the recording is offered as being Debs's in a variety
of web sites, for example,

Perhaps those on this list from academia can help clarify this matter.


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