The January Artifact of the Month at the Western Illinois Museum is a set of aluminum records. These two discs were acquired to be part of a display about the poet and historian, Carl Sandburg, at the museum when it was formerly located on the third floor in Sherman Hall at Western Illinois University. It is believed that the aluminum discs are recordings of Sandburg, either speaking or singing. Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois and remains one of the region’s most famous citizens.
The two little aluminum records on display at the museum each have a paper label identifying them as MARVEL VOICE REPRODUCING RECORDS. They both have a paper sleeve with the following printed on the outside:
MAKE YOUR OWN RECORDS!
Take this metal disc and play it as you would any ordinary
record on a phonograph. To obtain the best results use a
loud tone needle. Sing into the sound box loudly and
distinctly; if possible use a megaphone. When you have
finished, play it over again and hear YOUR VOICE. It is
advisable before using to let the needle go once over the
disc to remove dust particles, which may have accumulated.
Making a personal recording on an aluminum disc was popular during the 1930s and lingered around as a novelty, until the 1960s. There were coin-operated “record-your-voice” booths at fairs, arcades, record shops and music stores. Many people made recordings for fun or to give as gifts. Some radio stations recorded radio broadcasts on aluminum discs. Perhaps these two aluminum discs record Sandburg speaking or singing or at a radio broadcast. Due to the condition of the discs, it is not possible to play them to hear the recording.
The little three-room cottage where Sandburg was born on January 6, 1878, and where he spent part of his boyhood is now a State Historic Site, and can be visited at 331 East Third Street on the south side of Galesburg.
Sandburg enjoyed a long and varied literary career. From a start working as a newspaper reporter, he went on to write numerous volumes of poetry. Known as the ‘Poet of the People’, Sandburg was famous for his rugged, individual free verse style. Another of his notable accomplishments was his six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which stands as one of the best selling and most widely read biographies of Lincoln. For his poetry and his biography, Sandburg received Pulitzer Prizes in 1919, 1940 and 1951.
Sandburg spent a lot of time traveling around the country lecturing to school and college audiences and to the American public. He played the guitar, sang folk songs, and recited his poetry. He collected and published folk songs, many of them he printed for the first time. He appreciated folk music far ahead of its popularity in the 1960s. Audiences across the country loved Sandburg so much, that until the end of his life, he was in great demand as an entertainer.
Starting in the 1930s and continuing for the rest of his life, Sandburg made recordings of his writings and of his singing. His albums were very popular. In 1959, Sandburg was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Performance – documentary for his 1958 narration of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, performed by André Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic.
Sandburg loved performing and being in front of an audience. He performed not only in front of live audiences, but wherever the opportunity presented itself.
On television he appeared on two episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show, and also made an appearance as a mystery guest on What’s My Line? a popular game show. He lived in Hollywood during much of 1960, working as George Stevens’ creative consultant on the film, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
He seemed to enjoy his fame and celebrity. He met many famous people: he had dinner with Charlie Chaplin and went to the Friars Club “Roast” dinner for Gary Cooper where he sat next to Dean Martin and Audrey Hepburn. He was a guest on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar, went to parties, and met Marilyn Monroe. Late in life, while at his home in North Carolina, he enjoyed a visit from the folk singer Bob Dylan. An admirer of Sandburg, Dylan gave him a few of his albums, as Sandburg did not have any of his records.
In 1959, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Congress met in joint session to hear an address by Sandburg. As of 2013, Sandburg is the only American poet ever invited to address a joint session of Congress. He also visited the White House and chatted with President Kennedy.
Besides three Pulitzer Prizes and a Grammy, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Sandburg the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this nation’s highest civilian honor. Sandburg also appeared on the front covers of most of the major magazines of his time and had numerous schools named after him. Sandburg achieved a level of popularity and national fame unusual for a poet.
Sandburg died July 22, 1967, at the age of 87, and his ashes were placed under a large boulder at his birthplace in Galesburg.
These aluminum recordings, possibly by Sandburg, serve as reminders of one of the region’s greatest literary
The records will be on display at the museum from January 2nd through the 31st, 2014.
From and essay by Heather Munro