Who can imagine modern culture without recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech? Even in the age of MTV, CD Roms, Imax theaters, and e-mail messages, the spoken word will always remain a vital means of communication. The Spoken Word genre is made up of educational or entertaining vocal recordings, usually without musical enhancement (or with music used only as a backdrop). The genre includes recordings of memorable historic speeches, but also encompasses a wide range of recorded voices-from Garrison Keillor’s quirky “Prairie Home Companion” broadcasts to Richard Pryor’s outrageous live stand-up act to heralded African-American author Toni Morrison’s reading of her riveting saga “Beloved.” Reflecting a plethora of voices and points of view, the genre can include anything from books on tape to recordings of historic State of the Union addresses to a taped interview with singing sensation Ricky Martin.
spoken1.jpg – 10868 BytesEven the Grammys acknowledge the Spoken Word genre for adults and children in their dolling of awards. In the year 2000, nominations ranged from Jimmy Carter’s reading of his book ”The Virtues of Aging” to Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine ”I’m Telling You for the Last Time.”
Beginning with the rise of radio and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” in the 1930s and 1940s, Americans tuned into spoken word broadcasts for entertainment and information. Orson Wells’ reading in 1938 of Howard Koch’s fictional classic “War of the Worlds”-a terrifying tale of Martians landing on the Earth-sounded so real, so sincere it sent a country into hysterics.
spoken2.jpg – 10063 BytesThe tradition of comedic recordings is also as old as radio, harking back to the likes of Will Rogers and-later-with Andy Griffith. Original clips from the 1960s by trailblazer comedians like Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and George Carlin still tickle America’s funny bone. Richard Pryor was arguably the most brilliant standup comic of the 20th century Richard Pryor. His 1975 routine “Is It Something I Said?” was recorded and played in crowded garages and behind closed doors by teenage boys across the nation. The phenomenal success of Pryor’s early recordings, led the way for commercial comedic successes like Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin, and today’s jokesters Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Chris Rock.
spoken3.jpg – 12682 BytesRecordings of literature are included in the Spoken Word genre. Great literature is not just meant to be read, but read aloud. What teenager graduated high school English without hearing Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem “The Raven” read aloud with all the haunting rhythms and cadences knock, knock, knocking? Now-a-days you’ll find all the great books on tape or CD, from Vanessa Redgrave’s reading of Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” to Patrick Stewart’s telling of the classic Dickens’ tale “A Christmas Story.”
Hearing the actual voice of the creator adds an entire different layer to the interpretation of literature. The beat poets of the 1960s, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, built heroic reputations for their unforgettable and passionate readings of works like “Howl.” Recordings of their original readings are must-haves for any English grad student.
spoken4.jpg – 9162 BytesMarketed to everyone from the vision impaired to the suburban commuter to the busy business executive, best-selling fiction and nonfiction books are recorded on tape or CD, from Frank McCourt’s gripping Irish tale “‘Tis” to Steven Covey’s legendary self-help book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Today, with the rise of more and more forms of media outlets, the American Spoken Word tradition continues with recordings of political speeches, storytelling, standup comedy, interviews with famous figures, religious sermons, books on tape, political humor, poetry readings, spoken word performance art, and much more. Perhaps even more so than vocal and musical arrangements, it is the spoken word that reflects the heart and voice, fears and dreams, passions and concerns of America.