The Mississippi River is an American icon. It's a body of water that’s been shaped as much by cultural processes as by environmental ones. From the state lines it draws to its role in literature and the arts, it’s a river that flows deep in the American psyche.
This episode is about the boundaries and horizons of the Mississippi — its deep geologic past, its history as a route to freedom, and its meaning today.
Jon Stravers — also known as "Hawk" — is an ornithologist, a musician, and a Vietnam veteran. To say that he's obsessed with birds might be putting it mildly. Since he came back from Vietnam he's spent most of his springs and summers along the Mississippi keeping an eye and ear out for birds. His latest obsession is the Cerulean Warbler, a species once thought to be in decline in the Upper Mississippi.
Eric Carson is a geomorphologist — which, as he describes it, is basically a "double major" in geology and geography. Some time ago he and a few colleagues started asking a question about a geologic shelf where the Mississippi meets the Wisconsin River. The results could have meant nothing, or they could have meant a major new revelation about the Mississippi's historical path to the ocean.
If there’s one writer who’s identified with the Mississippi River, it’s Mark Twain. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri — on the river’s edge — and as a young man, he worked as a steamboat pilot. And then he wrote the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the novel that turned the Mississippi into myth. But it also created one of the most enduring controversies in American literary history: how to depict race relations in America's past. In this interview, Andrew Levy says that "Huckleberry Finn" is actually anti-racist — and when it was first published, the big controversy was about Twain’s depiction of wild children.
When Samuel Clemens took on the pen name “Mark Twain,” he was doing more cleverly appropriating a measure of depth. He was also tapping into one of the most well-known sounds along the river: sounding calls. Owen Selles tells about these calls in this piece, adapted from an essay he originally wrote for the online magazine Edge Effects.
Angie da Silva is a historian of black cultural life in the United States, going back to the Civil War. She collects stories, both through oral history and archival research. But she's not merely a writer. She brings these stories to life through historical reenactment, often as a slave character she's created named Lila. She says that the stories she hears and tells are too often left out of our history books.
In this interview, she talks about her work and tells the story of Mary Meachum, a free black abolitionist who worked on the Mississippi in St. Louis.
Both practically and symbolically, our voices are one of the primary ways that we interact with the world around us. Since ancient Greece, the voice has represented participatory democracy, and today we still argue about whose voices to include in our national conversations. But even though we might think of our voices as our own—and ourselves as free to use them—it turns out that the voice is one of the most disciplined, trained, standardized, regulated dimensions of human life and expression. This hour, we confront the politics of the voice, from stereotyping to vocal fry. And we also talk to a soundscape ecologist who listens—perhaps closer than anyone—to the voices of the natural world.
David Thorpe is a filmmaker who went in search of his voice. Specifically, he wanted to know why he and many other gay men ended up markers of a "gay voice"—one with precise enunciation and sibilant "s" sounds. He spoke with his family and several speech therapists to better understand, control, and inhabit his voice.
Before and since Keith Powell's breakthrough role on as Toofer on the sitcom "30 Rock," he has been forced to confront Hollywood's problem with black male voices. In this interview, he tells us how he works within an industry that desperately needs more diverse voices but doesn't truly want them.
In and around public radio there is growing chorus of people talking about "vocal fry," the low vibrations in the voice that usually come at the end of sentences. Critics say it makes for bad sound, but if that's true, why are only women being criticized for it? In this piece, our host, Anne Strainchamps, talks with NPR pioneer Susan Stamberg, podcast star Ann Friedman, and voice specialists about this so-called "problem."
For as closely linked as the voice is to our body and sense of identity, there are also a lot of external forces affecting our voices, both social and technological. In fact, when we're talking about mediated voices—voices we hear in music, film, and of course, on the radio—we're actually not talking about "voices" any more. We're talking about signal processing. And, as media historian Jonathan Sterne tells Craig Eley, signal processing shapes the sound of all vocal media, from your telephone calls to the music of T-Pain.
While we humans are out there making a lot of noise, we're not the only creatures on the planet that vocalize. Birds, whales, frogs and toads—all of these things make noise. But do they have a voice? And if so, what do their voices tell us about our natural world? Bernie Krause is a musician who has been recording environmental sounds all over the world since the 1970s. He recently spoke with Steve Paulson about what he's learned in a lifetime of listening.