The President’s Speech: Daniel Day-Lewis Fixes Lincoln’s Accent

The notoriously rigorous actor surprised people with his reedy-voiced Great Emancipator, but it’s actually a lot closer to what Abraham Lincoln plausibly sounded like than the profoundly silly screen Lincolns of legend.

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This month Chicago has a brief piece on Steven Spielberg’s new Lincoln biopic. This… is upsettingcritics around the world immediately zeroed in on the voice (was it really that high-pitched?).

No, really:

this is not the booming, if probably historically inaccurate, basso profundo we were expecting…

I don’t care that Daniel Day-Lewis got to listen to secret wax-cylinder recordings of Civil War–era Cabinet meetings stored in a secret vault a mile beneath the National Archives, shouldn’t the Great Emancipator bring a lot more low-end to the voice game?

I still don’t like the sound of Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln voice. I almost hate it, in a way. It’s flat, undistinctive, unimpressive….

RIGHT. HE’S FROM KENTUCKY AND ILLINOIS. YOU EXPECTED OLIVIER?

I may be oversensitive, as a Southern transplant from Illinois eligible for the presidency in three years. But in fairness, Abraham Lincoln’s voice has been misrepresented since basically the beginnings of recorded sound. Emile Berliner, one of the early innovators in audio recording, got his gramophone on the market in the 1890s. In 1898, he recorded actor and singer William F. Hooley performing the Gettysburg Address. And Berliner couldn’t have made a worse choice: a London native of Irish heritage turned Yankee and professional bass singer.

The Library of Congress has Hooley’s rendition, and it’s ridiculous: one of the founding documents of the Union delivered in a British accent that slips into an Irish brogue. Harry E. Humphrey, a favored “elocutionist” of Thomas Edison, recorded the address for the Victor label. It’s even more preposterous. Instead of a backwoods lawyer, Humphrey sounds like John Barrymore playing Hamlet. Even for that most American of presidents, pop culture couldn’t shake the influence of the English stage.

It didn’t get better with the advent of film. In 1930, D.W. Griffith, who invented the American historical epic with The Birth of a Nation, directed the first talking-picture-era portrayal of the Great Emancipator, starring Walter Huston in his fourth movie role (Jason Robards plays William Herndon). Huston gives young Abe a generic backwoods accent and a horny leer, but in the intervening years he grows a beard and the stentorian pitch of a parliamentary leader.

Anyway, if you think somewhat-high-voiced Lincoln means the terrorists win, you probably haven’t seen Henry Fonda as sexpot Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln: Unionist With a Cause. This scene is downright dirty. Subtly dirty, but it was 1939:

In 1988, Sam Waterston tried to get Lincoln’s accent down. He did his research, and it’s progress. His nasal frontier sound only has traces of ADA Jack McCoy, which is conceptually kind of great anyway if a bit distracting.

No one really knows what Lincoln actually sounded like—how much was Kentucky, how much was downstate Illinois. But from accounts of the time, Lincoln’s voice surprised people as much then as Daniel Day-Lewis’s version does today:

 “Lincoln’s voice, as far as period descriptions go, was a little shriller, a little higher,” says Holzer. It would be a mistake to say that his voice was squeaky though. “People said that his voice carried into crowds beautifully. Just because the tone was high doesn’t mean it wasn’t far-reaching,” he says.

When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer.

It’s impossible to get back all the way back to the sound of that region, western Kentucky to southern Illinois. Online some recordings of older natives of the area exist, and the best proxy I could find was of an 83 year old woman in McHenry, Kentucky (about 80 miles west of Lincoln’s birthplace and 60 miles south of Lincoln City, Indiana, where he spent most of his youth), recorded in 1975. She was born about three decades after Lincoln was assassinated. It’s a thin accent, a bit backwoods but not the baroque country accent of eastern Kentucky, and within spitting distance of Day-Lewis’s voice of Lincoln.

Not as much twang as I’d expect, except when he gets pissed. But that totally makes sense.

This myth of Lincoln’s “basso profundo” is a historical oddity. It might represent some platonic ideal of presidential, but the real living genius of presidential oratory, the man whose talents overwhelmed a great orator and sitting president at the Democratic National Convention, is Bill Clinton: himself possessed of a high, uneven country tenor that rises, not falls, when he cranks the gravity up. Instead, the misrepresentation of Lincoln’s voice—of the man who gave American political rhetoric so much of its sound—seems comes not from the men who followed him, but the actors.

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2 years ago
Posted by Marc Geelhoed

People who criticize the idea of a high-pitched Lincoln don't realize what public speaking was like in the days before amplification. A rich, deep speaking voice may sound lovely in a living room, it may even project on down the hallway a ways, but it will not be heard well at all outdoors, or at a distance. If you've been to an opera, think of how loud a soprano can sing, or a tenor, versus a bass. A nasal tone would carry out across a crowd much farther, with more clarity, than a speaker's voice would that was low. Amplification and recording changed all this, mitigating the need for a voice to be able to be heard at a distance, over the wind, the birds, the farm animals, and whatever other noisemaking nuisances were getting in the way of the message. Once amplification arrived, it didn't matter what range your voice was; you'd be heard just fine as long as the sound engineer turned the speakers up loud enough.

1 year ago
Posted by Turtley Goodness

I've lived in the general area of Illinois that Lincoln's from and I would say that he captured the accent relatively well. Day-Lewis captured the subtleties of a southern Midwestern accent pretty well. A lot of farmers sound sort of like that in that area. It's reasonable that we grant Day-Lewis leeway when it comes to this accent because it might not have been the same 150 years ago as it is now.

As far as the tone or depth of his voice, who really knows for certain. I actually didn't pay attention to that. I was trying to see if Day Lewis would slip into British or a drawl, which people tend to do assuming all rural people have a Southern accent. He didn't.

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