The spoken word figures prominently in creation legends around the world. Ptah, the ancient Egyptian god of Memphis, was represented as creating by the power of his magical word. In Genesis, God says “Let there be light” and there is light. Jesus is referred to as Logos, Greek for ‘word,’ but capitalized it means the Word made flesh. In other accounts, some deity speaks the world into being.
The voice is produced by the larynx, or voice box, in the throat below the base of the tongue. It contains the vocal cords, which are elastic and vibrate, in the same way as guitar or violin strings. All birds and other animals have some version of a larynx. If trees speak, we can’t hear them, and so Dr. Seuss created the Lorax (he speaks for the trees). Each individual voice is unique, like a fingerprint. One of the first things a newborn learns is to distinguish the sound of its mother’s voice. Some voices are so resonant and compelling they can enchant us, which is why voice is a key component of hypnotism. Poetry and storytelling are living things when we experience them live. When we read Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey we’re actually reading someone’s written transcription of a live performance — think of that. Recall Barack Obama’s speech at the 5004 Democratic Convention; it put him on the political map. I had the good fortune to see and hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak in 1961, in Miami Beach. I don’t remember what he talked about, probably his usual themes of social justice and injustice. What I do remember vividly was the sound of his voice, the cadence and timbre and power of it. The atmosphere was electrifying, and I’ll never forget it.
While the animals also speak, we are the only species that laughs. When there’s laughter in the air, it’s pretty hard to be angry, unless you’re the target of the laughter. The old expression about it being the best medicine may have some truth in it. I hold comedians to be the holiest of communicators, because there’s little you can do for someone that’s better than causing them to laugh. I should add an example about one of the causes of laughter — satire, because it illustrates how powerful the voice can be. Ancient Celtic bards were said to be so gifted in satire they actually made boils break out on their victims. When we laugh, I think we’re closer to being the best we can be.
We may also be the only animals that sing. As a young man I was disappointed to learn that birds aren’t really singing. They’re either saying “This is my territory — stay away!” or “Hey, baby, you know I got what you want.” What we call whale song is probably just them talking to each other, but then their normal mode of communication may be singing, we don’t know for sure. The human voice is one of the most beautiful and versatile musical instruments in the universe. Singing is part of religion and magical practice, as we see in hymns, incantations, and the like. Part of Buddhist tradition is something called throat singing, which is totally different than anything I’ve heard before. It’s also found in some Alaskan native singing.
I’ve been singing on and off for over fifty years, beginning with choir in church and high school. In college, my childhood friend and roommate Joe made the Concordia College choir, which was then and still is renowned. I wasn’t good enough, but I did make the men’s chorus. Joe taught me a little trick. When singing a medium or low note, if you relax your throat in a certain way, you can produce a tone an octave lower. I imagine throat singing is something similar. Joe and I were in a barbershop quartet that our other roommate formed. His name was Les Dergan, and I realize now that even then he was a musical genius. He’s still performing in the genre today. I learned so much about music and harmony from him. He used to have us practice in a box, facing each other, and singing to a point slightly above us. When everyone hit their note right on pitch, an overtone was produced, an octave above one of the notes. It was wild! It’s called “ringing a chord.” I’ve always been big on tight harmonies, like the Everly Brothers, The Beatles, and Queen. But it goes back much further, to my childhood. There was a duo, Les Paul and Mary Ford. Yes, that Les Paul, of the Les Paul guitar. Mary was maybe the first to overdub her voice, singing in harmony to her recording, then recording that over the top. Those harmonies couldn’t have been tighter if they’d been locked down with a lug wrench.
Prayers and incantations are often sung or chanted. I like the sound a Muslim man, high above in a minaret, singing the call to prayer; it sounds mystical. There’s something very special, I think, about singing. Speech originates in the left brain, along with math, logic, and so on. Music, like creativity and intuition, come from the right brain. So when you’re singing you are integrating both halves of the brain. That can’t be anything but good.
Vox populi — the voice of the people. Political voice is an opinion openly and formally expressed. Polls, calls to your Congressperson, petitions, and protests are demonstrations of this, but perhaps the most important political voice is our vote (that is, if you can get people out to vote). Americans have seemingly gotten collective laryngitis when it comes to political speech, and there are several reasons. One is that our votes are being tabulated on privately owned electronic machines. The software is proprietary, meaning that election officials have no access to it, and these machines have been shown to be easily hackable. Privatizing the vote is a huge problem, potentially dangerous, and we had better address it. Conservatives have introduced hordes of laws whose full intent is to disenfranchise those who most likely vote for Democrats. Their hysteria over voter fraud is pure theatrics, so voter ID laws are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. I can’t think of anything more un-American than denying people this most critical political voice.
That’s not all. A series of Supreme Court decisions have ruled that spending money is a form of political speech, and can’t be regulated. Therefore, whoever has the most money has the biggest megaphone. Money talks and bullshit walks, remember that one? If money equals speech, then why haven’t I heard anything from that $5 bill that’s been in my wallet for weeks? And what becomes of “free speech?” It gets drowned out, that’s what. If the people no longer have a voice, then we no longer have a democracy.