When I was twelve, and my class was preparing for my elementary school’s annual musical performance, our teacher, Mrs. Janssen, pulled me aside. She wanted me to sing a couple solos, and even inserted a threat or two to get me to do it. “You have a wonderful voice,” she said. “And if you don’t do this I will fail you.”
An effective proposition for a twelve-year-old, I took the solos. I had range, then—could have hit both the low and high notes of any song we performed—but I could feel the low ones getting easier. My voice was changing, though unfortunately not rapidly enough for me to opt out of these performances. Eventually our class recorded a CD, where “Kiss Him Goodbye” can be heard in a charming soprano and “Good Lovin’” a flat and boring tenor.
This is the memory that arrives when I read Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat. I read about her morphing voice box, her sickness, her eventual obsession with the voice as a thing, and I’m taken back to memories of my own voice changing.
“My body had decided that once it stopped screaming, it had nothing,” she writes. But she is wrong about this. Though her theatrical performances may have kept her, for a while, from singing, she has clung to her voice. As a writer, she has given us a microscopic look at the Rebel Yell, the birdsong, the terrifying scream of a woman about to be stabbed in the shower. A scream she certainly knows how to discuss:
Like breaking a box of emergency glass to pull an alarm, when we make our voices scream, the beeline of serious air not only buzzes the famous cords that create speech and song, it also crashes into a second pair of flaps at the top of the larynx: the false vocal cords. This creates the grate that we hear in a screamer’s tone, a grate that articulates the rarity of its use. It says that a scream is physical work we should only force on ourselves at moments of ultimatum. That’s why we know to come running when we hear a scream.
For a collection of essays about voices, Passarello hits all her marks. Even her Table of Contents—PART ONE: SCREAMING MEMES; PART TWO: TIPS ON POPULAR SINGING; PART THREE: THE THROWN—displays a security in range, a willingness to really go there, as an essay collection should do. The collection as a whole probably really takes off at her “How to Spell the Rebel Yell,” which is as much a How-To as it is an inquiry into linguistics:
Two years after the death of the last Civil War veteran, linguist Allen Walker Reed publishes an article in American Speech that makes a case for the Rebel Yell as a “linguistic problem,” one that looks so ugly in written form because it lives outside the conventional parameters of language. “The syllables found in words like hip, huzzah, hooray clearly fall within the pattern of English,” Reed says. “The same can be said of the college yells of the present day, as in “Bocka-wocka-choom; bocka-wocka-cha; bocka-wocka; chocka-wocka, sis-boom-bah.” The Yell, however, while just as nonsensical as a fight song, doesn’t mimic any established consonant-vowel pairings. In a five-part proof of the Yell as an anomaly, Reed calls it “a total organismic response” that “completed the full involvement of the whole soldier.”
She’s not afraid to get technical here. She’s also not afraid of getting a little lush, like when she brings in the voices of Elvis Presley or Janet Leigh or Judy Garland. “And then there are the swells in her end-notes,” she writes in “Judy! Judy! Judy!” “She builds little dwellings—caves, tents, awnings—in the bulges of the song, and the audience ducks with her into each new brassy schematic.” Passarello doesn’t stop herself short anywhere, and seems to live for moments of embellishment, holding an attentive and longing ear up to each historic voice that passes by.
I never considered myself a singer as a boy, but I was always proud of my voice’s range. I was, for all it mattered, able to sound older than I was, or, when necessary, get myself out of a little trouble with a high-octave plea. Perhaps this is why voices are interesting to me—perhaps it’s why writing about voices is interesting to me—because the voice has a way of reminding us of how we perform our personae in times of necessary performance.
If a sure goal of the essay is to interrogate its subject, then Passarello has covered her bases with her work here. Like the voices of war, she turns “gossip into nicknames” and “dialogue into mythology.” Let Me Clear My Throat, like the anticipation building to a messa performance, is a “slow and delicious torture” as the book stops and starts, stops, and starts again.
This means that the book paces itself soundly. There are delightfully interspersed moments of autobiography within the larger, more outward-looking parts of the text. Passarello is a great researcher, and knows how to find the facts that help to seat the book within the larger world of Nonfiction—most importantly, Passarello doesn’t forget to locate the intriguing stories about other voices while she tells her own.
I’ll keep returning to this book. I’ll find the words I’ve marked in memory and recite them with a smile when I think of voices. In fact, this will be my go-to voice book, the work that reminds me—should remind us all—of just how versatile our speech and song are. Should remind us, happily, of the moments in life that deserve a good ol’ yee-haw.
Micah McCrary currently serves as Assistant Editor at Hotel Amerika, and is a regular contributor to Bookslut and Newcity, in addition to being an MFA candidate in the Nonfiction Program at Columbia College Chicago. He has published widely, and has received mention in the online edition of The New Yorker.