When I returned home in the early fall of 1963, my father was glowing with excitement. A secretary from the White House called to place a rush order for his new record Birds on a May Morning. President Kennedy had heard it played on WGBH, the Boston public television station. He was already a Droll Yankees fan. He owned a Sounds of the Sea record and loved playing it to calm down and envision his ocean environment at home in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod, Mass. Jacqueline Kennedy wanted Birds on a May Morning to play for a garden party reception. My father personally drove to the post office to send it priority special delivery.
Birds on a May Morning was one of PeterKilham’s first productions using the radar dish as an audio reflector. The notes on the record jacket include:
“Birds on a May Morning is a 33 RPM monophonic LP giving thirty-six of the bird songs in the eastern states. The songs are given just as you would hear them—not isolated—with each bird identified. A continuing commentary, on Side A, takes you on a bird walk starting at a farm house, and progressing through fields, the orchard, the woods, a swampy place, and then back home. In this way the birds are identified with their natural surroundings.
“On Side B the same songs are given as Side A, but there is no commentary. Thus the record may be used as a guessing game, to learn the bird songs, or simply to bring back the joyful sounds of a May morning. The whole is designed to give a picture in sound that is a pleasure to listen to.”
Then, Peter Kilham, the artist and perfectionist, comments:
“Many bird songs contain a combination of notes given in such rapid succession, and through such a range, that it is impossible to reproduce them on a record. The Yellow Warbler is an example. Some, including the Oriole, start with such a blast of force that they would jump the needle out of the groove. Adjustments and test pressings were made again and again in order to do every bird justice. Recorded on a Nagra III with an AKG B-60 microphone. More pleasing sounds will result if the treble on your Hi-Fi is turned down.”
Peter was very concerned about the frequency response range of his recordings to faithfully capture bird songs. I knew that his old tape recorder had a high response limit of 15,000 cycles and humans hear to about 20,000 cycles. It couldn’t keep up with the thrushes which go as high as 30,000 cycles. He recorded the thrushes with his new Nagra and the tape running at high speed. Then he used a special electronics box to bring the thrushes’ high-end range down to the human range. Some ornithologists objected to this, but Peter commented to me, “My challenge is to bring the birds to the average listener as faithfully as the latest electronics will allow.”
The thrushes and other species also sing in much lower in frequencies and in varying intensities. Faithfully recording the birds could only approximate perfection and was a never-ending quest.
Alfred L. Hawkes, the executive director of the Audubon Society of Rode Island, wrote to my father:
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island takes pleasure in recommending this recording Birds on a May Morning) as being of high quality and accuracy. It will bring pleasure to the amateur “ornithophile” as well as the experienced identifier of bird calls. Designed for simple listening enjoyment, it can also be used to sharpen one’s ear for identification or, during the winter, just to recall the pleasure of a spring morning in the country.
This was heady stuff. There was no doubt that my father was on to something and was executing perfectly.
He then went on to produce ten more recordings of nature’s sounds. One of those was The Brook which he described in a brochure as: “On this soft rushing of a woodland brook (in New Hampshire) is the sound thread we follow. As we record the stream from its source to the slow-moving swamp where we are caught by darkness, we hear, among others, the Phoebe, the Fox and the Great Horned Owl.”
My father told me that he had trouble getting an owl to hoot. Then he tried playing the hoots of an owl that he recorded weeks earlier. After a short silence, a “Hoo-hoot, hoo-hoot” sounded from murky darkness of the woods.
The Swamp in June was another excursion into nature’s preserve. It was mostly about the lives of beavers. Listeners are intrigued by the sounds of the young in their beaver lodge. Alfred Hawkes, the narrator, also discusses the beaver’s role in history and in the ecology of the beaver pond. The record also explores frogs and toads and their sounds. The listener learns how these amphibians find mates because often the sounds are the only distinguishing feature of the sexes.
My father contracted with Peter Bartok, son of the renowned composer Bela Bartok, to master his recordings This is the original recorder from which stampers are made. Peter Kilham was assuring quality at every step of the production process.
Although I had almost no money, I sensed my father was scraping bottom again. I thought what he had created could not be discarded. He solicited for shareholders among his friends and family. Although I thought of it more like a donation never to be seen again, I bought fifty shares of Droll Yankees stock at $10 per share. I was in the hallowed company of Alan Bemis, John Chafee, and a few others.
My faith was restored however when I received my father’s hand-typed Droll Yankees annual report for 1964 a few months later. It said in part:
(The records) are meeting with a response in the press and by letter that is almost embarrassing. About three notes or letters come every day praising them, The Providence Journal and The Boston Globe each gave a half-page, the bird man of the British Broadcasting Corporation wrote that he spent a most pleasant morning listening to our records on the Gramophone. Quotations are attached from Dr. Pettingill of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, bird record center of the world, Children’s Record Reviews, well-known in schools and various other comments. The National Audubon Society will send out 50,000 of our circulars in February, Discovery magazine, published by Sears Roebuck, Galaxie published by Sturbridge Village and Vermont Life will each give us write-ups in March, and others are on the way. The majority of the above have come in the last few weeks, and the mail box contains as many happy letters as bills.
The report included a letter from a customer which exulted: “What wondrous sensitive things you do in your recording work! A breath of deep forest and spring and nature’s wildlings! “The Brook” and “Songs of the Forest” have arrived this weekend and truly for all our lives. It is good to know such people as you remain in this endlessly frantic world.”
Sales for 1964 were about $300,000 in 2018 dollars but cash on hand was only $1,300. Over $100,000 was tied up in the inventory of records. While my father was paying his part-time employees, he rarely drew pay for himself. Advertising was a big expenditure at $90,000, and in the report, Peter Kilham explained that in the coming year he would redirect the advertising dollars to more productive publications like Yankee and American Forests.
Fifty percent of his record sales were by two records: Sounds of the Sea and Spring Morning. Fifteen other records accounted for the rest. Spring Morning was a 7” shortened version of Birds on a May Morning which was produced mostly for classroom use. The Doubleday education division bought over 4,000 records for an education package anchored by their textbooks.
Grade school education and school libraries remained a key market for the next few years. A lot of federal funding for curriculum enrichment programs became available during the Presidents Kennedy and Johnson administrations. They saw the nature records as best in their class for audiovisual studies and language arts. Students would practice putting into writing what they heard. About half of the Droll Yankee records were 7” instead of the normal 12” because the students’ attention spans typically did not go beyond a 7” record.
After I graduated in management from MIT, I helped make some educational publishing connections for my father because at that time I was a management consultant in education technology. One of his directors arranged for Eaton & Howard, a Boston investment firm, to do a report on Droll Yankees’ education business. They recommended that Droll Yankees become a part of some large company supplying multimedia education products. There were meetings with several companies, but nothing came of it. I had counseled my father not to take the best offer, even though it could have made him financially secure for life, because I knew he wouldn’t last a minute in the corporate culture and he would have given up his life’s work.
My father was very focused on recording, editing tapes, and seeing the records through to production. Nevertheless, he liked to take time to talk to strangers, especially if his ego was stroked. I knew this, so when he asked me, “With all that expensive business education you received, how do you recommend I should do market research?”
I replied, “I think you should get out in the field and talk to real customers.” Actually, this was a good recommendation anyway because he was doing a surprisingly thorough job of analyzing sales data from advertising inquiries and store sales.
He seemed to like my train of thought, so I said, “Let’s visit some Audubon centers.” There are several of these in every state. Each is in a bird watching area such as a river, pond, or meadows and woods. Also, importantly, each has a store where they sell bird feeders, books, and bird-related items of all kinds.
My father lit right up and said, “Let’s go to the one in Lincoln, Mass. tomorrow.”
When we arrived, we were welcomed by an elderly lady who knew a lot about birds and who was delighted to meet the now well-known Peter Kilham. She prepared tea and cookies, and they talked and laughed nonstop. I took notes. We learned that they had workshops for school kids to learn more about birds, paint bird pictures, and go on bird walks. Peter’s records would be a great addition. Of course, she could also sell records to the public. She said, however, that major purchasing decisions went through the national Audobon, so he would have to familiarize them with his records.
After a few months, my father had a considerable fan club of what he called those “Little old Audubon ladies.” Record sales didn’t increase substantially, but this was fun for him and good for his ego. Also, the recognition that he built with Audubon would be very valuable when he introduced his bird feeders several years later.
My father decided to start what he called “a third chapter” in Droll Yankees history. The first chapter was the old timer New England stories. “They are very valuable as part of our history, but they were a failure as far as sales go,” he finally admitted to me. “But,” he went on, “the natural sounds, over the past two years, broke even.”
“So what is the third chapter?” I asked, hanging in anticipation.
“I’m going to do a series Pictures in Sound that transport you right there.”
“Where’s there?” I asked, thinking we had covered every seashore, forest, and swamp.
“There is where the steam engines are. Where you can thrill to rides on steam trains and riverboats.”
My father grew up at the end of the steam age with is Victorian effusiveness and glamour, and he felt we were now hopelessly mired in the junk-producing mass-production age. He felt there must be a market comprised of the generation who knew the truly good life symbolized by the great conveyances of steam.
In the 1950s I remember the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad bringing my aunt from New York to the Plainville area by steam train. There was great excitement as it came to a stop at the platform, with the steam hissing out of the locomotive's mechanisms and billowing over the passenger appearing with their elegant luggage.
Peter produced several records along the steam power theme including the popular Steamtown. The listener rides in a steam train from Bellows Falls to Chester Depot, Vermont, enjoying the toots of its whistle and the clanging of its bell as it chugs and clatters through the countryside. Another notable record was On the Old Fall River Line, experiencing the good ship Sunshine cruising up the Hudson River.
But Droll Yankees was itself running out of steam. I sensed something was wrong when my father’s close friend Alan Bemis was no longer on the board of directors. My father would never say why, but I ‘m sure it was because Bemis felt that their enterprise had gone off the tracks.
My father took me to the shipping area, waved his arms around, and said, “Look what I’m forced to do: I’m using rubber stamps instead of printed forms, and I’m rebuilding cartons.” He was scraping off old labels and taping up cuts in the cartons.
I recalled that scene when I started my last business in my apartment. I was shipping my industrial products to major corporations in repurposed grocery boxes. The sale of the business years later financed my retirement.
Peter Kilham didn’t give up. As he wrote in his 1965 annual report, “If a profit is made it is because a good job is being done.” He never lost sight of perfection even when the end seemed near.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.