The Amazing Godwin | FATE May/June 2009

It seems that my memory is not at all reliable:

I distinctly remember hearing Thomas Edison’s first grammophone recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” followed by “Ha ha ha!” Now all that can be found on the Internet is his 1927 Movietone News re-enactment of that recitation, with no “Ha ha ha!” Other people also remember hearing the original recording, but there seems to be no evidence that it exists. In fact, one Internet recording of the re-enactment bears this label: “The original 1877 recording was not saved and no longer exists.”

I also remember seeing the Monty Python crew perform “The Philosophers’ Song” during the Australian university sketch when the show was originally broadcast on PBS. Now it seems that it first appeared on an LP and later in recordings of their Hollywood Bowl appearance and it is not part of the sketch on the DVD.

When I was much younger, there was a singer named “Barbara” Streisand. It seems she has ceased to exist and has been replaced by the somewhat more affected “Barbra.” But it says “Barbra” on existing copies of her first album.

I seem to remember clearly that the first line of the Napoleonic-era German song, “Lützow’s Wild Hunt,” is “Was glänzt dort hell in Glimmerschein?” As it happens, there is no such word as “Glimmerschein.” The correct version is “Was glänzt dort vom Walde im Sonnenschein?”

I remember the second line of “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” as containing the phrase “borne like a zephyr,” but every printed version I can find says “borne like a vapor.”

Thanks to ongoing transliteration reform, I am kept constantly off balance by abrupt and startling changes in spelling. Whatever happened to Peking, Mao Tse Tung, etc.? Even now, there seems to be no agreement between any two sources as to the correct spelling of Al Qaida.

I flatter myself that I am not a unique case, that everybody is subject to episodes of false or clouded memory. Joshua Chamberlain, the Civil War general featured in the film Gettysburg, wrote several accounts of his defense of Little Round Top—all of them slightly different, and likewise different from the account of other witnesses. This phenomenon is common in war memoirs—in all memoirs, in fact. The human memory is not a reliable recorder of events. There are plenty of cases of people distinctly remembering ordinary events that, upon examination, are clearly preposterous.

Eyewitness reports of crime and auto accidents are notoriously unreliable. Such being the case, how believable are reports of UFOs, Bigfoot, and the like? People see strange things all the time, but exactly what do they see? They can’t really remember, perhaps. — David F. Godwin