Songcatchers

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

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Mickey Hart, longtime percussionist for the Grateful Dead, knows a thing or two about world music and field recording. He's lugged taping gear to Egypt, outfitted a recording expedition to New Guinea, captured the Tibetan Gyuto Monks in all of their glory and searched out indigenous music all over the world. As a very active member of the National Recorded Sound Preservation Board at the Library of Congress, he has supervised the digital transfer of many historic recordings: everything from Leadbelly to Hawaiian kahuna chants. He has produced (and played on) numerous world music albums, and he has written three acclaimed books on the subject: the largely autobiographical Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Planet Drum and Spirit Into Sound: The Magic of Music. But his latest, Songcatchers: In Search of the World's Music, is the first to deal mainly with recording. Published by the National Geographic Society and co-authored by National Geographic staff writer Karen Kostyal, Songcatchers depicts the fascinating story of field recording by focusing on the brave and driven men and women who endured tremendous physical hardships — and technical limitations — to record “ethnic” music around the world, from the late 19th century to the present day. Copiously illustrated with photos, the book also traces the development of recording technology, from the first Edison cylinders through the introduction of the ever-dependable Nagra and beyond.

Hart speaks excitedly about the pioneers in the field: “I wanted to tell their story, because the work they did is so important. None of them had to do what they did. There was no money in it; far from it. But they did because they believed there should be a permanent record of these cultures, which were all starting to change and even disappear at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. I really believe that these are some of our greatest creations: the art of a culture. Thousands of years of evolution went into that. We base what we do on the things that have been done before us, and that includes music, of course. I mean, if there hadn't been any jug bands or blues, there might not have been a Grateful Dead or a Paul Simon or a Santana. That's why it's really important to hear these kinds of music and recognize them as great works of art. Recorded music has been a really important part of making us understand the differences and sameness of us as a people, as a species.”

Who are some of the field recording figures Hart particularly admires? “All of them,” he says with a laugh. “Every one of them! The story starts in 1877 with Edison's seat-of-the-pants invention; brilliant, but very primitive. Thirteen years later, Jesse Fewkes gets a hold of it and starts this revolution: On March 15, 1890, in Calais, Maine, he became the first guy to walk out on the field and roll wax. He was an ethnologist and he recorded all of these songs and tales of the Passamaquoddy Indians. He later recorded the Zuni and other tribes. So he's a major factor. Then there were people like Henrietta Yuchenco, who took a Presto disc cutter to the mountainous regions of Mexico. She has an amazing story: bandits, romance, intrigue. Then there's Laura Boulton, who you see with Geronimo, with the aborigines in Australia, with the shamen in Siberia. And, of course, better known is the John and Alan Lomax story: Leadbelly and the great folk and blues musicians of the South.

“I view myself as an extension of those songcatchers, but obviously I haven't had to go through what they did: being out there for weeks and months at a time with primitive equipment. I didn't record 40,000 cylinders the way Bartok did in Romania, traveling around by donkey carts and canoes. I live in a different era, but I've had my adventures in the field, too.”

Hart says that he also wrote the book to encourage the preservation of recordings yet to be discovered. “The major recordings are still in the attics of the world,” he says. “The children and the grandchildren of the recordists are just coming to grips with their mortality. That's what happened with the Fahnstock recordings [recordings made in the South Seas in the early '40s, but “lost” until the '90s]. If the grandson didn't fall on that box of discs, it would have never gotten to the Library of Congress. There are lots of stories like that. Right now, we're getting it by the bushel, and some of it is great and some of it is not so great, just like everything else. Just like Grateful Dead music, where some concerts are just not good and some border on the miraculous. Some of it is poorly recorded, sloppily played and has limited value. But we have to preserve and save what we can, while the saving's good.

“Plenty of it has been lost already,” he continues, “and lot of it is endangered; it's in crisis. There are discs that have crumbled and tapes that have sticky shed and are basically unplayable. It's heartbreaking when you go into a collection and some of it doesn't play at all, or just a piece of it plays. It's really sad. Sometimes, it gives its life on the transfer. When I transfer it, I'll take it right to 1630, the digital domain, and that may be the last time it will ever play. But if we're lucky, we get it, or most of it.

“So what we're doing at the Library is identifying the collections in crisis and digitizing as fast as we can. You could call it triage. It's a race we'll never win, but we have to keep trying.”






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