"Songcatchers" Document World Music

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 6, 2003

Songcatchers photo gallery with audio captions by author Mickey Hart >>
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Our ability to capture sound is little more than a century old, but the languages and music we record are the descendants of ancient aural traditions. Music has long been an integral part of society—in all times and places.

In his book Songcatchers, Grateful Dead percussionist and ethnomusicology advocate Mickey Hart explains why music expresses who we are as a people. "It gives shape to our thoughts and feelings," Hart writes, "things we can't express in words, turning spirit into sound."

"No culture does not have a music," Hart told National Geographic News, "and there's a reason for this: If a music dies, its culture dies."

But vanishing music, languages, and cultures are part of today's shrinking global landscape. We're losing languages at the rate of one every two weeks.

Modern technology does offer us a boon—the opportunity to preserve and perpetuate cultural legacies that might otherwise vanish with the ethnic traditions that spawned them.

We have a tremendous head start thanks to the work of "songcatchers," the field recordists who explored the globe to document the songs, sounds, and lives of cultures that even in the early recording years were already fading into obscurity.

The Early Days

In late-19th-century North America, the efforts of many anthropologists and ethnologists were focused on the rapidly vanishing Native American culture—at that time already a shadow of what it had been just a few generations before.

That study was greatly advanced by the brain of the era's great inventor—Thomas Edison. In 1877, he invented a "talking machine" that was able to record and play back the sound of the human voice. It wasn't long before this shocking technology was applied in the field by enterprising researchers. They were the songcatchers, and their story combines music, science, and adventure.

The first was Jesse Walter Fewkes, a naturalist from Harvard University. In March of 1890, he traveled to Calais Maine, home of the Passamaquoddy people. Fewkes recorded 36 wax cylinders of their fast fading songs, language, and traditional stories. They were the first field recordings ever created—made possible only by a cumbersome apparatus weighing in at about 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

Soon others were heading off to the far corners of the Earth to capture the voice of humanity raised in songs of celebration and ceremony. These dedicated adventurers were both avid hobbyists and noted scholars. Their equipment was heavy, cumbersome, and difficult to carry. Recording itself could be hit or miss, but they displayed a determination and diligence that surmounted the handicaps of their day. Many of them were women, undertaking global adventures that were unheard of at the time.

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