Q&A: Mickey Hart on New Songcatchers Book

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 6, 2003

Songcatchers photo gallery with audio captions by author Mickey Hart >>
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Best known as a longtime percussionist with the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart is also a dedicated musicologist and an advocate for the preservation of the world's music. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress's National Recorded Sound Preservation Board. His new book, Songcatchers, explores the wide panorama of world music and shares the epic tales of the early pioneers who traveled far and wide to record it. It also shares Hart's personal quest to celebrate the music that is our shared cultural legacy.

I've read that you were first turned on to global music as a city kid. How did that music connect with you and what kind of doors did it open for you as a young person and musician?

It really began with a fortunate accident. My mom inherited a wonderful collection of Count Basie and Duke Ellington records and for some reason, stuck somewhere in the middle of that shelf, was a strange album—these magnificent sounds of African Pygmies. It lit my imagination, suggested possibilities, and opened a strange new world to a kid growing up in the city. I had access to their daily lives, their experiences, and their essence. My mind went wild with the possibilities.

As a member of the Grateful Dead you've spent a long time seeking and sharing those global sounds.

In the late 1960s (Grateful Dead bassist) Phil Lesh gave me a recording called Drums of North and South India. The LP that Phil passed to me casually that night would be the catalyst for the book Songcatchers. I was blown away by that recording and it just clicked, "there's a whole world of indigenous music out there." I knew at that time, "all of these musicians, all of this music, should be recorded with the same kind of equipment, the same kind of technology and the same passion as the Grateful Dead is being recorded."

So you began to do some of that recording yourself back in the sixties?

I fell in love with the North Indian sound. I recorded people like Ali Akbar Khan because I had a passion for their music. Then I would run back home and sit in a special green listening chair and just let the waves of sound wash over me. It was a great pleasure. I was like an art collector who keeps masterworks in his private vault. At some point, it occurred to me that I shouldn't be making these recordings just for personal pleasure. The preservation of that music should go beyond my own lust for the sound. If I loved this music, sooner or later others would love it too.

At first I'd just kind of give it away. In fact at the beginning, you couldn't even give the stuff away—there just wasn't the interest. But later, it started to grow. Eventually, Rykodisc gave me a contract to produce The World series and a lot of these sounds reached a wider audience.

Many people will be unfamiliar with the term "Songcatcher." Who are the songcatchers and how did you come to write a book about them.

"Songcatcher" is a catch phrase for someone who goes out in the field, not the studio, and records music wherever he or she finds it. It all started with Edison, of course, and his invention of the phonograph. Then Jesse Walter Fewkes, a Harvard naturalist, in 1890 recorded the Passamaquoddy Native Americans in Calais, Maine. He recorded their songs, stories, and conversations; they filled 36 wax cylinders of the first field recordings.

Since then there have been many, many songcatchers working at the far corners of the Earth. The book is the story of my search for their search. I read their stories over the years, and collected them as a personal interest. I was fascinated by them and realized, "there's a real story here." It's not just a collection of anecdotes or tales.

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