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.

They all felt a need to go in to the field as dilettantes or hobbyists, like myself at first, or as professional scholars. They were on the cutting edge, visiting incredible places and peoples. They had to deal with the weather, which is a huge factor with recording gear, haul massive equipment through remote areas, and handle everything from disease to banditos. I might add that women played a major role. Somehow they were able to get into places that men just couldn't go. It wasn't just a guy thing; in fact women were superior in many cases.

Their work has left us with an enormous collection of audio treasures but they really need our attention. You've been very involved in larger projects like the Library of Congress's Endangered Music project—which is trying to digitally preserve an enormous and valuable collection of diverse recordings. We're talking about music from Leadbelly to the Navajo.

You have to remember that they're not just songs, they are perhaps our greatest creation. They are the true art of the people, a part of the subconscious that reaches up from deep down and tells us who we are. These songs are very human.

My expertise was in digital preservation. That's how I became involved with these groups. Triage is a great word for the state of the Endangered Music Project. We can never win this race; these musics are being lost daily. Hourly. They're decomposing and all kinds of gremlins are popping up. What we do is try to identify collections in crisis and find the ones that are just about ready to give up their lives. Then we go in there and digitize them and save them. Some of them, of course, are lost. The collection is vast. But there's a dedicated staff of preservationists at work all day at the Library of Congress and other places around the world. They are passionate, and they are committed to this because it's critically important.

We're the first generation that's really capable of saving this music forever. Now is the time because we finally have the digital technology that allows us to preserve it indefinitely. It's also the critical time to do this because the older recordings are really deteriorating. It's an opportunity and it's also a serious responsibility, future generations will hold us responsible for what we do or do not do as far as preserving these treasures.

I know you treasure and advocate not only the music but the musicians around the world. It's a kind of musical activism isn't it?

You have to credit these who made these recordings, and when they are used commercially the money has to go back. It's all about discovering the world, but it's also all about respect for other music and musicians. That's a big part of it. The idea is not just to keep this music but also to be able to give it back to the cultures that created it. When a culture like the Native Americans gets music back that's been ripped away for generations, it's like repatriation.

Preservation of the world's music and the world's sounds doesn't have a huge popular movement but it is very similar in its own way to preserving natural treasures like the rain forest.

Rain forests aren't just trees and critters. There are folks there. When you kill a forest you kill the people and you kill the music. It works the same way, and that's where the endangerment relationship comes in. Music needs a community to serve and the community needs music. When one goes, the other is sure to follow. That's what Steven Feld calls musical activism, and he practices it by helping to give rainforest communities a voice.

More and more people are recognizing the importance of these musics. Music is an aural tradition, like language. Every musician is drawing to some extent on the musicians that came before him or her. Without Appalachian back-porch music, without the blues, perhaps there would be no Grateful Dead or Paul Simon.

Musicians are indebted and inspired by older music that helps them find their own voice. You know that [this music] will light up someone's life. You never know how it will affect people, you don't know who it will affect or in what way but it will speak to people. Art breeds art, whether it is visual or audio or whatever. Without it we're bankrupt as a people. That's why cutting funding for the arts in schools is the worst possible way to save money.

Music is one of those universals, whether it be opera, symphony, hip hop. No culture does not have a music and there's a reason for this. If a music dies, its culture dies and vice versa.

What is it about this music and about drums in particular that speaks to us this way?

It's the rhythm stupid. (laughs) It's about the vibrations, there's a neurological aspect to this. The brain looks different "on music." We feel the vibrations, it's a pleasurable experience, and we say, "hey, I wanna do that again."

Rhythm is a basic need and element of life. Our heart beats, our lungs pump, we're born into rhythms and when they stop we die. That's our connection to the invisible world of music. The need is a survival need, a basic need.

The body is constantly vibrating, a multidimensional rhythm machine. When you see someone you love this is a good healthy rhythm. Beyond the entertainment factor it's really about well being, about making a better world—that's why we save this music.

Sometimes at the end of my shows I grab a microphone and say, "Remember this moment, this feeling and take it home and do something good with it." And that's what music does, it allows you to see and feel things that make the world better. You can transfer that energy into something of great value. That's why I work at this every day. The real commodity is the uplifting of the spirit.

Related Web sites:

Mickey Hart's Web site
Save Our Sounds: America's Recorded Sound Heritage Project
The Library of Congress American Folklife Center: The Center and its collections encompass all aspects of folklore and folklife from this country and around the world.
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage promotes the understanding and continuity of contemporary grassroots cultures in the United States and abroad.

Related Stories:

"Songcatchers" Document World Music
Q&A: Mickey Hart on New Songcatchers Book
Rural Irish Speakers Fight Influx of English
Explorer on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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