"Songcatchers" Document World Music

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 6, 2003
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with audio captions by author target="_new">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.

Throughout the century a litany of songcatchers spanned peoples and places nearly as colorful and diverse as song itself. Hungarian Béla Bartók collected central European folk music. The energetic Percy Grainger did the same in England, then traveled further afield to Australia, New Zealand, and the South Seas.

The Fahnestock brothers, Bruce and Sheridan, sailed the South Seas on a musical quest that with the approach of war added a political bend—they secretly gathered intelligence for U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York radio broadcaster Henrietta Yurchenco traveled to Mexico and unknowingly embarked on over six decades of ongoing ethnomusicology fieldwork.

For Yurchenco, it was crucial that the voice of the people be heard. "We have a written history," she told "We have books for political history, the formation of nations and social struggles. But music is one of the most intimate expressions. Through music you become knowledgeable of the intimate aspects of life that aren't told in books. The people themselves tell you their stories—it's not an interpretation. History books are written by the victors, but songs are the people's own words."

Older Recordings In a "Race Against Time"

The task of archiving this enormous musical heritage is a daunting one that's nearly as old as field recording itself.

But while conservation of natural treasures, historic sites, and ancient artifacts is a hot topic—that of our aural heritage is not as widely celebrated. The preservation of these recordings is dependent upon coordinated action.

The early media, and even some of the not-so-early ones, are decaying. Recordings on tinfoil, wax, glass, acetate, and vinyl have one thing in common—none is permanent. Currently, institutions around the world are in a race against time to convert these priceless recordings to the digital medium where they might be preserved indefinitely. They must be transferred if the incredible efforts of many lifetimes are not to be lost—just when we may have the technology to ensure their indefinite survival.

Michael Taft is the coordinator of the Save our Sounds program— a joint project between the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. The project strives to preserve recordings and expand their audience by releasing them to the public. "The mission is to save in perpetuity the sounds that have been collected over the last hundred years," he said. "If we don't do something, we won't have those sounds in another hundred years. None of the formats we have were meant to last forever."

Many other institutions, worldwide, are in the same race against time and the elements (see sidebar).

As an ethnomusicology advocate, Mickey Hart is involved with the Library of Congress Endangered Music Project as well as the National Recording Preservation Board. "Triage is a great word for the state of the Endangered Music Project," he told National Geographic News. "We can never win this race; these musics are being lost daily. Hourly. They're decomposing and all kinds of gremlins are popping up. 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."

The importance lies not just with preserving the past, but keeping that heritage alive and available to inspire future generations.

"We're the first generation that's really capable of saving this music forever," Hart said. "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."

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.

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