(seeing this on facebook? www.joshuavt.com is where the real swashbuckling tale lies.)
I talk a lot on here about my little H4 recorder and how much fun we have together. As of late, I’ve been thinking about how easy and fast that technology makes it to record essentially any sound I want using a device that fits in my jacket pocket, and how that makes me pretty damn lucky. Why have I been thinking this way? I’ve been reading lots about good old fashioned ehtnomusicology. Songcatching and sound hunting from way back in the day, 1890 to be precise. One of the first pioneers of this ever changing field was a straight laced bit of curmudgeon named Jesse Walter Fewkes.
Originally trained as a Zoologist at the really important and respected Harvard University, Jesse had a very keen interest in anthropological studies as well ( the study of humans and the cultures they exist in). He understood more then most at the time how important music and songs were to many of the North American peoples, such as the Native Americans and specifically the Passamaquddy Tribe. in the year 1890 with a little coin from a lady named Mary Hemenway, Jesse got himself a fresh off the Thomas Edison press phonograph and hit the field hard.
Big, very heavy, over 100 pounds, and hard to make any kind of decent recording on, these beastly machines used wax cylinders as they’re onboard memory. The performer would sing into a large cone or horn, and the vibration from the sound would cause the needle to cut grooves into the wax. I get worried about AA batteries running out? Jesse had real problems like the sun melting his invaluable-once in a lifetime recordings, all the while lugging the equivalent weight of the average human teenager around with him on a horse. Fun times.
Although he had a short lived field recording career (he didn’t make any recordings after 1891), Fewkes joined the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1898, eventually becoming their director in 1918. Big time. Word has it that he returned for a brief visit to the Zuni tribe of Native Americans in the late 1800′s, but one night was chased off the camp by Masawu the earth god who demanded he stop his confounded note taking and split. Official report? Smallpox, everyone had to clear out.
What’s today’s lesson, class? Well, it makes me marvel just a little bit more at all the wonderful things we can do in these modern times when it comes to recording. It also makes me wonder how many other cultures out there didn’t get to have their songs and stories documented, and how many more to this day won’t either? There’s a lot of people in the world, each with a sound or a tale to tell, and it’s certainly hard to get them all. the ones we do get act like mirrors to examine ourselves in, find similarities and things to learn from, different ways to live. Fewkes is recorded as saying – â€œIn sacred observances, it is probable that the music of the songs preserves its character even after other parts have been greatly modifiedâ€ . By having these hundred year old wax cylinders or records or cd’s of these recording he made, we’re able to get a tiny peek into a history that for obvious reasons most of us could never could never know. And not even just reading a writing or seeing a photograph,but hearing and experiencing the sounds of a culture gone by. Pretty special stuff if you ask me.