Mickey Hart - Songcatchers

Listen ó The Sound of the World

First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2003, Volume 10, #10

Written by Douglas Heselgrave


My grandparents kept their record collection in the basement. Battered old copies of Harry Belafonteís Jamaica Farewell and Louis Armstrongís Hello Dolly were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Even now, whenever I hear a song from either of those records, memories of summer vacations spent shooting pool and running through the sprinkler with my grandfather come rushing back to me. Recordings, like photographs, remind us of times and places that have long since disappeared. They have a near-magical ability to evoke emotions that otherwise defy expression.

Mickey Hartís new book Songcatchers: In Search of the Worldís Music is a fascinating account of the golden age of sound recording. Part history, part archeology and part grand adventure story, it is a coffee table book filled with rare and beautiful photographs of sound pioneers out in the field.

Hart, who spent over 30 years behind the drum kit for the Grateful Dead, knows his stuff when it comes to recording. In addition to being a "recordist" who never goes anywhere without his Nagra tape machine, Hart is also, by his own account, "probably the most taped musician in the world," thanks to the obsessive bootleg recordings made by his bandís many fans.

"Tapers" as they are called in Dead circles, form another, more contemporary aspect of songcatching. The practice of taping live concerts and trading the tapes has become widespread. Most major recording artists must contend with the fact that their concerts are posted online the day after the performance because the tools of songcatching are now available to everyone. While this threatens the mainstream recording industry, some bands, like the Dead, encourage the practice.

When Hart isnít out capturing indigenous sounds or pounding on the skins himself, he works as a trustee for the Library of Congressís Save Our Sounds project, a restoration initiative to preserve old and decaying music cylinders and recordings by transferring them to digital sound. Indeed, at 59 years of age, the wiry and fit-looking Hart presents himself more like a librarian than one of the worldís premier psychedelic musicians.

I met Mickey Hart at his hotel room in Denver recently, on a day off in the middle of a five-night run of sold out shows with the Dead (whatís left of them) at Coloradoís outdoor Red Rocks Amphitheatre. In spite of being a little tired and hard of hearing from drumming for three nights in a row, Hart became increasingly animated as our interview progressed. Songcatching, the art of musical field recording, is clearly a subject about which he loves to talk.

Before anyone starts songcatching, Hart says, itís important to define what music is and where it can be located. "You can find it in a field, on the back porch, in the living room, the ocean, the sky, wherever the muse takes you. When the ear can identify the sound and itís pleasing to the ear, it calls it music. When itís inharmonic, it becomes noise." Above all, Hart says, music is about "romancing the ear."

But in the early days of sound recording, there was no room for such esoteric ideas. The pioneers of sound technology were just trying to get their machines to work, and aesthetic considerations came later. In fact, when Thomas Edison first demonstrated his "sound machine" to a group of people in 1877, listeners vomited, fainted and called the machine "diabolical." Hart says, "Edison was really after the light bulb. He was amazed when the machine talked back to him. He drew a little picture of this talking machine and he gave it to his assistant to build. It was a very simple but elegant machine, and it worked."

It wasnít long before people took Edisonís machine out into the field and started to capture the world around them. "On March 15, 1890, Jesse Walter Fuchs made the first mechanical recording in the field, and he recorded Native American harvest and salutation songs. He recorded 36 cylinders over a three-day period. That started the revolution," explains Hart.

The response was immediate, and the golden age of recording and recording technology began. "Emil Berliner developed the zinc disc which looked like a 45, so instead of wax and tin, it turned into a disc and the quality started to progress, but the machines became larger and larger," he continues.

Transporting them "became more of a hardship." It is the recounting of these hardships that make up the core of Songcatchers: In Search of the Worldís Music. Throughout the book, Hart clearly delights in describing the pioneersí exploits, writing in a style reminiscent of great 19th century travel literature. Early songcatchers form a cast of colorful dilettantes, pirates, and rascally villains who traveled the world in search of exotic sounds.

"In the old days the machines were very bulky and cumbersome, and thatís part of the adventure. How did they take these machines and bring them to the four corners of the world? Hauling these machines up mountain passes at high altitudes with the banditos, the bugs, and the snakes were all really heroic efforts."

The motives of the original songcatchers varied. Hart explains, "Some of them were pure ethnographers, scientists that for one reason or another thought that it was important to collect this music. Others were adventurers. Sometimes they were even spies. The Fonstocks worked for Roosevelt and mapped the harbors of Indonesia before World War II."

In the early days, there were no "ethnomusicologists," per se. Hart explains that many of the early songcatchers "really didnít know where they were pointing their mics. They gathered any music they possibly could, or they went to the heads of the clan and found out who was singing the best songs. It was later, much later, that they were transcribed and understood. Some of them were transcribed at the wrong speed, so itís taken years, sometimes, for collections to be brought back to the right speed. Out in the field, itís a pretty dangerous and pretty random recording technique that you have to use, so many of these people Ďjuiced upí the natives, as it were, or had parties in order to get the music."

Over the years, songcatching has become more sophisticated, and a sociology of sound has developed. In the old days, "it was more a matter of luck of the draw in many ways. Some people knew what they were after and they went after it, but most just stayed with the culture for a while and learned the customs and then they were guided towards the real music."

Hart began his own career as a songcatcher in San Francisco, recording Indian musicians who visited the city in the 1960s. He realized that simply pointing a microphone at a musician wouldnít give him the results he was hoping for. "When I go into a culture, Iím well versed in their music. I usually can play one of their instruments well enough to have a conversation with them."

Songcatching requires both patience and tact, and it hasnít always been smooth going for Hart. Like the songcatchers of old, he has suffered for his art. While in Alexandria in 1978, Hart set out to record Bedouin music. "Well, it turned out that in order to really record those people they wanted you to be part of the music, so the ritual involved heroic amounts of hashish mixed with tobacco, and you know Iím experienced with hashish, but not in these quantities. Thankfully, I had set up the machines beforehand, but when it came time after five hours of smoking and they were ready to play, I couldnít walk. So, I crawled about 50 feet to the machine that was set there with the tape on it. I reached for it, and couldnít turn it on because Iíd lost power of my extremities, so I had to turn it on with my teeth. By the time the reel was done, I had control again, and was able to change tapes throughout the night until the batteries ran out. I just passed out, and they were gone in the morning."

Some space in Hartís book is devoted to a discussion of the ethics of sound recording in the 21st century, and how best to right some of the wrongs perpetrated in the early days. "War, economic, and social changes ripped away [many culturesí] music. The church was a major destroyer of the worldís music. They Ďmissionizedí the people and gave them a new Bible and a new music, at no extra charge."

Alan Lomax, the great American folklorist, is probably the most controversial songcatcher of them all. Equally worshiped and reviled, he captured some of the most essential American music of the last century, from Woody Guthrie to Leadbelly. His story highlights many of the ethical dilemmas of field recording.

Hart explains: "He claimed credit, 50 per cent, with Leadbelly. You know, he was a product of his day and he believed that no black person would ever get copyright, which he was right on. So he figured that if he claimed 50 per cent, at least half of the money would make it back to Leadbelly. I knew Lomax when he was alive and he didnít live high, he really didnít. He was a pirate, but he was also an impassioned recordist and a lover of music, so itís a double-edged sword."

Whatever one thinks of Lomax, the world would be a much poorer place without the music he preserved. As Hart says, "There would be no Grateful Dead, no Santana, no Paul Simon, no Rolling Stones, no Beatles, if there was no Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie."

In spite of the questionable circumstances surrounding many of the early field recordings, the legacy thatís been left behind is of incalculable value, and what to do with it is the one of the greatest challenges facing contemporary musicologists and historians.

"We have to give credit back to the cultures that spawned the music. Itís like repatriation to give these musics back and allow them to be practiced again ó brought back to their schools, their museums, their libraries, their local archives. Thereís no real reason to preserve if access is not given to this music."

Finally, I asked Hart if the romantic tales of the songcatchersí exploits have distorted our assessment of some musicís intrinsic value. Is a song necessarily great just because it is old or rare?

"Remember, in every culture thereís swill, thereís music that lives off on the periphery that is of no consequence. Not all are Picassos and Renoirs. Just like, if you listen to our radio, our music, youíre not going to find great music everyplace. What is the best music is impossible to define. Just because itís played by a virtuoso player, doesnít mean itís great music. It might not reflect the soul of a people, which is really my criteria for great music."

Whether itís about great songs or trash, recorded music is a global commodity today, with songs targeted for every age and interest group. Itís hard to believe that just over a century ago the only music a person ever heard was played live. Music was a public art that happened in real time. Every performance was unique, never to be repeated in the same way.

Sound recording has completely changed how we listen to music, and altered the context in which we experience it. The ability to capture sounds from all corners of the earth, and then package, redistribute, and share them, has given us access to things that would have been completely out of reach just a few generations ago. Imagine what life would be if we couldnít listen to Inuit throat singing on the way to work in the morning.


Douglas Heselgrave is a freelance writer, living in Vancouver.
This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun,
and is being republished with the full permission of the author.


Songcatchers: In Search of the World's Music is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!


Copyright © 2003 The Music Box