On this day in 1890

March 15, 2014

March 15, 1890, in Calais, Maine, a Harvard naturalist turned anthropologist, Jesse Walter Fewkes made the what would become the first field recordings. He worked with Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore, Passamaquodies who knew the old oral traditions. Over the course of three days he recorded 36 wax cylinders of their songs, folktales, vocabularies and conversations. (Listen) Josephs told Fewkes at one point that he could remember when the songs and dances of the Passamaquoddy were performed in a large wigwam. By 1890 that image already conjured a lost world. This recording is amazing considering the wind was blowing from the northwest at 40 miles per hour; it was lightly snowing with freezing temperatures.


Do you think that Jesse kind of knew what he was starting in that field 124 years ago? Can it be considered the equivalent to the Wright Bros as far as inventions that have shaped and changed our world? With the emerging world of musicology and then ethnomusicology we find a special breed apart from the scholars of old.  A new band of hunter gathers equipped with the latest inventions of the day.  No more pencils in little books.  The electronic age has now descended upon mankind and changed the face of audio recording forever.

According to "Voices of America" an exhibit of American Treasures of the Library of Congress: "The two cylinders in the photograph are among those recorded in Maine between March 15 and 17, 1890. They came to the Library in 1970 from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The cylinder machine in the photo, while not the same model as Fewkes used, is a Columbia Graphophone, Model N, marketed in 1895 and manufactured in Washington, D.C."

Read more about the history of recorded music in "Songcatchers: In Search of the World's Music"

Hear Fewkes Recording of Noel Josephs 

Q&A: Mickey Hart on "Songcatchers" @ nationalgeographic.com