Early Sound Recordings in the Field

"The first field recordings of Native American music contain Passamaquoddy songs, tales, and vocabulary, sung and spoken by Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore, as recorded by Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930) at Calais, Maine, in mid-March 1890. Knowing that he would participate in the Hemenway expedition to Hopi and Zuni pueblos in the Southwest during the summer of 1890, he decided to test the brand-new technology closer to his home in Boston. Delighted with the results, he immediately published enthusiastic accounts of the process and of his results in three journals, thereby spreading the word of the "talking machine's" utility to folklorists, linguists, ethnologists, and other interested parties. 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. " (text and photo from LC)

Alice Fletcher ca. 1890 (photo from Omaha Indian Music) Graphophone used by Alice Fletcher1895-1897 (digital photos made in Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

"Jeddah February 20, 1909 - the Recording of Sayyid Mohammed" by Dutch diplomat Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in Jiddah, Arabia (caption and photo from Oriental Institute in Leiden, Holland, published in Aramco World, September/October 1993).

"Kazemhe, a Lunda Chief in the Belgian Congo, Speaking into an Ediphone which is used by Missionaries for Language Study; Belgian Congo; Unknown Date" ca. 1910 (caption from Edison NHS photo 29.320/214)

"Frances Densmore plays a recording for Mountain Chief (Blackfoot) at the Smithsonian Institution, 1916. Harris and Ewing Photographers (photo from chapter 2 online, Heartbeat of the People Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow by Tara Browner, university of Illinois Press, 2002

The Okeh recording company designed its own portable wax cylinder machine for field recordings, first used in Atlanta by Polk Brockman in June 1923. Among the groups and singers recorded that summer by Brockman was Fiddlin' John Carson whose recording of "Little Log Cabin in the Lane" made in June sold well for Okeh. Ralph Peer worked on the Atlanta recording session with Brockman, and he went on to record "The Sinking of the Titanic" by Ernest "Pop" Stoneman in 1925 that became one of the best selling records of the 1920s. Soon after this recording Peer left Okeh and would supervise the "birth of country music" at the Bristol Sessions in 1927. Photos of Little old log cabin in the lane 1871 sheet music by W. S. Hays for Manning's Minstrels, and 1913 sheet music for Alma Gluck, both from LC/Duke.

John Lomax began his project at Texas A&M 1907 to collect cowboy songs, funded by a Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard, and completed in 1909 the text for "Cowboy Songs of the Mexican Border" that was published in 1910 as "Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads" that included many songs mailed to him or found in newspapers and scrapbooks. Some songs in the book had been recorded on cylinders, including "Home on the Range" that Lomax recorded from a black saloon keeper in San Antonio on an Edison cylinder. In Dec. 1932 he met Robert W. Gordon who founded the Library's Archive of American Folk Song 1928 and experimented with different recording methods, from wire to movie film; Lomax commissioned Walter Garwick to make a machine that could playback disc master immediately in the field for $450, cheaper than a Fairchild or Amplion portable recorder, but the machine would always have problems. Instead, Lomax got a cylinder Dictaphone in June,1933, that he and his son Alan began to use in Texas (he would confuse this Dictaphone with Edison and often called it an Edison machine). He recorded "Deep River" on a trip to the Brazos, "Rock Island Line" by Huddie Ledbetter with his 12-string guitar. By mid-1937 the Library of Congress had 4000 folk songs on 1314 cylinders and discs including over 1000 cylinders and discs from Lomax. (photos of Mexican girls in San Antonio 1934 (l) and guitar player Stavin' Chain 1934 (c) and Huddie Ledbetter with wife Martha 1935 (r) from Southern Mosaic


2003 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

revised 3/1/03 | Recording Technology History