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A Spiral Way

A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography

Erika Brady
Copyright Date: 1999
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    A Spiral Way
    Book Description:

    The invention of the cylinder phonograph at the end of the nineteenth century opened up a new world for cultural research. Indeed, Edison's talking machine became one of the basic tools of anthropology. It not only equipped researchers with the means of preserving folk songs but it also enabled them to investigate a wide spectrum of distinct vocal expressions in the emerging fields of anthropology and folklore. Ethnographers grasped its huge potential and fanned out through regional America to record rituals, stories, word lists, and songs in isolated cultures.

    From the outset the federal government helped fuel the momentum to record cultures that were at risk of being lost. Through the Bureau of American Ethnology, the Smithsonian Institution took an active role in preserving native heritage. It supported projects to make phonographic documentation of American Indian language, music, and rituals before developing technologies and national expansion might futher undermine them.

    This study of the early phonograph's impact shows traditional ethnography being transformed, for attitudes of both ethnographers and performers were reshaped by this exciting technology. In the presence of the phonograph both fieldwork and the materials collected were revolutionized. By radically altering the old research modes, the phonograph brought the disciplines of anthropology and folklore into the modern era.

    At first the instrument was as strange and new to the fieldworkers as it was to their subjects. To some the first encounter with the phonograph was a deeply unsettling experience. When it was demonstrated in 1878 before members of the National Academy of Sciences, several members of the audience fainted. Even its inventor was astonished. Of his first successful test of his tinfoil phonograph, Thomas A. Edison said, "I was never taken so aback in my life."

    The cylinders that have survived from these times offer an unrivaled resource not only for contemporary scholarship but also for a grassroots renaissance of cultural and religious values. In tracing the historical interplay of the talking machine with field research, The Spiral Way underscores the natural adaptiblity of cultural study to this new technology. Erika Brady is an associate professor in the folk studies programs at Western Kentucky University. She served as technical consultant and researcher on the staff of the Federal Cylinder Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-756-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction: ʺFugitive Sound Waves,ʺ Fugitive Voices
    (pp. 1-10)

    The imagination of Thomas Alva Edison was fertile but not fanciful. He was a forward-looking pragmatist. No sooner had he developed a working model for a talking machine than he was listing for entranced reporters the ʺillimitable possibilitiesʺ and ʺnumerous probabilitiesʺ by which the so-called phonograph would improve the future of mankind, and, not in the least incidentally, reap a fortune for its inventor (Edison 1878:527). What a richly tinted vision of a new era he painted! Like many nineteenth-century optimists, he anticipated changes in the trappings and protocols of a familiar world, not the transformation of that world into...

  5. 1 The Talking Machine: A Marvelous Inevitability
    (pp. 11-26)

    Surprise, astonishment, awe, wonder: first reactions to the phonographʹs voice describe a shock almost visceral in its intensity. Writing of his initial test of the invention, Thomas Alva Edison recalled his own amazement: ʺI was never so taken aback in my life!ʺ (Read and Welch 1959:107–9). Yet though the machine was a marvel on first encounter, its appearance at the end of the nineteenth century was, in a broader historical sense, a marvelous inevitability—the culmination of a host of technical and intellectual concerns that not only represented a revolution in means of human communication, but also brought about...

  6. 2 A Magic Speaking Object: Early Patterns of Response to the Phonograph
    (pp. 27-51)

    Edison knew he had a blockbuster invention on his hands—a machine with literally unheard-of potential. Nothing, however, in his technical notes or subsequent promotional writings suggests that he reflected deeply on the radical challenge the device would make on the expectations and perceptions of those first exposed to it, including himself—ʺI was never so taken aback in my life!ʺ—and his dumbfounded staff. His grasp of the physical properties of sound and the potential for its inscription in soft wax was thorough, but his understanding of the complex nature of hearing as human sense modality was—like his...

  7. 3 Collectors and the Phonograph: ʺSave, Save the Lore!ʺ
    (pp. 52-88)

    Academics get short shrift in the popular imagination, seldom glamorized, often ridiculed. In this regard, ethnographers can boast an image better than most. At a party, or in casual chat with an airplane seat partner, confessing ʺanthropologyʺ or ʺfolkloreʺ as oneʹs profession at least elicits the murmur, ʺHow interesting—just like Margaret Mead,ʺ and we can boast at least one bona fide pop-culture hero, however spurious, in the person of archaeologist/anthropologist Indiana Jones. And if a cartoonist were to sketch the popular image of what we do, it would probably depict three emblematic elements: the fieldworker (earnest, intrepid but self-effacing,...

  8. 4 Performers and the Phonograph: The Box That Got the Flourishes
    (pp. 89-117)

    One of the lesser known fables of Aesop recounts a meeting between a man and a lion before a vast mural realistically depicting a triumphant hunter, his foot on the neck of the vanquished king of beasts. Concerned about his companionʹs reaction to the piece, the man turns inquiringly to the lion, who merely curls his lip and shrugs, ʺSo, who painted the lion?ʺ Written from the point of view of the collectors, most accounts of fieldwork activity in which ethnographers appear at all tend to depict them triumphant—resourceful, adroit, accepted, even beloved. Reading these accounts, members of the...

  9. 5 A Spiral Way: Bringing the Voices Home
    (pp. 118-126)

    The modest Capitol Hill row house where Running Scout recorded for Alice Fletcher was razed in the mid-1970s to make way for the James Madison Building, part of the Library of Congress–coincidentally, the very building that would eventually house her cylinder collections and those of her adopted Omaha son, Francis La Flesche. I first encountered the Fletcher and La Flesche cylinders in 1981, in a chilly recording studio tucked deep in the fin-de-siècle Beaux-Arts extravagance of the Jefferson Building, just across Independence Avenue.

    The vividness of the voices they preserved astonished me. The recordings had less surface noise than...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 127-134)
  11. References
    (pp. 135-148)
  12. Index
    (pp. 149-156)