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Returning Music to the Makers: The Library of Congress, American Indians, and the Federal Cylinder Project

Returning Music to the Makers: The Library of Congress, American Indians,. And the Federal Cylinder Project

The United States Library of Congress houses the country's largest collection of early recordings of American Indian music, recorded originally on wax cylinders and today also preserved on high quality audio tape. The Archive of Folk Culture now includes approximately 10,000 cylinder recordings from private individuals and from other agencies of the U.S. government. Especially important among the latter were the materials assembled by the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology. Of the 10,000 cylinders, nearly 8,000 document the sung and spoken traditions of American Indian communities. Among them were the earliest known field recordings - Passamaquoddy songs and narratives by Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore, recorded by Jesse Walter Fewkes in Calais, Maine, in March 1890. They had been transferred to the Library by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

The wax cylinder recorder, and the cylinders themselves, are intriguing objects. The potential and the limitations of the this technology played an important role in the repatriation project.

Thomas Edison invented the first sound recorder in 1877, inscribing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on a cylinder covered with tinfoil and then playing it back. Until then, no one had ever preserved sounds. They had been entirely ephemeral, disappearing with the fading echoes, and impossible to recover, to store, to analyze through repeated listening, or to refer to when the words or melodies to old songs had been forgotten. Within a few years a commercial model of the cylinder recorder had become widely available. It would both record and play back sounds without the use of electricity. A hand crank tightened a spring that turned a spindle holding a cylinder made of hard wax. The recording was made by a cutting needle on a diaphragm attached to a large horn. Sound waves entering the horn were intensified in the horn and the pressure of the air on the diaphragm produced similar pressure on the cutter, which literally inscribed the sound into the wax in a long spiral groove. The sounds could be played back by changing the cutting head for a playback head, and the needle would follow the groove, bouncing along the cuts in the bottom. The bounces would be reproduced by a diaphragm and amplified by the long horn, and sounds would come out at the end of it and be audible. About the size of a small sewing machine, but with horns of variety of sizes, the cylinder machine was, and still is, a remarkable machine.

The advantages of recordings over attempts to transcribe sounds in writing were obvious. Within only a few years of their commercial availability, researchers were hauling these machines to Africa, the Arctic, and to American Indian communities throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico to record apparently disappearing traditions of tribal peoples for research and for posterity. Although the equipment was state-of-the-art at the time, the disadvantages of cylinder technology are apparent now: fairly low fidelity; a necessity of getting the performers to shout directly into the horn; the fragility of the wax and its susceptibility to breaking, melting, and attack by mold; and a maximum recording length of about four minutes. Also, after they were played several times, cylinder grooves became worn, and after sixty or more years the prevailing impression is sometimes a harsh "swish-swish-swish-swish" sound with a faint human sound in the background.

Because of their age, however, the cylinders often documented traditions that continued today only in the memories of elders, or were thought to have disappearedc from some American Indian communities completely. The American Folklife Center decided, therefore, systematically to copy, catalogue, and then disseminate its huge holdings of American Indian cylinder music. The first stages were arduous - the copying is difficult and the documentation often needed additional research. After copying and identifying the cylinders, the Federal Cylinder Project entered its final phase in 1985, making these recordings available directly to their communities of origin. A grant from the Ford Foundation facilitated the dissemination work. Since then, staff members have contacted or visited over 100 Indian communities and have been contacted by many others in search of relevant materials that might be in the Library.

Before the dissemination process began, Cylinder Project staff met with a panel of Native American scholars, museum professionals, and cultural specialists to discuss methods and to contact people as well as to anticipate problems. Some of the latter emerged from the very nature of the way the cylinder recordings were used.

Potential issues

We foresaw possible ethical problems. During the first decades that the cylinder machine was available, ethnologists, linguists, and early ethnomusicologists saw it as the ideal tool to help preserve traditions and languages they feared would otherwise disappear. Many recordists (the researchers making the recordings) focused on the ceremonial lives of the people they visited. Thus, many of the cylinders contained sacred songs; these are often genres that would not normally be heard out of their ceremonial context or by the uniniated. In most cases, the early recordings were made openly with apparent community consent, but some were gathered under what would now be considered ethically questionable circumstances. Paul Radin, for example, approached converts to the peyote religion in order to collect songs belonging to traditional societies - songs that adherents would not record for him. Francis La Flesche brought singers from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. in order to remove them from the influence of neighbors who objected to his recording of ceremonial songs. Many American Indian communities in the 1980s also had different ideas of what music should be recorded by outsiders. By today's standards, many of the songs now preserved on cylinders would, or should, never have been recorded.

We also found the collections to be somewhat haphazard from the perspective of the community recorded. Disparate song genres were often found side-by-side in the collections: peyote songs, medicine bundle songs, social dance songs, lullabies, and sun dance songs. The mixture was problematic in some communities where, for example, medicine bundle owners would not want outsiders to hear bundle songs. But here they were - part of the heritage of many communities requiring respect and responsible handling.

Another potential dissemination problem stemmed from institutional realities. As the advisory panel and the project staff realized, initial contacts for dissemination purposes had to be made at the level of the federally recognized Indian governments because the American Folklife Center is a federal agency. As would be the case in any community, however, the local government is not necessarily the entity that has an interest in or is the logical recipient of historical materials belonging to a religious society or a particular family. In some situations, the Cylinder Project personnel made efforts to reach not only the most visible cultural agencies, but also the smaller or more traditional settlements on a reservation. This step was taken to let more individuals know that copies of early recordings might be available as part of a dissemination visit.

We wanted communities themselves to determine the way in which the recordings would be repatriated and have total control over the dissemination events and any publicity involved in those events. In initial letters and phone calls, a Cylinder Project staff member would ask a community to designate one or more contact persons with whom we could consult about whether it would be helpful for us to visit the community, and if so, what kinds of services or activities would be desirable. Consequently, on our dissemination visits we have found ourselves making formal or informal presentations before audiences both large and small - at powwows, at school assemblies, at tribal council meetings, and at private homes. We have consulted with tribal leaders or persons interested in cultural conservation activities with regard to current programs, archiving requirements, potential funding sources for their own projects, and networks of people with similar concerns. We also have met with elders to review the early recordings and update or correct the cataloguing information on the recordings.

Results of dissemination

How has the dissemination of Cylinder Project materials turned out? What happens to the collections once they are back in their communities? Not surprising, the answers are not simple. Almost everyone we have contacted was enthusiastic at first about the potential benefits of having the early recordings back in their communities. However, community members sometimes suspected hidden costs or "strings" would be attached to the gift. Also, sometimes their enthusiasm waned when members of the community actually heard the recordings. Cylinder recordings do not gain charm and patina like old photographs do. Further, some individuals cherished the hope that certain specific songs and narratives were recorded, only to be disappointed to discover that such recordings do not exist.

If disappointment was great enough, if we had not reached those most interested in trying to work with the cylinder recordings, or if there was some controversy attached to the recordings themselves or to the fact that they were coming back, the cassettes might simply remain on the shelf, untouched, after being presented to the community - or they might disappear completely. Whether cylinder recordings have a role to play in contemporary Indian lives is a matter for Indian people and communities alone to decide. Such matters cannot be settled by outsiders, nor can the impact of dissemination efforts be measured in the short run.

What we have found is that those who are willing to listen repeatedly, through whatever noise level may be present, are often able to make use the materials. Many individuals hoped the recordings would help them recover something they had lost. Sometimes that has been the case. More often, those who are knowledgeable in the traditions of their communities find it possible to sing along with the recordings, and thus verify that the traditions, the songs, have survived - despite all the acculturation pressures over the years. And this is a source of considerable pride. Although some have been hesitant about having their ancestors' recordings made public, relatives and descendants of singers are usually pleased and excited to be able to hear family members' voices. The past is uniquely brought to life when they can hear the actual voices from the past.

Several communities, such as the Koowa, have used the early recordings as part of oral history projects with elders, stimulating their memories of songs or narrative contexts. On a broader scale, the return of early Omaha recordings assembled by Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, Jr., has fed into the tribe's ongoing efforts to reclaim cultural material that has been separated from the Nebraska community. The 90-year-old recordings of the Hethu'shka songs helped facilitate refocusing and revitalization of the Hethu'shka Society (a group of honored veterans) as a recognized conservator of traditional values. The Omaha tribal council and tribal historian collaborated with American Folklife Center staff members on an LP and cassette release, Omaha Indian Music, of selected early songs. Some copies were given to graduating Omaha high school students as a reminder of their living traditions. Hethu'shka Society members also traveled to Washington, D.C., to sing some of those same songs in a concert performance on the Library's Neptune Plaza.


Our experience has shown that early recordings provide the stimulus for a short-term individual project or become part of a much larger ongoing tribal program. They have also been used as a focal point for applications to granting agencies that fund cultural retention or archival projects and thus may contribute to the process of building projects, programs, and institutions for cultural preservation and dissemination within the communities themselves.

The cylinders are important regardless of how much information listeners can actually extract from them. For communities that have passed their traditions from generation to generation orally, the very existence of recordings now a century old is powerful proof, an emblem, of the persistence of their culture. In the words of one tribal council member at a dissemination presentation:

The songs are very much alive today in our hearts. And these songs are going to grow with us, with our little children. These are beautiful songs that have come home...and maybe this is the time, the way the Creator worked it out, that these songs are returning home, so we can draw strength from it, so that we can think back, for the love of this reservation and our people... This is what [being an Indian] is all about.

Thus, the sounds of the past can come alive in the present and nourish the future through careful archiving and preservation, and thoughtful return to the communities that have been recorded.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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