The Voices of America
Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930)
Wax cylinder recordings of
Passamaquoddy songs and stories,
American Folklife Center(
November 21, 2002
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.
The cylinder recording technique was patented by Thomas Edison
in 1878, and by 1888 machines were becoming commercially available
for use with prerecorded cylinders. But it was Fewkes, the man in
the photograph, who first realized the potential of the cylinder
recorder to revolutionize the methods of documenting human cultural
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. As he himself
said on a cylinder recording in 1891, "You can talk into it as-fast-as-you-like,
or you can speak a-s d-e-l-i-b-e-r-a-t-e-l-y a-s y-o-u c-h-o-o-s-e.
In either case, it reproduces exactly what you say." This was significant
because "the necessity of work with the phonograph in preserving
the languages of the aborigines of this continent is imperative."
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.