American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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The Voices of America

Wax cylinder recordings of Passamoquoddy...
Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930)
Wax cylinder recordings of
Passamaquoddy songs and stories,

March 1890
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 expression.

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.

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