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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

January 27, 2009 Event Flyer

Revolutionaries, Nursery Rhymes, and Edison Wax Cylinders: The Remarkable Tale of the Earliest Korean Sound Recordings

Presented by Robert Provine

2009 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Robert Provine

The noted anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher is well known in music history as one of the first scholars to make use of the Edison cylinder recording machine for the purposes of preserving and analyzing music, and she is considered one of the most significant early pioneers of what was to become the modern discipline of ethnomusicology. On July 24, 1896, in Washington, DC, she made six Edison wax cylinder recordings of Korean songs, sung either solo or in duet by three Korean men. These recordings of 1896 predate the next known recordings of Korean music, made in Japan, by eleven years; since the introduction of the Fletcher recordings to Korea in 1998, they have gathered a considerable amount of attention, including a re-issue on CD. As a happy coincidence, the location of Miss Fletcher’s residence at 214 First Street, SE, where the cylinders were recorded, is now occupied by the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress, where this lecture is taking place. The cylinders stayed on this site until recently, when they were moved across the street to the Jefferson Building, so they have moved only a few yards since their conception.

On the surface, nearly everything about this recording event is unbelievable: in 1896, almost the only Koreans in Washington, DC were a handful of diplomats assigned to the Korean Legation, and they were highly-educated gentlemen with strong Confucian training. That a group of such Korean men would enter the house of a single lady and sing a group of songs, including children’s songs, into a machine the likes of which they had never imagined, is virtually inconceivable.

It turns out that the recordings resulted from circumstances involving an extraordinary collection of interesting and influential people, from exceptional historical events in Korea and the United States, and from a fair quantity of serendipity. The recordings form one part of a wider research project that might be described simply as Korean music in late-nineteenth-century America. The other pieces of the larger puzzle are two museum collections that include Korean musical instruments, and the matter of a group of Korean musicians sent to the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. All parts of this puzzle are, to greater or lesser degree, linked to the story to be told in this lecture.

In the late nineteenth century, Korea was a country virtually unknown in the West, and she was intent upon keeping foreigners and foreign thinking from her shores. As a result of military incursions and diplomatic pressure, however, Korea signed treaties with a number of foreign powers; the treaty with the United States in 1882 was one of the earliest, and one result was the sending of a special diplomatic mission in 1883 to tour the United States and present its credentials to President Chester A. Arthur. Several of the members of that mission returned to Korea with radical notions, and they were key figures in a progressive political party that led an abortive coup d’état lasting only three days in late 1884. Some of the conspirators managed to escape afterward to the United States via Japan, and in due course they set the stage in Washington, DC for the circumstances that led, unintentionally, to the Fletcher recordings.

To explore the people and events that led to the circumstances of these recordings, the lecture visits a number of impressive people, both Korean and American, and their activities, tracing them through a number of contexts: first of all, people and circumstances in Washington in the 1890s; second, historical events and people in Korea in the later nineteenth century; third, the World Columbian Exposition in 1893; fourth, collections of musical instruments; and finally, a tangential connection to the University of Maryland.

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The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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