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.
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