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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Folkways Roadtrippin': Dispatches from the Field

What do you write when you send word home when traveling?  Do you describe that memorable meal you had after aimlessly wandering some extremely quaint city street? Do you mention the beautiful view from where you're sitting (which could involve a veranda with a breeze or a boulder in the middle of a canyon)?  Or do you spin an epic tale of your hunt for a bird call? Whatever story you choose to commit to paper (or screen), you're trying to send a bit of this other place to those who haven't seen it.

Folkways Records, the label founded by Moses Asch in 1947, issued many albums that evoke a lush sense of place. Perhaps because so many of them were recorded "in the field," by anthropologists, scientists, or people who just loved recording. Asch released albums that transported listeners all over the globe, from the American Southwest to London to a South African homestead.

Some of Asch's most prolific correspondence was with the people who recorded these albums. The Asch Collection is brimming with travel stories, each box containing postcards and airmail from a seemingly endless list of cities and towns and places far away from either. Field recorders climb mountains and brave long, empty stretches of road in search of music and nature sounds to send back to "Mr. Asch." The letters detail their struggles with weather, noise pollution, and unreliable tape recorders, as well as their excitement in capturing unique acoustics.

Since yesterday was the summer solstice--the sun's way of telling those of us in the Northern Hemisphere that it's time to leave the comforts of home and drive down a road somewhere--I've selected some "road trip" letters that provide a particularly interesting perspective on the process of field recording. These materials were scanned as a part of our ongoing Save America's Treasures grant-funded digitization project for the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. [click images to view larger display]

Charles Bogert recorded all around the American Southwest as well as Mexico. I love the images of animals hiding from the wind, and that the forecast for rain brings with it the promise of a rich array of wild activity. In the second postcard, Bogert expresses relief that the area where he was recording bird calls was "amazingly free of calves bawling, cars, planes, or other human noises." Someone send me to the White Mountains!

David Barry braved a blizzard in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho to record "conies, marmots, and an eagle." His tape recorder came away from the ordeal with some battle scars, and no animal sounds to show for it--apparently, wildlife is not so wild when it comes to inclement weather.

While I hope you don't wake up lost in any snowstorms in the near future, I do wish you adventure this summer-- and be sure to write!

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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