Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hidden Treasures: A Day With The Asch Recordings

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

When digitizing a collection of work as diverse as the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, one inevitably stumbles upon interesting sounds. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi) was the predominant leader of Indian nationalism under British Rule. He encouraged non-violent civil protest and led India towards independence. Gandhi is often regarded as the father of modern India, and inspired numerous civil rights movements across the world.

Moe Asch was a true collector of world sound, and today I had the privilege of digitizing Gandhi's fist and last recorded (English language) speeches, that were transferred from vinyl record to open-reel tape by Moses Asch. Track one, entitled "Spiritual Message," was the first recording ever made of Gandhi's voice. It was recorded at Kingsley Hall, Bristol, England, during the third week of October, 1931 by technicians the Columbia Gramophone Company. Track two, Gandhi's last message in English, entitled "The Voice of Gandhi," provides a rare glimpse into his thoughts on western culture, the atomic bomb, Christianity, poverty, and  world peace. This speech was recorded by journalist Alfred Wagg, April 2, 1947 in New Delhi, India. Gandhi was assassinated a mere 7 months after the Wagg recording was created. Originally released on 78-rpm disk, few copies remain of the 100,000 sold between 1932 and 1956. 

Publicly available versions of the recordings can be heard here:

Spiritual Message
Voice of Gandhi

Now you may ask, "Why digitize this particular tape if the content is commercially available?" The majority of the publicly available derivatives that I was able to locate seemed lower in quality, as they were transferred from older, and possibly deteriorating, acetate or vinyl records. You may notice the large amount of background noise in the publicly available version of "Voice of Gandhi" from the above link. This is likely due to a distortion in the shape of the record, as a result of poor storage, that causes the stylus to catch as the record spins. Moses Asch realized the longevity of tape when compared to records, and often used magnetic tape as an archival medium. So the answer to the aforementioned question has to do with the quality of the recorded sound, and the intent to provide the most accurate representation of the original audio recording.

There is also an element of surprise when working with this collection, and we are still discovering the content of some tapes. Often times, if a tape is played to determine content, we digitize it simultaneously to mitigate possible damage to the tape from repetitive play and handling. Most tapes require some amount of cleaning, baking, repair, or preparation for playback, thus it makes sense to capture the content once that stage is reached.

Dan Charette at an Audio Workstation, Ralph Rinzler Archives, CFCH
Photo By: Francisco Guerra
-Dan Charette, Audio Archives Technician, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

1 comment: