Changing Lives with Recorded Sound: Recordings and Profound Musical Experiences

October 1, 2002

Lecture delivered at the annual meeting of The College Music Society, November 17, 2001, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


It is a great honor to be standing before you to deliver the annual Robert M. Trotter Lecture. It is also rather daunting, given the eminence of the previous lecturers and significance of the topics they have addressed. I am going to take a few minutes this year to talk about the effects sound recordings have on people. My paper is titled Changing Lives with Recorded Sound: Recordings and Profound Musical Experiences. By "profound musical experience" I mean experiences that change behavior, that lead people to search out live musicians, to learn to play an instrument, or to become a musicologist or ethnomusicologist—or a patron, or a dancer. What I mean by changing lives will become clearer later on.

Most of what I describe comes from my experience as the Curator of the Folkways Collection and Director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings between 1988 and 2000. As head of a venerable recording company, I held a unique position from which to learn about how people use, are affected by, and value audio recordings. I will conclude with some generalizations about what the significance of recordings may mean for music educators.

In 1877 there was only one sound recording. Today there are millions, being played in billions of homes, businesses, and outdoor events all around the globe as I speak. Recordings are ubiquitous, and outnumber live performances. Recordings have also become part of the way musical traditions are transmitted. They enable music to travel where musicians could not (or would not) go—to remote spots in the Amazon jungle, for example, or in the extreme case (on the gold-plated LP recording sent into outer space) beyond the limits of the solar system. It is interesting that both the CMS and the Association for Technology and Music Education invited directors of small independent record companies to deliver their plenary lectures in Santa Fe in 2001.

This transformation of musical experience—from primarily live to primarily recorded sound—has not gone unnoticed. Studies of the music industry abound, as do writings on globalization and technology. I have found relatively little writing on how people actually experience recorded sound, on how they are affected by exposure to recordings, and how they use recordings. One exception is Pat Shehan Campbell's work on how children use recordings (Campbell, 1998). Mostly, though, the concern of educators has been more on how we are going to employ recordings than research on how they already use them. Market research is also usually entirely instrumental: undertaken more to increase market share than to understand the way music is used.


Stories About Personally Significant Recordings

Before I go any further, please stop reading and turn your thoughts inward for a minute. Think about your own experiences with audio recordings. Was there any recording in your past that had a significant influence on your later life—a recording you might point to and say it "changed your life?" I don't mean the favorite dance song of an old flame, but something you would describe as more profound.

I am asked that because for 12 years I was director of Smithsonian Folkways recordings at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Folkways Records was an independent record company founded in New York City by Moses Asch in 1948. When it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 it had a catalogue of 2,168 titles in print, including the music of many genres, many countries, and particular strength in "unpopular" recordings—recordings issued for reasons other than sales alone. The Folkways recordings had been published as long as forty years previously, and were all carefully kept in print during that time. This gave them a long time to influence people—in fact to influence generations of listeners. Like Moses Asch, I considered myself a music educator—my job as curator was to spread those recordings as widely as possible in order to spark listeners' interests or satisfy their curiosity. Like Asch, I considered Folkways to be a vehicle for the education of people of all ages in all places.

The Folkways staff was very small—for a long time there were just a few of us—and I heard most of the complaints, compliments, and personal experience stories that came in over the years. These arrived by mail, by e-mail, by telephone, and in personal conversations wherever I went.

I discovered the existence of a whole genre of stories that might be called "My Influential Folkways Record." People would tell me about a certain Folkways recording they could remember and how important it was to them. They would usually describe how they happened to acquire it. They often would say, "I never imagined such a thing existed." Then they would go on to tell me more about the music or sound. Often their descriptions included the phrase "and it changed my life." Some of these stories came from well-known musicians—Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Mickey Hart all remember such recordings. Most of the stories came from people I had never heard of, but whose lives had been equally affected.

Some people wrote about their experiences. From the author Jon Pankake: "In the case of my own questing youth, my discovery of the Anthology [of American Folk Music] at the age of twenty-one quite literally changed the course of my life" (Pankake 1997: 26).

My e-mail files at the Smithsonian were erased in a change of platform, but one of my assistants filed some of the query letters we received. Here are a few:

From Denver, Colorado: "I would like your assistance in locating and purchasing an old LP record. Mormon Pioneers is the title.… I know it existed because I had a copy, probably about 30 years old."

From Garland, Texas: "I have been searching for years for a particular recording of American Revolution era songs….. Song titles I recall are: To Anacreon in Heaven, The Women All Tell Me…."

These stories of an important recording in the person's life sometimes passed directly into another genre of recorded sound story that I also found to be extremely widespread. This is the genre of "How I Lost My Folkways Recording." People would tell me that they lost their treasured recordings to fire, or divorce, or in a flood, or a sudden move. Here is an example:

From St. Louis, Missouri: "Some time ago a number of my records were stolen from my car. I have been able to track down copies of some of them, but two of my most cherished records, both Folkways, have proven impossible to find…. I would give anything to have them back in their original format again….I realize this may sound a bit unusual to you, but I am really quite serious about it; those records were incredibly special to me. The two in question are: The Music of New Orleans: Music of the Dance Halls; and The Music of New Orleans volume 5: New Orleans Jazz—the Flowering."

These stories of loss were often followed by my revelation that every single Folkways recording ever released was still in print and available directly from the Smithsonian so they could retrieve their past, replace their lost recording, and do so assured that artists would receive royalties and my staff would get paid. But before I got to that point in the conversation, the vivid impact that these recordings had on people was always forcefully brought home to me.

Another important group of stories recounted that hearing the recording "made me want to play the music." This is one of the most significant groups to me, because that is precisely what we as music educators hope people want to do—becoming self-motivated scholars and learning to play the music are two things some listeners resolved to do after hearing recordings. Some of the recordings influenced scholars: Marina Roseman, who has published books and recordings of the Temiar of Malaysia, became interested in the Temiar through an old Folkways recording of their music (Roseman, personal communication).

Peter Stampfel (a member of the Fugs and many other groups) wrote of the Anthology of American Folk Music: "Hearing all these people for the very first time, it was as if a veil was lifted…. 'That's what I was born to do,' I thought. 'Play and sing like those guys.'" (Stampfel 1997: 23).

Not all of the people who talked to me spoke only about the sounds of Folkways. A recording is more than sounds—it has a look, cover art, and liner notes. They often spoke about the look and feel of the package, which in the era of LP records was made of heavy black cardboard with simple two-color slicks glued to them and a heavy piece of cardboard inside separating the long play records from the liner notes—often a thick pamphlet of them. The Folkways look and the extensiveness of the enclosed notes were mentioned over and over again by people who recalled them, and also by the founder of Folkways, Moses Asch. He said he developed that heavy look because he wanted to show people that this was music to be taken seriously. It was important music. There was the look and feel of Folkways records that in itself had an impact on people. Sometimes, however, it was just the cover image that was remembered as in this letter:

From Middlesex, England: "I am looking for a Fred Gerlach recording. All I can remember is that on the record cover it portraited the strings of the guitar, and I believe the color was orange. So could you possibly let me know if it is still available?"


Important Recordings in the Seeger Family

Recordings had a great impact on my own family, too. Grandfather Charles Seeger recalled hearing the recording of Dock Boggs performing "Pretty Polly" at Thomas Hart Benton's house in the early 1930s. In one interview he mentions it twice. Dock Boggs only recorded twelve 78 RPM sides in the 1920s, yet they had an extraordinary impact.

After Charles Seeger married his second wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and moved to Washington, his own exposure to both recordings and live vernacular music was increased, as was that of his younger children. My uncle Pete Seeger went with his father Charles to a Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, where he heard his first five string banjo. Sometime after that Pete was hired by Alan Lomax to listen to recordings in the Library of Congress for a few months while the Lomaxes were working on one of their books. The influence of those recordings on Pete can be heard in his early LP Darling Corey where he pays homage to those influences and in turn influenced generations of banjo players. He adds some chords that reveal his earlier experience playing the tenor banjo in a high school band. Here is how Alan Lomax describes a piece from that recording in his 1950 liner notes: "Fly Around My Blue-eyed Girl, which Pete makes into a blue-sky-mountain-top-mockingbird-breaking-its-heart-stomp-down-good-un, is one of the many lovely tunes my father recorded from the Crockett Ward tribe of Galax, Virginia" (Lomax 1950: 14).

My uncle Mike Seeger and his sister Peggy Seeger (children of Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger) grew up listening to their mother playing copies of Library of Congress recordings over and over again in order to produce the meticulous transcriptions that were later published in the influential books, Our Singing Country, Treasury of Western Folklore, and American Folk Songs for Children. The influence of her transcription work on her own family was profound. Both Mike and Peggy went on to record some of the songs their mother transcribed. Their own versions of the "conversion stories" point back to listening to their mother play those Library of Congress field recordings—Mike remembers being allowed to sharpen the cactus needle styli that had to be resharpened after every few sides. Peggy recalls her mother's anguish over accurately transcribing the remarkable performances.

In 1963 Mike Seeger searched out Dock Boggs (the performer whom his father had heard in the 1930s), who was just starting to play the banjo again after about 25 years. Mike recorded hours of his banjo playing decades after his first recordings. These were first issued on Folkways in the 1960s and reissued on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1998. The reissued Dock Boggs recordings are now cited as life-changing recordings themselves by a younger generation for whom they are entirely new sounds. Here is a case where three generations of Seegers have interacted with the recordings of Dock Boggs: Charles Seeger was captivated by them in the 1930s, Mike Seeger recorded Dock Boggs later in life in the 1960s, and I reissued them as a special "two CDs for the price of one" package in order to encourage more people to listen to him in the 1990s.

Of course I, too, have my own radical conversion story. I have my own "it changed my life" recording. I had grown up with Folkways Records as a child, and would get them from my relatives for Christmas. But the record I point to is a recording of an Indian raga played on shenai and tabla on a Folkways recording of Indian music I bought as part of a project for my sixth grade class, which was studying the history of India. I decided to write my project paper on the music of India and found the Folkways recording Classical and Folk Music of India (4409/4411). While most of the music did not make much of an impression, I became absolutely enchanted with the sound of the shenai—its microtones, its glides, and the way it interacted with the drone and with the tabla. I played that track so often that my mother referred to it as her Chinese water-torture music. (I later found that this motif appeared often in the radical conversion stories: the reactions of a person's parents are a powerful part of the value and meaning they place on music.)

My world music education continued in grade school. In eighth-grade I bought a double long play record set, Africa South of the Sahara, with notes by Alan Merriam and wrote a paper about the music. In the ninth grade, while studying Japan, I purchased another Folkways record and also found a book by William P. Malm on the music of Japan—my first ethnomusicology book—and wrote about that.

I have a story of loss, too. Some of my favorite recordings were lost when I stored them in my parents' horse barn. The horses knocked over the cases to get at some hay and trampled them—not just the Indian raga, but also some Vivaldi I was moved by. Like so many others, I purchased some of my favorites again; others—because I ran the label—I reissued on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings with new liner notes as commercially distributed CDs because I had liked them so much and was certain others would as well.

People are not only affected by recordings in their youth.1 Recordings influence adults' lives as well. One woman, writing after she had purchased a recording of the music of the Jamaican Maroons, wrote that she had never known about the roots of her culture or paid any attention to the music of the place that she had come from until she heard this recording. Now suddenly she felt that she did have roots, and was moved enough to write me about it and to thank Folkways. Certainly recordings can tell people about their cultural roots. In fact a great deal of music is performed, consumed, and passed on because of its association with membership in some particular group.

Some people recounted even more dramatic stories. One day I received an e-mail from a pastor in Sweden. He wrote he had been very depressed recently, discouraged about his life and his faith. Then he happened to come upon the four CD set of American Gospel music Wade in the Water (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 40075). He reported that this set moved him so deeply that it probably saved his life. I thanked him for his e-mail and sent it to the small Folkways staff, saying that while we were not in the business of saving lives, it was interesting that the music that we were producing seemed in some cases to do just that. (I added that we should not let this go to our heads, since we probably never heard from the listeners who became so depressed after listening to a Folkways recording that they ended their lives on the spot.)


Implications for Music Educators

What I am trying to do with these anecdotes is impress upon you that recordings are not just commodities, but that they are also endowed by consumers with profound significance. Like other objects, they are parts of networks of social relations and they can be one of the ways such networks are created and maintained. Recordings also acquire some of their meanings through the social contexts in which they are played. Many people told me about the music that their parents played in the house—and what they played that their parents didn't like. One doesn't need a grandmother singing old ballads in the house to pass on a tradition—traditions are passed on by mothers playing Peter, Paul and Mary, Dock Boggs, Mariachi music, the Beatles, John Cage or Beethoven.

Recordings can also be gateways from the past to the future. They can nourish an existing musical tradition, or contribute to the creation of an entirely new one. In order to learn traditions that have not been performed in a long time, musicians and members of communities often turn to archives and music libraries to recover musical traits that would otherwise be completely lost. Recordings have become a standard part of cultural transmission in many places.

What does all this suggest to us as music educators? I see at least six important implications of my comments up to now:

First, we need to recognize the impact that recorded sound can have on the lives of students we teach, the general public, and entire communities.

Second, we should continue to put effort into disseminating music, creating recordings that are attractive, educational, and above all moving. But to be effective, recordings should contain ways to move beyond them—for example liner notes, bibliographies, discographies, and links to pertinent websites. Our purpose should be to start people on their own journeys, and to give them the resources they need to begin them.

Third, my review of the significance of recordings to people suggests that if we want to understand what music does for people we need to look not only at live performances, but also at the effect of recorded sound on people of all ages in our own culture and in other cultures.2

Fourth, we need to be vigilant about library acquisitions, and disseminate information about available recordings to the student body. Why not have listening kiosks with new releases at the entrance to the library? Why do we only have new books displayed, rather than giving library patrons an opportunity to explore sound recordings that they never expected to listen to? We must ensure that our collections contain a considerable variety of recorded sound, since people are moved unexpectedly. We should create broad listening assignments that expose our students to as many kinds of music as possible.

Fifth, we should do more research on how recorded sound is used in the social contexts where music was transmitted before recorded sound was available. Family environments, schools, workplaces, military training, and shopping areas all use recorded sound and all provide opportunities for profound musical experiences. I think we are not using these to the full potential partly because we don't understand them.

Sixth, we need to support audiovisual archives that are trying to collect, preserve, and disseminate recordings. This is a difficult task, because all recordings are fairly fragile and temporary media compared to high quality paper and ink. Often people look backward to find the roots that will nourish their new directions, and archives are a place where recordings can be found long after they have disappeared from store shelves and been deaccessioned as out-of-date formats by libraries.

Will the Internet render our work unnecessary? I doubt it. The Internet certainly has done a great deal to broaden people's musical tastes by allowing them to explore many different kinds of music in a very quick and effective way. The great danger I see in downloading of music from commercial sites is that the same large companies will dominate the distribution and small companies like Folkways or Indian House Records will be as hard to find as they ever were. I also fear that the focus will be on sounds only, and not on the contextualization provided by liner notes, photographs, and guides to other forms of personal experience with the music.

Actually, we don't need record companies to expose others to recorded sounds. I am particularly fond of two projects I undertook as Curator of the Folkways Collection. One was a collaboration with the Boston Children's Museum. Each bathroom was wired for sound, and tape machines playing different recordings were installed on each floor. On the wall of the bathroom was a sign describing the sounds being played. One read "You are listening to the sounds of Swedish fiddling. In Sweden, children learn how to play the fiddle at a very early age." Above the text was a photograph of an old gray-bearded man teaching a child to fiddle. The sign went on to say: "If you want to hear another sound, go play in another bathroom." Since almost all children visit bathrooms while at museums, and since bathrooms provide very good acoustically isolated spaces where sounds do not "bleed" into exhibit areas, this experiment exposed children to music they did not expect to hear. If they wanted to purchase the entire recording that they heard a minute of in the bathroom, they could do so in the gift shop. The museum staff found that instrumental music worked better than song and spoken word, which interfered with the interaction of parents and children in the bathroom.

The other project I enjoyed was a collaboration with a software company, Brøderbund, the makers of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. They approached me for sound to go with the first CD-ROM version of the game, and I was delighted to work with them. As children chased a spy around the world they had to fly from country to country in an airplane while the software for the next part loaded into the system. In the CD-ROM version they listened to music from the country they were flying to as the software loaded. These excerpts were all from Folkways recordings, and they could be accessed in the supplemental database and played alone, without the game. The same area provided information about each recording, and a single button would produce an order form for the full recording in case children wanted to explore the sound further. What I particularly liked about this way of discovering music was that children did not need to go to a record store and they were not told what to listen to. Instead, they were discovering it for themselves.

I see a continuing role for music educators, companies that disseminate sounds, reviewers, and popularizers of music in bringing new sounds to people that may in fact someday change those people's lives and may move them to create a music new to them. By encouraging this process we may change the course of music in the 21st century in ways we never expected, by moving people we have never met and never taught, but who may someday write to the source of the music saying "this music changed my life."


References Cited:

Campbell, Pat Shehan 1998. Songs In Their Heads: Music and its Meaning in Children's Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lomax, Alan 1950. Liner notes to Pete Seeger, Darling Corey. Reissued in 1993 as SFW 40018 with the original liner notes and new notes by Anthony Seeger. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD 1993.

Pankake, Jon 1987. Liner notes to The Anthology of American Folk Music. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW 90090.

Stampfel, Peter 1987. Liner notes to The Anthology of American Folk Music. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW 90090.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings entire catalogue can be found at

1When I recently polled a UCLA ethnomusicology class, I found that about 30% of them said they were profoundly influenced by a recording at around the age 5, another 30% between 12 and 14, another 20% in the past few years (18-21), and 20% could not point to a specific recording.

2During my research with the Suyá Indians in Brazil, I made surveys of the recordings they had acquired, and discussed these with them in an effort to understand how they were using recordings. Similar research from other parts of the world could be very interesting.

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