THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

51 posts categorized "Sound recording history"

20 July 2018

Mrs Boulton and the woodland warbler

Add comment

Have you ever noticed how some animals are named after people? Hume's Partridge. Lady Amherst's Pheasant. Waller's Starling. I come across this quite a lot when cataloguing new collections and have often wondered who these people were.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that these species were named after the naturalists who discovered them. Now, there are no rules that say you can't name a new species after yourself, however it's generally regarded as bad form in most taxonomic circles. Helps keep the egos in check etc.  It's perfectly acceptable to name a species after somebody else though. Most names are given as a declaration of admiration or love, however a few have been chosen out of spite. What better way to insult a critic or a rival than by naming a disagreeable specimen after them? Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was the king of the nomenclature slap down. Mess with Linnaeus and you could be sure that a smelly weed or a boring nettle would soon bear your name.

In this particular example we're going to look at Mrs Boulton's Woodland Warbler, Seicercus laurae. Now more commonly referred to as Laura's Woodland Warbler, this little songbird can be found in the dry forests and swamps of central Africa. The species was discovered in 1931 by the American ornithologist W. Rudyerd Boulton (1901-1983) who specialised in the avifauna of Africa. While assistant curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Boulton made several research trips to Africa accompanied by his first wife, the ethnomusicologist Laura Crayton Boulton (1899-1980). It was with Laura that he discovered this previously unknown warbler which he named in her honour.

Laura's Woodland Warbler, recorded at Mount Namba, Angola by Michael Mills (BL ref 163291) 

The Boultons continued to explore the ornithological and musical treasures of Africa until the mid 1930s when their marriage began to fall apart. The couple finally divorced in 1938 and, though Laura continued in the field of ethnomusicology, Rudyerd's professional life took an entirely different turn. In 1942 he joined the African branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency formed during World War Two, where his knowledge of the landscape, people and politics of central African countries was put to good use. In the same year he married his second wife, the socialite, poet and psychic Inez Cunningham Stark. Though mainly based out of Washington DC, Boulton was heavily involved with operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most notably the procurement of uranium ore for the Manhattan Project.

At the end of WWII, Boulton continued working in intelligence for several years, including a stint with the CIA, until, apparently at least, turning his back on espionage in 1958. A year later he created the charitable Atlantica Foundation with his third wife, the wealthy widow Louise Rehm. The remit of this foundation was broad but ambitious, aiming to establish and support research into zoology, ecology, fine arts and parapsychology. The couple based their operation out of Zimbabwe and were by all accounts generous supporters of research and education in the area until their deaths in 1974 (Louise) and 1983 (Rudyerd).

But what of the woman who inspired the name of our woodland warbler? Laura Boulton became a renowned field recordist, filmmaker and collector of traditional musical instruments from around the world. During her life she embarked on almost 30 recording expeditions throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, amassing tens of thousands of sound recordings, photos, films, books and instruments. She experienced first hand advancements in recording technology, beginning her career with an Edison phonograph before progressing to a disc cutting machine and eventually a portable reel to reel recorder. Her legacy can be found in various institutions across the United States, from the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University to the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. 

Boulton LP  One of Boulton's published collections of ethnographic field recordings (BL Shelfmark 1LP0247765)

When beginning my research I never imagined that two such colourful characters would be behind the name of this rather inconspicuous little warbler. Two years after the discovery of Laura's Woodland Warbler, Rudyerd was himself taxonomically immortalised by the American herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt, who named a new species of Namib day gecko, Rhoptropus boultoni, in his honour. And in case you're wondering, Schmidt must have liked Rudyerd. Rhoptropus boultoni is a pretty cute gecko.

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news. 

01 June 2018

The voice of Jack Johnson - heavyweight boxing champion of the world

Add comment

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

360px-Jack_Johnson_boxer_c1908Jack Johnson c.1908

The legendary Jack Johnson (1878-1946) is remembered as the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, a title he held from 1908 to 1915.  At a time when race relations were extremely volatile in the United States, Johnson caused a sensation not only by beating all white challengers in the ring, but by consorting with white women and marrying three of them.

Johnson was arrested in 1912 for violating the Mann Act, a 1910 Federal law criminalizing the transport of any girl or woman across the state line for ‘immoral purposes’.  He was convicted a year later by an all-white jury, sentenced to a year in prison, but fled the country for seven years before returning to serve his time in 1920. For some years, Mike Tyson and John McCain campaigned to get him pardoned and recognised as one of the United States greatest sports legends, but it was not until last week that President Donald Trump gave Johnson a posthumous pardon.

Burns-Johnson_boxing_contest _December_26th_1908_photographed_by_Charles_KerryFight with Tommy Burns 26th December 1908, Sydney, Australia

For those of us who have a fascination with the earliest recordings, Johnson’s heyday fortunately coincided with the invention and development of film and sound recording.  Because he was a superstar and his fights were so popular they were filmed as early as 1908 (albeit silent) to be shown at a later date to fee paying audiences in theatres.  Indeed, the fight that took place on Boxing Day 1908 in Sydney Australia where he gained the title is extant.  His status meant that record companies requested his services for discs of him speaking on training, his views on physical culture, and descriptions of his most famous fights.  The discs are rare today.  Indeed, only two of three parts of the recording he made for Columbia in the United States in 1910, My own story of the big fight, have turned up.

When Johnson visited England in October 1911 for a fight at Earl’s Court he also toured the music halls where crowds flocked to see him.  A film, preserved by the BFI, was taken of him visiting the Manchester docks and leaving the Regent Theatre in Salford.

Edison Bell Peckham-page-001Jack Johnson and wife Lucille at the Edison Bell Studio in Peckham (Sound Wave August 1914, BL collections)

Johnson defeated Frank Moran on 27th June 1914 at the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris then traveled to England to record for Edison Bell’s popular Winner label on the 30th June.  The two sides, titled Physical Culture, were recorded at their studio in Glengall Road, Peckham.  In his exemplary book Lost Sounds: Blacks and the birth of the recording industry 1890-1919, Tim Brooks devotes a chapter to Jackson and his handful of recordings and illustrates it with photos acquired from the British Library.  The main message of the lecture is that we should all drink more water – Johnson could hardly have imagined that a hundred years later nearly everyone could be seen with a plastic bottle of water in their hand or bag.

Disc labels-page-001Disc loaned by Mr Gray

The Edison Bell recording is also an extremely rare disc, but in 1993 a Mr Gray brought his copy of it to what was then the National Sound Archive for a dubbing to be made.  Mr Gray had found it in a junk shop in Edinburgh in 1986.  I remembered seeing this on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue and years ago discovered a photograph of the disc labels in a drawer at the Sound Archive’s previous premises in Exhibition Road.  Today, after a little searching, I have discovered that photo so the disc can be seen and heard again more than one hundred years after it was recorded.

 Physical Culture

Johnson’s career from the beginning of the twentieth century is documented for us in a way that is given to few from that period.  His was also an important chapter in social history, one still resonating today with the President’s pardon.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

04 May 2018

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 2)

Add comment

Eva del Rey and Paul Wilson, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

(Part two of a gallery of creative responses to the British Library sound collections by students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts).

Florence Macleod views the archive as a repository of memory and proposes a radically retro solution to preservation of the intangible in which sonic memories are encapsulated in pods and dispensed by vending machines! Nanami Otomo proposes a memory based approach to archiving, which uses visual cues to stimulate the recall of the sounds of the past and their relationship to those other senses which informed their creation. Chika Kusumahadi is concerned about the archive’s approach to selection and its insistence on valuing the extraordinary over the everyday. Brad Gilbert imagines an archive in which lyrics from different eras are collated onto cassette tapes to provide new analogue insights into our digital past. Adam Wright proposes a gallery installation in which high volume sounds warn the listener of the dangers of a world in which big data is increasingly being used to control people’s lives. Finally, Ethan Spain leaves conventional notions of sound archiving firmly on Earth and instead looks to the Universe as the ultimate repository of broadcast sound – and the distant scene of our first contact with other worlds.      

Florence Macleod_Memory Capsule Project

Florence Macleod - Memory Capsule Project 🔊

    This project is about archiving memories through the use of individual sound capsules that play when opened. The purpose of this archive is to make intangible memories physical and forever lasting. Access to making your own sound capsule would be global, with vending machines and memory cabinets located in major cities. The archive could be both personal as well as open-access with the option to deposit your sound capsule into a memory cabinet which opens to the public so that people can take the capsules home. Either way, you are creating an archive.

Nanami Otomo_Memory Snap

Nanami Otomo - Memory Snap 🔊

    A postcard-based archive, in which you can store sound and revisit nostalgic memories through audio-visual means. It aims to create an empathetic auditory communication between sender and receiver through the sharing of personal experience.  

7D0A195F-E245-4D32-82F5-6930A972A8EB

Chika Kusumahadi - The Everyday Archive 🔊

    ‘The Everyday Archive ‘is home to a collection of household sounds and sounds of other mundane activities which often go unnoticed. Capturing the sound of everyday life, the archive is an initiative to record the ordinary.

 

Brad Gilbert_Captivation of music

Brad Gilbert - Captivation of Music 🔊

    The idea behind my work, which took its initial inspiration from listening to music, was to capture moments and moods from periods of time by collating key excerpts of lyrics that stood out to the listener, and packaging them in cassette tapes. Through having these lyrics collated together we should see a narrative forming, giving us an insight into how someone may have felt in that particular moment.

ADAM WRIGHT - UTOPIA

     The company UTOPIA delivers perfect education, but, in attempting perfection, this education creates a dystopia.

    The sound and visuals are an artistic endeavour to raise awareness of the accumulation and use of data companies like Google and Facebook. The amount of information we idly allow these companies to access is something we should be more aware of and cautious with. Capturing this compliance, this project aims to challenge these themes through the uncomfortable sound of a server room. The sounds here are designed to rise and fall like waves. The second sound is designed using the server room sound, but combined with the sounds of a Quantum computer. When listened to on high volume it is a very uncomfortable experience, and sounds almost piercing.

    The aim is to make people think more about how dangerous this amount of data could be if not cared for properly. Juxtaposed with each other, the two sounds would be situated in an open gallery as a permanent free exhibition with the visuals projected onto a black sheet of plastic. They would also be available online as a comment on the permanent nature of our digital footprint.

Ethan Spain_Fermi Paradox Archive

Ethan Spain - Fermi Paradox Archive 🔊 

    Fermi’s Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations and the lack of contact with such civilizations.

    The Great Filter is the disturbing suggestion that there is some kind of absurdly difficult step in the evolution of life - one that precludes it from becoming interstellar.

    This sound piece explores the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter. Imagining that these hypotheses are fact, what if the only form of contact the human race ever has with extra-terrestrial civilizations is through the electromagnetic waves of each interfering with one another in the cosmos? The sounds consist of a number of broadcasted events that echo the human race's demise while gradually intensifying with sound wave interference.

With thanks to Abbie Vickress, Platform Leader, Environment and Experience Design, Central Saint Martins and Library colleagues: Vedita Ramdoss, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Listen; 140 Years of Recorded Sound and Cheryl Tipp, Curator, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

Go to part 1

Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound exhibition ends on Sunday 13th May.

You can follow us on  @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 1)

Add comment

Paul Wilson and Eva del Rey, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

Since 2016 the British Library sound archive has been hosting show-and-tell and listening sessions for students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts.

This year we offered the students a tour of our free exhibition Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound along with an introduction to the Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Guided by a brief from tutor Abbie Vickress, we hoped to inspire the students to develop projects in response to the sound archive collections. The brief asked students to reflect on the role of the archivist; on how sound is used in exhibitions; and how one might attempt to ‘archive the intangible’.

After two weeks of work the creative responses emerged in the form of one-minute sound pieces and video works with accompanying visual art, and one online performance. What follows is a mini-gallery of ten sound works and one video, each presented  with notes provided by the respective artists.

Michelle Lim draws inspiration from the exhibition’s display of historical recording devices and suggests that in our rush to digitise our sonic past we’re in danger of losing something equally precious – our tactile relationship with the physical world. Chang Liu and Julie-Anne Pugh both envisage therapeutic applications in which future ‘sound hospitals’ blend sound and memory to create bespoke treatments. Andrea Li seeks to preserve the endangered sounds of a once leisurely world, now being swept away in the headlong rush toward faster technology. Yuen Wai Virginia Ma and Alice Lin re-enact the ‘hit and miss’ nature of archival selection/survival, and its equally arbitrary neurological counterpart, the human brain.

Michelle Lim_The Archive of Tactile expression 

 

Michelle Lim - The Death of the Button 🔊

    The Archive of Tactile Expression exists in a future where our relationship with technology has become so intimate that it acts as our intermediary with the physical world. Everything has been virtualized, thus, we have forgotten how it feels to touch. Physical objects have been modelled and re-conceptualised into digital space. All of our motions have been reduced to the limited gestures between our fingertips and the screen.

    The Archive includes The Death of the Button - an audio-narration of the history of the push-button, an artifact that sits in the Archive. It narrates the push-button's transition from an object of wonderment in the 20th century to an intangible idea in an era of 21st-century touchscreens.  More from Michelle Lim

 

Chang Liu _ Sound Hospital

Chang Liu - Sound Hospital  🔊

    The ‘Sound Hospital’ is a place that archives coloured noises. Different coloured noises have different functions. For example, white noise can help people with concentration while pink noise can help people to sleep well….

    So, what I want to do is to provide an experience room for people in this hospital.

Julie-Anne Pugh_Music Remedies

Julie-Anne Pugh - Music Remedies: The Hangover Cure 🔊

    Music Remedies challenges modern attitudes toward well-being and the many new health trends we are adapting to, through an attempt to heal physical illnesses like hangovers without the need of painkillers.

    This 60-second sound piece is a sample of a longer composition designed to guide one out of the depths and into the light through a series of specific layered sounds.

Andrea Li_Obsolete interactions

Andrea Li - Obsolete Interactions  🔊

    ‘The Collection of Obsolete Interactions’ is one of the sound categories within the slow archive that showcases everyday forgotten ephemeral interactions that have become redundant due to developments in technology and the drive for consumers wanting things faster, stronger and better. These interactions relate to the entertainment, service and communication areas of consumers’ lives.

364F50E4-77D7-4F9C-A80F-EA84A98973BC

Yuen Wai Virginia Ma & Alice Lin - Brain as an Archive 🔊

    Brain as an Archive is a performance that shows our minds’ selective archives of memories, conversations and emotional baggage. The main objective of this project is to give authorship to the viewer in creating their own narrative. The sound of this piece is composed of a combined mix of different narratives.

Go to part 2

03 May 2018

The value of mixed media collections

Add comment

The sound archive is home to over 250,000 wildlife and environmental sound recordings. Over 100,000 of these document the vocalisations of birds, while the sounds of other animal groups, such as mammals and fish, along with a growing collection of soundscapes, make up the rest. The collection covers both terrestrial and aquatic life and represents biodiversity from all over the world. It’s an internationally important resource that is constantly evolving as new recordings are archived for posterity. In a way it can be seen as a living memory bank of the sounds of our planet. The collection doesn’t end there though. Alongside these recordings can sometimes be found other treasures that complement their sonic siblings.

Recording equipment can form an important addition to a sound collection, especially when linked to significant technological breakthroughs in sound recording history. The John Hooper collection  (WA 2009/018), for example, includes a number of early bat detectors and associated equipment, including the first commercially available portable detector, the Holgate Mk 4, which was used to create the first comprehensive collection of British bat recordings.

Cropped HolgateThe Holgate Mk 4 bat detector

Common Pipistrelles hunting at dusk along the river Thames, recorded by John Hooper (BL ref 00305)

Though his name is not as widely known as it should be, Hooper was a key figure in the early days of using sound to study bat biology and ecology in the UK. Through the painstaking analysis of his recordings, conducted using a homemade oscilloscope, Hooper revealed differences in ultrasonic calls that were species specific. These variations in frequency and structure meant that bats could finally be identified by sound alone, which is pretty handy when you're trying to monitor animals that prefer to fly around in the dark.

Hooper documented his analysis by taking photographs of the sound traces produced on his oscilloscope. These images were then annotated and kept in photo albums usually associated with holiday snaps or family memories. With a focus on London bats, his work also helped rebuild post-war distribution records across the capital, rediscovering at least 4 species which were previously thought to have died out. Hooper’s efforts are all the more incredible when you consider that he was only an “amateur”.  His work as an industrial chemist for British Petroleum paid the bills, yet it was an unwavering fascination with bats that became his life's passion.

IMG_0076John Hooper analysing bat recordings in his studio

Cropped photo albumCommon Pipistrelle ultrasonic calls visualised on Hooper's homemade oscilloscope 

John Hooper’s collection of recordings, bat detecting equipment, photographs and documentation was donated to the library in 2009. As well as its own intrinsic value as an historical and scientific resource, the collection also serves as a testament to the rich British tradition of the amateur naturalist and their priceless contributions to our understanding of the natural world. 

Another notable collection is that of EDH "Johnnie" Johnson (WA 2006/03), an ornithologist and sound recordist who spent over 30 years making recordings across Europe, north Africa and the Indian subcontinent. During his lifetime he formed part of several international expeditions to remote regions of the world, helping document the flora and fauna of these largely unexplored areas. Alongside Johnson's recordings can be found daily logs, slides, observational diagrams and hand drawn maps. The following illustration is just one example of Johnson's meticulous recording keeping.
IMG_0072Hand drawn map of Morocco's Jbel Grouz mountain indicating topography & species encountered during an excursion on 22nd January 1968

Johnson's field notes, amassed over the course of his many expeditions,  are both scientifically valuable and pleasingly anecdotal, as can be seen in this excerpt from a log describing a ringing expedition to Algeria in February 1968.

'Great Grey Shrikes (L. excubitor) were found to be common and noisy wherever there were palms. Numerous territorial disputes were constantly in progress and we often saw three birds together in such squabbles. We began to notice numbers of partly-eaten dates impaled on the spines of the lower parts of the palm fronds. At first we thought that they were the result of chance spiking when dates had fallen from above, but this was soon ruled out by the fact that the spikes were, in any case, mainly horizontal, or nearly so, and the dates were spiked very thoroughly, after the manner of a cocktail sausage. At one time we saw a single shrike carrying a date. The positions of the 'larders' coincided with the favourite perching sites of the birds, in the lower parts of the crown of palm trees.'

Items such as those accompanying Johnson's recordings can help contexualise a collection, providing clues which allow us to retrace the footsteps, and thereby the experiences, of recordists who are no longer here to tell their stories.

Wildlife sound recordists are almost always absent from their recordings. No words of encouragement or praise for their recording subjects are required in order to achieve the best results. Silence and stealth is the name of the game here.  The flip side of this is that, unless the recordings contain spoken announcements, we know very little about the recordists themselves, other than their names. That's where photographs come in. A number of photographs of EDH Johnson were found in his collection, including the fabulous example below. Being able to put a face to a name isn't a necessity, but it certainly helps bring a collection to life. 

EDHJohnson_WA0603_imageEDH Johnson recording in the field 

There can be no doubt that sound collections are just as valuable as any other collection type. Though so much can be learnt from the audio alone, other ephemera such as equipment, field notes, photographs and letters bring with them stories that can help curators, and subsequently researchers, gain greater insight into not just the history and methodology associated with field recording, but also the people who made these recordings in the first place. 

Follow @CherylTipp  for all the latest news on wildlife and environmental sounds at the British Library.

13 April 2018

Was this the first rock picture disc?

Add comment

Hallucinations-picture-disc
Just one month remains in which to visit our free Entrance Hall exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound. The exhibition invites visitors to engage with a wide selection of sounds from the archive, from the (very) late nineteenth century to the present day. Over seven hours of audio material is available in each of our specially-constructed listening 'pods'.

On display we have a number of historical and modern players plus various historically significant or eye-catching media formats, among them a number of number of historical and modern picture records.

When finalizing the exhibits and captions for the exhibition back in autumn 2017, we were confident that Curved Air's Airconditioning album of 1970 was the first modern picture disc. Somewhat embarrassingly however, this turns out not to be correct.

Although the Curved Air album was - as far as we are aware - the first rock picture disc to be issued in the UK, we have since become aware of a rock picture disc issued in Germany that clearly preceded it. 

The awkwardly-titled Off II - Hallucinations (Psychedelic Underground) , issued by Metronome in 1969, was a sampler of various Elektra label acts, most notably the Doors, Love and the MC5. It followed the previous year's Off, which showcased many of the same acts. 

The lavish but unwieldy packaging included an enormous poster, eight times the size of the cover. This was - rather impractically - firmly affixed to the gatefold sleeve. Notes on the contributors were printed on one side, with a nightmarish image of deathly-blue grasping hands - presumably an illustration of the grimmer variety of psychedelic experience -  spread across the other.

Metronome also manufactured the world's first '3-D' picture disc, which was the subject of a previous blog post towards the end of last year.

Whether this will be the the last word on the subject of the first rock picture disc remains to be seen. If you know of any other likely contenders to the title please do drop us a line.

Hallucinations-sleeve

Hallucinations-inner-sleeve

Hallucinations-poster

Hallucinations-poster-detail

28 February 2018

French picture discs from the 50s: the Saturne label

Add comment

DSC03498
Visitors to the British Library's current exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound can see on display some of the more visually appealing sound carriers in the collection, among them a selection of historical and modern picture discs. The exhibition is in the Entrance Hall until 13 May 2018 and is free to all.

The Library's sound archive is one of the largest in the world and contains many more picture records than we could possibly find room for in the exhibition. Here are a few of the more interesting items we had to leave out, all issued on the French Saturne label in the early 1950s - an eclectic mix including opera, traditional Jewish music, and documentary spoken word.

DSC03478

  DSC03481

DSC03482

DSC03494

DSC03501

Unfortunately, though the Saturne discs are very attractive visually, the sound is, in the words of audio engineer Tony Baldwin, 'truly awful' - something we have come to expect from picture discs of this era.

A note by Baldwin on the CD reissue of Henri Renaud's 'Complete Legendary Saturne Picture Discs' (Paris Jazz Corner PJC 222008, 2001) details just how difficult it was to create something listenable from these 'severely flawed' recordings, with one particular 15-second passage of music requiring 90 manual edits!

On a related note, this short (unenhanced) excerpt from one of the discs pictured above - 'Brumas (the Roly Polar Bear)' performed by Billy Ternent & his Orchestra - illustrates the level of surface noise present. Brumas, incidentally, was a polar bear cub born in Regent's Park Zoo, London, 27 November 1949, who had been attracting a great deal of media attention. 

Listen to Brumas (the Roly Polar Bear) - excerpt

20 February 2018

Percy Grainger's collection of ethnographic wax cylinders

Add comment

The British Library is pleased to make available online around 350 English folk songs recorded by composer Percy Grainger in different regions of England between 1906 and 1909. Thanks to the generous support of the National Folk Music Fund, these sound recordings have been catalogued and indexed by librarian, researcher and folklorist Steve Roud, author of Folk Song in England (Faber & Faber, 2017). Roud has also married them up with Grainger's transcriptions of the songs, where these exist, on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website, thanks to their digitisation of the Percy Grainger Manuscript Collection. Links have also been included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website to corresponding sound recordings featured on British Library Sounds. Listeners are able to hear the songs whilst following Grainger’s unique transcriptions of recordings by singers such as Joseph Taylor, Joseph Leaning, George Gouldthorpe, Charles Rosher, William Fishlock, Tom Roberts, Dean Robinson, and many more. All recordings have been catalogued to include Roud numbers (this number refers to songs listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index), Grainger’s Melody numbers, and the numerical references to the discs and wax cylinders these sound recordings existed on previously. 

Percy Grainger
Percy Aldridge Grainger, composing 'Lincolnshire Posy' at reed organ, 1937 (British Library reference: MS Mus. 1771/1/PR1301). Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of George Percy Grainger.

When the Gramophone Company released a small portion of Grainger’s recordings of English traditional folk songs on a commercial 78 rpm record in 1908, Grainger pointed out in the liner notes that “These records are not folksongs sung at second hand.” Perhaps he wanted us listeners to know that what we would hear on record was not only the voice of a folk singer, Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All-Saints, North Lincolnshire, but also the echoes of time: “the very men who have passed such songs down the centuries to us.” Grainger insisted on this fidelity whilst also acknowledging that folk singers were individual creators, capable of creatively impressing their personality on their versions of inherited tradition. He was able to capture and analyse the individuality of folk singers in England thanks to the novel phonograph technology and his musical transcriptions of these sound recordings, which were meticulously detailed. 

To celebrate the publication of these unique sound recordings and their interlinking with Grainger’s manuscripts, we asked Steve Roud to write a short article exploring the importance of these resources. In the following piece he also explores Grainger’s position in the English folk collecting scene as well as the nature of his collaboration, in the making of these sound recordings, with women such as Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes or Miss Eliza Wedgwood.

In correspondence files held at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, kindly made available to the project by Judith Gray from the The American Folklife Center, we find a letter from Grainger, from October 26, 1939, in which he says,

"I have the Edison Bell phonograph [cylinder machine] on which these records were made and can play them on this machine.  But there is a good deal of scratch (partly mould?) on these old records.  In copying them, can you get rid of part of this scratch by eliminating (filtering out) certain frequencies?  If your Music Division has facilities for making such copies from wax cylinders I would be happy to let your Division keep copies of all my folksong phonograph records if you would provide me with copies in return.  I could bring the phonograph (Edison Bell) and the wax cylinders to Washington (perhaps at the time I play with the National Symphony Orchestra in March?) or wherever needful."  

The digital copies of Grainger’s sound recordings now publicly available via British Library Sounds, were digitised from one of three existing sets of lacquer disc dubs of the contents of the original wax cylinders, made at the Library of Congress c. 1940. Whilst we could consider these digital versions ‘second hand sounds’ it’s also true that the different generations of carriers condensed into them have rendered unique the texture of the folksingers' voices who once ‘sang so sweetly’ to Grainger and his collaborators.

This project was realised thanks to the collaborative effort of many people in the sound archive and music department at the British Library; Steve Roud and Andrew Pace who catalogued and uploaded the sound recordings to the British Library’s catalogue and Sounds website; Judith Gray at the Library of Congress for making the Grainger correspondence accessible; Barry Ould of The International Percy Grainger Society in White Plains, NY, for granting us permission to use it; John Bird for contextualising these sound recordings within Grainger’s biography.

Liner notes
         Facsimile of HMV liner notes included in Leader release, 1972 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

Percy Grainger and English Folk Song by Steve Roud

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) was born, as George Percy Grainger, in Victoria, Australia, and first came to Europe to study music in Frankfurt in 1895. He settled in Britain in 1901, left for the USA in 1914, and lived there until his death, having taken American citizenship in 1918. In his time he was an extremely popular concert pianist, but is now chiefly remembered as the composer of over 400 classical pieces, many of which are still regularly played in the concert repertoire.

His 13-year period of residence in Britain coincided with the brief golden age of folk song collecting, which was the culmination of an interest in traditional music which had been building steadily during the late Victorian period. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, and the diarist Revd Francis Kilvert, for example, were both interested in seeking out songs in 1870, and by 1900, Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson, Marianne Mason, and W.A. Barrett had all published books of songs collected from ordinary people up and down the country. The Folk-Song Society (now subsumed in the English Folk Dance & Song Society) had been formed in 1899 to provide these enthusiasts with a network of contacts, and to further the cause of folk song collection, publication, and study.

It is not surprising that an up-and-coming young musician/composer like Grainger would catch the ‘folk song bug’, as the subject was very much in the air.

It was a lecture on folk song by Lucy Broadwood to the Royal Musical Association in March 1905 which prompted Grainger’s active involvement, and he accompanied her, and Frank Kidson, to the Musical Competition Festival, at Brigg, in Lincolnshire, which included a section devoted to Folk Song at which several local singers had been persuaded to perform. Grainger returned to Lincolnshire in July the following year to begin his fieldwork in earnest, and noted songs by hand, and was back again in 1907, armed with an Edison phonograph, the latest in sound technology.

Over the next three years, Grainger spent a total of 52 days in the field, and collected over 400 songs. About two-thirds of these were gathered in Lincolnshire, but he also made important forays into Gloucestershire, and a few other places. It is the wax cylinders made at this time which are now made freely available on the British Library’s Sounds website. Grainger was not the only collector to experiment with phonograph recording, but he quickly became convinced of its vital importance in the field of song gathering, and was its most vocal advocate, and he used it more than all the other English collectors put together.

Wax cylinders were not designed for long-term survival, so we are particularly fortunate that the originals survived long enough to be copied onto a more permanent format in 1940, and to still be available in the present day. Apart from a relatively small number of surviving cylinders recorded by other collectors - including Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood, amongst others, whose recordings also appear on British Library Sounds - Grainger’s recordings provide our only opportunity to hear what traditional singers from the Edwardian period really sounded like. Only one other collector made systematic sound-recordings in England before the Second World War; the American academic James Madison Carpenter, who collected in Britain between 1929 and 1935. His recordings are housed in the Library of Congress, and will very soon be available online through the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website. We had to wait until after 1950, and the invention of the portable tape-recorder, for sound-recording to become the normal way of collecting folk songs.

What was really ground-breaking about Percy Grainger’s approach was that he quickly realised that it was not just the songs and tunes which were remarkable and worth preserving, but also the highly skilled and creative way in which traditional singers performed a song. He became fascinated with the minute details of performance and set out to devise a way of representing the nuances of pitch, rhythm, accent and so on, which a skilled singer brought to each rendition of a song. This approach was only made possible by the availability of recorded sound - the ability to play an otherwise ephemeral performance over and over again, and even to slow it down to really understand what the naked ear could only fleetingly register. But neither Grainger nor the others who experimented with the new technology saw the phonograph cylinders as a way to preserve the singers’ voices for posterity, as we would today. In those early days, the recordings were regarded primarily as an aid to analysis and transcription, and it was still the paper copies of the tune and words which mattered.

His attempts to replicate on paper what he heard on the cylinder were too complex for any but the most experienced musician to understand. Again, we are fortunate that his written material has survived. He used a hectograph (sometimes spelled hektograph) - a primitive but effective way of duplicating pages - which enabled him to make several exact copies of his transcriptions. One set of these transcriptions is in the British Library, and another in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, which be seen on their website.

In 1908, he persuaded the Gramophone Company to bring one of his favourite Lincolnshire singers, Joseph Taylor, into their studio, and nine of his songs were issued commercially - again a first in our field, and decades before any other attempt to issue real traditional singing on record for public consumption.

Disc-0002_copy
                               His Master's Voice, 6-2238 (British Library reference: 9CS0028758)

Grainger failed to persuade other folk song collectors to follow him in his quest for more detailed investigation of singers’ performance, and nor did his radical re-thinking of the technical aspects of the music find favour with others in the field. He did no more collecting in Britain after 1909, and within five years he had left for America. But the heyday of folk song collecting in England was over anyway, and even if he had stayed it is unlikely he would have done much more fieldwork here.

Grainger published very little on folk song, although he continued to use the tunes in his compositions throughout his life. The 1908 volume of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society was dedicated to his work, which included two articles by him, ‘Collecting with the Phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of Personality in Traditional Singing’, along with his transcriptions of 26 songs. He also contributed an article to the Musical Quarterly in 1915, also listed in the bibliography at the end of this article. These tell us something of his thoughts on the subject, and along with his manuscripts, published letters, and several general biographies, we can get a pretty good idea of what made him tick. But in the folk song research world he remains a controversial figure and there is still much more to be learnt and said.

Without wanting to detract from the achievement of the great collectors of the Edwardian era, it is only fair to say that they often had significant help from other folk song enthusiasts, often women, whose contribution often remains unacknowledged and thus forgotten. All collectors faced similar problems if they were moving outside their own immediate circle and locality. How to find singers at a distance was a particularly knotty problem, and they were always concerned to arrange things to make the most efficient use of their limited time and resources. They needed someone on the ground who could find singers, organise trips, and arrange itineraries. These collaborators often provided a base of operations and a place to stay, and also wrote down the words while the visiting collector noted the tune. But most importantly, they had to be someone that the singers would trust and be comfortable with, even if they were normally shy of singing in front of strangers.

Grainger’s reliance on a not-very-portable, fragile and temperamental phonograph, which even needed a certain ambient temperature to ensure that the wax remained at the right consistency, meant that he required a highly static and controlled environment in which to operate. Not for him the bicycling round the country lanes collecting from road-workers and farm labourers met on the way, like Cecil Sharp did, or popping into cottages or rowdy pub sessions on the off-chance.

In Lincolnshire, it was Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes who provided the necessary local contacts and gave him a place to stay, and he was invited to Gloucestershire by Lady Elcho of Stanway. But the most important figure in Gloucestershire was Lady Elcho’s friend and neighbour, Miss Eliza Wedgwood (1859-1947), the last surviving granddaughter of the famous eighteenth-century master potter Josiah Wedgwood. For much of her long life, Miss Wedgwood lived at Charity Farm, Stanton, and was long remembered for her extremely active participation in village affairs and local philanthropy. She also had a wide circle of friends which included the painter John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, the novelists James Barrie and H.G. Wells, the ex-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (who leant his car for one of the collecting trips), members of the Guild of Handicraft, and many others involved in the cultural and artistic life of the region.

Grainger wrote in a letter (published in Kay Dreyfus’ volume of his correspondence):

“Miss Wedgwood who prepared the folk song ground for me was quite splendid. I am so certain of her gift for collecting that I hope to get her to collect in other places as well. Everything was faultlessly prepared for me. I phonographed without interruption all the days through.” (9 Apr 1908)

And it is clear from the evidence of the cylinder recordings themselves that Miss Wedgwood’s role was not simply administrative, because her voice is clearly heard telling the singers when to start, and it is clear she was actually operating the machine. Eliza also helped Cecil Sharp with contacts and local knowledge. For more on Eliza Wedgwood, see the article by Paul Burgess listed in the bibliography.

1LP0157546
                                 Leader Records, LEA 4050 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

A note on the numbering of the Grainger recordings

Several numbering systems exist within the Grainger collection, and they present quite a challenge to the cataloguer, and the user. The three main sequences are Cylinder number, Disc number, and Melody number, which are explained below. It is also helpful to distinguish Performances from Parts.

Grainger started collecting with pencil and paper, but in 1906 he acquired the phonograph which recorded onto wax cylinders, and from then on this was his preferred method of noting songs. Armed with the phonograph, he re-visited some of his early singers, and recorded them singing the same songs, and he subsequently transcribed these cylinder performances onto paper. He also made multiple recordings of some songs, so that the same song from any particular singer can appear more than once - on paper and on more than one cylinder. He documented these multiple recordings as ‘1st performance’, ‘2nd performance’, and so on.

Each cylinder has a number (1 - 216). Phonograph cylinders last a little over two minutes, so one cylinder can include several short songs (e.g. one verse from each), or the same short song sung more than once, or, most commonly, half of a longer song, with the rest of it continued, if we are lucky, on the next cylinder. The sections of these songs split onto different cylinders were designated ‘part 1’, ‘part 2’, etc. These numbers can be combined with the repeated renditions already described, so that we can get ‘1st performance, part 1’, ‘2nd performance, part 1’, and so on.

In 1940, the surviving cylinders were copied onto lacquer discs at the Library of Congress, and it is copies of these discs which were digitised to create the sound files offered on British Library Sounds. These discs also have numbers, and two sides, designated A and B. They can take up to five minutes of sound on each side, so the most common scenario here is for two cylinders to be dubbed onto each disc side. Occasionally the transfer from cylinder to disc did not go well, or, even more infrequently, the engineer made a mistake, so some tracks appear twice on the discs - usually with one track labelled ‘poor copy’ or ‘incomplete’, and the other ‘good copy’ or ‘complete’. We have not included these substandard transfers online when a better one exists.

When Grainger organised his collection, he assigned numbers to the songs. He gave the same number to all versions of a song from a particular singer, so that, for example, all versions of ‘Brigg Fair’ by Joseph Taylor are assigned the number 200. These are usually referred to as ‘Melody’ numbers, and are included in our catalogue, for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always as helpful as they might be. Grainger started re-organising, but never finished and some items were re-numbered, and others were left un-numbered.

025I-1LL0010255XX-AAZZA0
                                                Image of disc label (British Library reference: 1LL0010255)

The Library of Congress disc labels, shown above and included on British Library Sounds, show the disc and side number. They typically also show the titles of the songs, the name of the performer, and the year of recording, plus the relevant cylinder numbers, and Grainger’s melody numbers. The disc series starts at 12, because numbers 1-11 are assigned to his Danish recordings. Also included are dubs of the 78rpm records of Joseph Taylor’s singing issued by the Gramophone Company in 1908.

The best way to see a comprehensive listing of the whole English collection, organised by Grainger’s Melody number, is to consult Jane O’Brien’s published catalogue, Grainger English Folk Song Collection (University of Western Australia Music Dept., 1985).

Roud numbers

One more set of numbers appears in our catalogue entries, the ‘Roud number’. This number refers to songs as listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index (both available on www.vwml.org). Because folk songs can appear in many places (books, records, manuscripts, and so on), and because the same song can appear under a multitude of different titles, the Roud numbers are designed to help researchers find ‘other versions’ of a song. So, for example, all the versions of the song variously called ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’, ‘The Gipsy Laddie’, ‘Gypsy Davy’, ‘Seven Little Gipsies’ (and more than 50 other titles and spellings), are assigned the number Roud 1. By searching for ‘Roud 1’ in the Folk Song Index, the researcher can find all the available versions, including those now published on the British Library Sounds website.

Bibliography -

There has been a great deal written about Percy Grainger’s life and works, but the following references concentrate solely on his folk song collecting in England. For the Grainger items included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial (VWML) website, see: https://www.vwml.org/archives-catalogue/PG

By Grainger himself -

‘Collecting with the phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of personality in traditional music’, Journal of the Folk-Song Society 3 (1908) pp.163-169.

‘The Impress of personality in unwritten music’, Musical Quarterly 1:3 (Jul 1915) pp.416-435.

By others -

C.J. Bearman, ‘Percy Grainger, the Phonograph, and the Folk Song Society’, Music & Letters 84:3 (2003) pp.434-455.

John Bird, Percy Grainger (Rev. edn., Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

John Blacking, A Commonsense view of all music. Reflections on Percy Grainger’s contribution to ethnomusicology and music education (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Gwilym Davies, ‘Percy Grainger’s Folk Music Research in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire 1907-1909’, Folk Music Journal 6:3 (1992) pp.339-358.

Paul Burgess, ‘Eliza Wedgwood and folk song collecting in Gloucestershire’, in David Atkinson & Steve Roud (Eds.), Proceedings of the English Folk Dance & Song Society folk song conference 2013 (Camsco Music, 2015) pp.22-34.

Kay Dreyfus (Ed.), The Farthest north of humanness: The Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914 (Macmillan, 1985).

Graham Freeman, Percy Grainger: Sketch of a new aesthetic of folk music (unpub. PhD thesis, Dept. of Music, University of Toronto, 2008).

Graham Freeman, ‘It wants all the creases ironing out: Percy Grainger, the Folk Song Society, and the ideology of the archive’, Music & Letters 92:3 (2011) pp.410-436.

Note: Percy Grainger’s legacy is scattered across the world in various repositories such as the Grainger Museum (Melbourne, Australia); The Library of Congress (Washington D.C., U.S.A.); The Grainger House / International Percy Grainger Society (White Plains, NY, U.S.A.); The UK Grainger Society (Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland); the Royal Danish Library (Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark ) and the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh, Scotland). Aside from Grainger's unpublished sound recordings, the British Library also holds manuscript scores of Grainger’s original compositions and arrangements (Add MS 50867-50887 and Add MS 50823), and a collection of concert programmes relating to performances of his music (MS Mus. 1812). A collection of Grainger’s hectographs is now also available at MS Mus. 1772.