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A Spiral Way

How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography

Erika Brady

Publication Year: 1999

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.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Cover/Title Page/Copyright/Dedication

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

I intended this book to be in part about gaps and silences—gaps in the picture we have created of participants in early ethnography, and the ironic silence surrounding the early use of the talking machine in that work. Through the Federal Cylinder Project, I took part in the later years of that story; ...

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Introduction: "Fugitive Sound Waves," Fugitive Voices

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pp. 1-10

The imagination of Thomas Alva Edison was fertile but not fanciful. He was a forward-looking pragmatist. No sooner had he developed a working model for a talking machine than he was listing for entranced reporters the "illimitable possibilities" and "numerous probabilities" ...

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1. The Talking Machine: A Marvelous Inevitability

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pp. 11-26

Surprise, astonishment, awe, wonder: first reactions to the phonograph's voice describe a shock almost visceral in its intensity. Writing of his initial test of the invention, Thomas Alva Edison recalled his own amazement: "I was never so taken aback in my life!" (Read and Welch 1959:107-9). ...

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2. A Magic Speaking Object: Early Patterns of Response to the Phonograph

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pp. 27-51

Edison knew he had a blockbuster invention on his hands—a machine with literally unheard-of potential. Nothing, however, in his technical notes or subsequent promotional writings suggests that he reflected deeply on the radical challenge the device would make on the expectations and perceptions of those first exposed to it, ...

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3. Collectors and the Phonograph: "Save, Save the Lore!"

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pp. 52-88

Academics get short shrift in the popular imagination, seldom glamorized, often ridiculed. In this regard, ethnographers can boast an image better than most. At a party, or in casual chat with an airplane seat partner, confessing "anthropology" or "folklore" as one's profession at least elicits the murmur, "How interesting—just like Margaret Mead," ...

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4. Performers and the Phonograph: The Box That Got the Flourishes

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pp. 89-117

One of the lesser known fables of Aesop recounts a meeting between a man and a lion before a vast mural realistically depicting a triumphant hunter, his foot on the neck of the vanquished king of beasts. Concerned about his companion's reaction to the piece, the man turns inquiringly to the lion, ...

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5. A Spiral Way: Bringing the Voices Home

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pp. 118-126

The modest Capitol Hill row house where Running Scout recorded for Alice Fletcher was razed in the mid-1970s to make way for the James Madison Building, part of the Library of Congress-coincidentally, the very building that would eventually house her cylinder collections and those of her adopted Omaha son, Francis La Flesche. ...


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pp. 127-134


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pp. 135-148


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pp. 149-156

E-ISBN-13: 9781604737738
E-ISBN-10: 1578061741
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578061747

Publication Year: 1999