The sound of things

By Hannah Martin, News staff

What did it sound like at the 37th Old Time Fiddler’s Convention in Union Grove, N.C.? Or during the breeding chorus of the Florida Gopher Frog? What about when the Iroquois at the Allegany Reservation sang alligator dance songs?
When Snell Library acquired the Smithsonian Folkways Archive in fall 2008, it gave students access to a limitless world of music, words and sounds ‘- including the alligator dance songs and fiddler’s convention ‘- exploring and preserving the roots of cultures worldwide.
The Smithsonian Global Sound archive is located under the link for music and video on the Northeastern Libraries homepage; it’s available to anyone with a student login and password.
In 1948, Moe Asch, born Moses, and Marian Distler set out to document the entire world of sound. They weren’t interested in what was popular, but rather in creating a soundscape that captured the raw essence of life, so that those sounds might be preserved for future generations.
In Asch’s lifetime, Folkways Records released 2,168 records ‘- a vast conglomerate of traditional, ethnic and contemporary music from around the world, as well as poetry, spoken word, instructional recordings and documentary recordings of individuals, communities, current events and natural sounds.
After his death in 1986, the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C., obtained Folkways Records from Asch’s estate, hoping to continue the legacy of archiving sounds and making Asch’s work available to future generations.
Thus, Smithsonian Global Sound was born.
Today every Folkways title, and more than 300 new recordings that have been released, are housed in this online archive where they are available for purchase.
The record label has also been nominated for two 2009 Grammy Awards, according to a report on
‘The Smithsonian Institution and Folkways Records have long been an important resource for a wide range of music ‘hellip; that explores the real sort of origin of music,’ said Debra Mandel, head of the Media Center at Northeastern University Libraries.
Mandel said for the past two years, the library’s administration has been interested in adding the archive to their electronic database, but they were waiting on some funding to come through before acquiring access this fall.
‘What’s wonderful about this collection is that it can be used with all different disciplines ‘- sociology, language, history. It’s really multidisciplinary in nature,’ Mandel said. ‘I think it opens students up to a whole world of resources. They might not think about using music in relation to certain research they’re doing, but it certainly adds a whole other dimension.’
Within the site, students and faculty can search music or sounds of any kind and listen for free. There is information available about the albums, and the program even allows users to create their own playlist.
Mandel said obtaining archives like Smithsonian Global Sound is another fruit of the digital revolution.
‘We don’t order as many CDs as we used to,’ she said. ‘We still will, but over time, we hope to add as many audio and video resources as we can afford, because you can listen to these in the classroom, you can listen to them at home.’
Mandel, who calls her appreciation of music a ‘lifelong love affair,’ said she primarily hopes students will value the quality of the music at their fingertips and understand the labor that went into documenting such a vast array of songs and sound.
‘All of this music has been transferred probably from vinyl to cassette to CD ‘- it’s gone through all these different stages to get where it’s gotten, and hopefully people realize the value of this modern form.’
Associate Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Industry Leon Janikian, who specializes in folkloric and ethnic music, has recorded a number of Greek and Armenian albums with Monitor Records. These albums have been placed in the Folkways archives.
‘This business is much larger than the music you like’ ‘- Janikan’s self-proclaimed motto. ‘Any music is important to record.’
Janikian said that when you play music someone else has written, you can hardly grasp the reality of how it sounded when they played it first. He also raises the question of what happens when they’re gone.
‘What did Beethoven sound like playing the piano? We don’t know. But we do know what George Armaos sounded like singing his Greek song, because I recorded him,’ he said.
Janikian said the Folkways archive is a wonderful resource not only for the university but for the nation, because it documents that which would otherwise be lost with time.
‘We have already documented what we hear on the radio,’ he said. ‘I mean, this is music that, when the people who play that music are gone, the music is gone, unless someone takes the effort to document it or store it some way. Music is capricious ‘- it disappears.’
Janikian said he encourages students to use this resource and diversify their listening experiences.
‘I’m not saying they’re going to sit down and like everything, but they need to be exposed to it, it’s all part of being an educated person,’ he said.
Professor of American History William Fowler said the archive holds a huge historical significance, working as a cultural mural or soundtrack that enriches our understanding of the past. He particularly noted the archive’s ability to hold onto aspects of our culture that might have otherwise slipped away.

‘People singing in their kitchens, people singing around a campfire, people singing while they’re working ‘- those are precisely the kinds of historical records that get lost, but that are so much part of our culture.’
Fowler mused about all the things he might have liked to see documented.
‘What kinds of songs were they singing in Rome? Could we hear them? We hear about the Greek chorus, but no one’s ever heard a Greek chorus. I’d love to be able to hear those people, or see them,’ he said.
Fowler said so often students ask him, ‘What did they sound like? What did Thomas Jefferson sound like? Or John Adams, or George Washington?’
His response:’ ‘I don’t know, I don’t have any idea and I would love to know that ‘hellip; and this is a great way now to save the past going into the future. We can only regret what we haven’t saved from 200 years ago.’
Sophomore international affairs major Sarah Sheffer said although she only recently heard of the Smithsonian Folkways archive, she’ thinks it will be a valuable resource to her, particularly because of her history minor.
‘The way that we’ve grown up and the way that we’ve learned has been so audio and visually enhanced that this will give future generations, who will be more attached to these aids, a chance to experience the history we’re making now and the history we’ve made in years past,’ she said.
Sheffer said the resource gives students the ability to branch from mainstream media and broaden their horizons both historically and culturally.
‘It will give us those glimpses into history that historians now are trying to go back and recreate,’ she said.
Elias Bouquillon, a 2008 Northeastern graduate, said exposure to Smithsonian Folkways inspired him to follow in the footsteps of Moe Asch, with a life of archiving.
Bouquillon has recorded things like the street in front of his house in the middle of a snowstorm and his grandmother talking about his grandfather who passed away.
For him, archiving is about understanding people, and preserving their sounds and stories.
‘My purpose on this planet is to identify people’s voices and give that back to them,’ he said.
The Folkways archives can serve as a helpful learning tool, Bouquillon said.
‘When you’re just reading something, you just have to imagine it. You’re being filtered by the perspective of the person who wrote it ‘- the people who are teaching it, telling you to focus on certain things,’ he said. ‘But if you just have the person talking who was the history you’re reading, you get a very honest perspective and it becomes a lot more real and connected to why you’re studying it.’
Bouquillon said another incentive for archiving is the fact that fame often hits late ‘- when someone becomes famous, Bouquillon wants to have archive of what they sounded like beforehand.
‘Bach died, nobody knowing who he was and he’s an essential part of our music history. You never know what the future is going to be and by collecting everything at least you’re giving everything a chance,’ he said. ‘Moses Asch really tapped into and harvested the American culture for a very long time and so I’d like to carry on that tradition because it aligns so much with my own life path.’

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