- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

“I might be the most recorded person in the world,” speculates Mickey Hart, longtime drummer-percussionist with Ur jam band the Dead, who gave fan-based file-sharing their blessing long before anyone ever heard the phrase.

Before there was Napster, before there was Kazaa, before there were portable MP3 players, there were Deadheads, armed with “taper tickets” and analog recording machines, gathered for each show in a thicket of tall microphone stands near the soundboard.

They “file-shared” in the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s the old-fashioned way — by hand or by snail mail. They bartered in the currency of traded tapes, T-shirts, baked goods or, ahem, substances that may get one good and baked.

Nearly every show Mr. Hart has ever played with the Dead has been recorded unofficially for posterity. Almost every set list, too, has been cataloged, complete with online indexes that fans can cross-reference.

The tapers are still around, of course, as they were last week when the Dead — the “Grateful” having been dropped in deference to the passing of guitarist Jerry Garcia — and its nomadic tribe of fans rolled through the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.

Nowadays, though, Dead tapers are more likely to use lightweight digital tape recorders, converting their audible booty into MP3 files that pass from hard drive to hard drive, rather than from a multigeneration tape source.

Cassette recordings of Dead performances may be outdated commodities, but the basic philosophy remains: Record music, share it, preserve it.

And, because technology is making it so easy, do it quickly.

Through www.dead.net, the band is offering fans digitally mastered soundboard recordings of every show this summer, almost all of which are already on sale.

It’s a process that has long fascinated Mr. Hart, who this month put out a book called “Songcatchers: In Search of the World’s Music,” an illustrated history of the comparatively recent advent of recording technology and a call for world music preservation.

Published by National Geographic and co-written with travel writer K.M. Kostyal, who lives in Alexandria, “Songcatchers” traces the history of recorded music to its dusty roots of social anthropology and ethnography — to “warriors of sound” such as Alan Lomax, Jesse Fewkes, John Wesley Powell and Frances Densmore, all of whom traveled the globe to capture the aural history of the world’s multifarious tribes, clans and subcultures.

The sound-warrior tradition “leads right up to the Grateful Dead tapers and file-sharing,” Mr. Hart suggests from a hotel room in Virginia Beach. “It gives them a sense of belonging.”

Mr. Hart, still an unabashed hippie and no fan of Republicans, has found an unexpected ally in Librarian of Congress James Billington, an appointee from the first Bush administration who has vowed to completely digitize the library’s vast archive of sound recordings.

Mr. Billington is a “great visionary,” says Mr. Hart, a trustee of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center who’s frequently in town lobbying lawmakers on funding music preservation.

“It would be a digital Alexandria,” he continues — referring to the Roman Empire’s cultural center in ancient Egypt.

“We’re raising money to digitize and preserve these recordings as fast as possible and make them accessible,” says Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center.

The Save Our Sound project, the first “intangible heritage” initiative to receive grants under the federally funded Save America’s Treasures program, has digitized recordings of ex-slaves relating their narratives, original wax cylinder recordings of American Indian music and other decaying sound rarities in the library’s archives, Ms. Bulger says.

Mr. Hart’s stake in music preservation stems not only from his own dabblings in world music — namely, his 1991 Grammy-winning solo project, “Planet Drum,” and nightly improvisational jams with Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann — but from his second career as a “songcatcher.”

Through the years, Mr. Hart has recorded Balinese gamelan music, classical Japanese taiko drumming, Latvian choral music, American Indian drumming and singing, shamanic music from the Arctic and the chanting of Buddhist monks.

In conjunction with the Folklife Center, he also has produced six CDs for Rykodisc’s Endangered Music Project and, according to Ms. Bulger, two more are in the works.

“This is our DNA in sound,” Mr. Hart explains. “These are culminations of thousands of years of a culture’s history: a repository of hopes and dreams.”

The drummer and part-time recordist feels he owes a debt to such predecessors as the late Mr. Lomax, whose field recordings of rural American blues ultimately spawned urban electric blues and, later, modern rock music.

“When you start as a musician, you base your knowledge on a body of work that preceded you,” he says. “If those musicians weren’t recorded” — speaking of such musicians as Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton and others — “there would be no Grateful Dead, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones.”

More than 30 years into its career, the Dead, perhaps best known for its psychedelic space jamming, still draws extensively from the blues and other black American musical traditions.

At Merriweather, the band turned out covers of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” “Not Fade Away,” a Buddy Holly hit based around the Bo Diddley beat, and “Big Boss Man,” originally performed by seminal Chicago bluesman Jimmy Reed.

Watching from the wings were Mr. Hart’s VIP guests from Capitol Hill — Mr. Billington and his wife, Marjorie, and Ms. Bulger.

“We had a wonderful time,” reports Ms. Bulger, who was a little surprised, given the Dead’s reputation for hard living, to see how well the band behaves backstage.

“Everything’s so clean-living,” she says. “It’s all Evian water and resting up.”

Resting up, that is, for a nearly three-hour, freewheeling bazaar of blues, R&B;, acid rock and, yes, world music.

For about 20 minutes of every Dead show, Mr. Hart gets to indulge his taste for non-Western rhythms during interludes that Deadheads call “Drums” and “Space.”

Mr. Hart leaves his drum kit and ambles to a veritable percussion cornucopia — a rack full of drums and cymbals, big and small, tinkling and booming.

“In his heart of hearts, he’s a folklorist and ethnomusicologist as well as a musician,” Ms. Bulger says. “He has really pushed the band to go in a world-music direction and incorporate other sounds.”

The very sounds that Mr. Hart wants to save from the erosion of time, corroding tape and cultural neglect.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide