Early Ethnographic Recordings in the Pacific Northwest

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The work of noted UW anthropologist Melville Jacobs in the 1920s and 30s to make audio recordings of the music of Native Americans in the Northwest proves, once again, that necessity is the mother of invention.

Jacobs' primary focus was on Native languages and cultures, especially those of western Oregon and eastern Washington. But he also carried out a major effort to record and collect Northwest Native musical traditions, developing his own equipment for the purpose. Jacobs collected and documented more recordings than perhaps any other fieldworker in the region.footnote 1

[Mel Jacobs recording native sounds] Mel Jacobs

Beginning in 1929, he used small Edison phonograph wax cylinders to record songs and some speech. Those cylinders had a recording time of 3 to 4 minutes. Later, he used the larger Ediphone cylinders, which gave from 8 to 9 minutes of recording time; and finally, he used the RCA Victor pre-grooved phonograph records on which he could record using a portable electric phonograph that he had constructed especially for this research.

Jacobs had received a grant in 1933 from the National Research Council's Grants-in-Aid program for the construction of the portable recorder. It was built with the help of Philip A. Jacobsen of the UW general engineering department and his assistant Orin Johnston. The portable phonograph ran on 6-volt automobile batteries, and provided 5 to 6 minutes total recording time using the disc's two sides. The equipment is now preserved in the Burke Museum on the UW campus.

In total, Jacobs recorded 105 wax cylinders and 80 acetate and aluminum discs, containing a total of 524 songs of different types. Besides providing better fidelity, the acetate and the longer-playing aluminum records provided a way to preserve the data for other scientists to study. In the 1950s, the recordings were copied onto magnetic tape, preserving the sounds of a wide range of largely extinct languages.footnote 2

  1. "Melville Jacobs: Early Ethnographic Recordings in the Northwest," William R. Seaburg, University of Washington.
  2. "Melville Jacobs (1902-1971)," Laurence C. Thompson, American Anthropologist, 80, 640 (1978).

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