The Grateful Dead, now the Dead, has always been guided by an unstated principle when it comes to musical direction, or the lack thereof: No genre, whether rock, jazz, folk, blues, country, psychedelia or free-form jamming, is privileged over another. Everything goes into the mix. That approach, somehow, has always made good sonic sense.
So it's no surprise hearing the philosophy of Mickey Hart, the Dead's percussionist, regarding the relative value he assigns to the music of various cultures from around the globe. Every sound is sacred.
"All music deserves to be recorded as well as Grateful Dead music is recorded," Hart says in Songcatchers, cowritten with K.M. Kostyal (Trial By Ice: A Photobiography of Sir Ernest Shackleton). "Two thousand people in the middle of a rain forest should have the benefit of the same equipment, the same studios, and the same distribution system. This was all about discovering the world, but it was also about respect for other music and musicians."
Hart is referring to Voices of the Rainforest, a project he helped bring to fruition. After hearing a tape of the drumming and crying sounds of the Kaluli people of the Bosavi region of the Papua New Guinea highlands, the musician outfitted professor and researcher Steven Feld with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Feld returned to the rainforest in the summer of 1990, and the resultant sounds were mixed in Hart's studio and released on the indie label Rykodisc.
In 1978, on an adventure after the Dead's performance at the foot of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, Hart smoked hashish with Bedouins in the Sahara and recorded their music. Nearly a decade later, he arranged a session for a Tibetan monks, whose chanting used multiphonic vocalizing, an ability to sing three notes at once. Not long after that, the percussionist took considerable risks to document a concert by a gospel group, behind the bars of San Quentin; the subsequent album, He's All I Need, landed on the Billboard charts.
All three episodes are vividly recounted, in breezy, compelling fashion, with telling anecdotes and surprise twists - the monks and the hardened prisoners sang, prayed and chanted together one evening - in an eye-opening book that offers insights into why folks like Hart and his predecessors do what they do.
Hart, whose band has been the subject of notably rabid archiving by fans whose taping and swapping tapes "became a ritual of community," describes his songcatching zeal as stemming, in part, from what might be described as guilt.
"Keeping musics alive through preservation allows them to be repatriated to the cultures that originally created them," writes Hart, a member of the board of directors at Smithsonian Folkways. "And that goes some way toward balancing the ledgers for what was taken from these cultures during centuries of colonization, war, economic exploitation and missionizing."
Songcatchers, though, doesn't exclusively focus on the exploits of Hart, whose 1991 Planet Drum, a collaboration with Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto Moreira, Babatunde Olatunji and other percussionists from around the globe, won the first Grammy given in the category of best world music album.
Instead, the book traces the history of songcatching to its earliest practitioners, including Jesse Walter Fewkes, whose 1890 wax cylinder sonic documents of songs, chants and readings by Native Americans from the Passamaquoddy tribe were the first field recordings. Franz Boas used a phonograph to capture the sounds of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest; Hungarian composer Bela Bartok sought gypsy folk music; and John and Alan Lomax scoured the South, discovering folk singer Leadbelly along the way, with the younger Lomax responsible for the first recordings by blues genius Muddy Waters.
Hart and Kostyal lift the veil on a group of passionate music listeners, researchers, field recorders and collectors who, nearly to a person, experienced even longer, stranger trips than the members of the Dead. It makes for fascinating history.