Alice Cunningham Fletcher, anthropologist and ethnologist, is most known for her work with Native American groups and her early field recordings of Native American culture. However, this blog will focus another aspect of Fletcher’s fieldwork, a small group of rare and invaluable recordings of traditional Korean music, which she made on July 24, 1896. These cylinders contain the earliest known recordings of Korean music in the world, and predate the next documented recording of Korean song by 11 years. Specifically, they contain songs sung by Korean students whose names are often transliterated today as Ahn Jeong-sik, Lee Hee-Cheol and Son Rong.
Listen to the one of these recordings “Introductory Song for Dang-ga” in the player below:
Listen to another selection, “Blooming Plum Tree Song,” in the player below:
The winding story of how these cylinders came to be is best recounted in a webcast lecture by Dr. Robert Provine, now Professor Emeritus of the University of Maryland, College Park, School of Music. In his 2009 lecture, “Revolutionaries, Nursery Rhymes, and Edison Wax Cylinders: The Remarkable Tale of the Earliest Korean Sound Recordings,” Provine outlines the historical context that led to this recording session, including Fletcher’s role as president of the Women’s Anthropological Society of America.
The lecture is worth a viewing, as it describes a tale of international diplomacy, an 1884 failed coup d’état in Korea, an escape by political dissidents to the United States after the pressure to be removed from Japan, and the friendships and professional acquaintances that led these Korean students and diplomats to Fletcher’s doorstep. An interesting footnote was that the students in these recordings, not related to the coup d’état, were studying in Japan before taking off to Canada and ending up at Howard University in Washington, DC, when their funds ran out. That’s a lot of intrigue for a few lullabies and traditional songs! In Provine’s words: “The recordings would never have occurred were it not for a remarkable set of circumstances created unintentionally by a combination of extraordinary people, all intending to do, and still famous for, quite different things.”
Take the time to watch and listen to Dr. Provine’s lecture, held in the Library of Congress on January 27, 2009 (AFC 2009/003) below:
Interestingly, Fletcher’s home, where the recordings were created, stood just steps away from where the American Folklife Center is now. Visitors to the Center can take a quick stroll to view this site, at what was once 214 First St. SE, if they so wish. While the house no longer exists, the Library’s Madison Building is built on the land where it once stood. Below is a 1959 photograph of the house, from the Historic American Buildings Survey Collection housed in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. You can also compare a current map of the neighborhood to the 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from the Geography and Map Division, which I’ll provide below.
Listen to the last two selections, “Catching the Swallows” and “About the Moon” in the players below, while you see if you can find Fletcher’s home, 214 First St. SE, on the Sanborn Fire Insurance map:
For Fletcher, the Korean cylinders were just a brief but fascinating incident in a long career. Born in Havana in 1838, and raised in New York, Fletcher began her studies under the guidance of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum director, Frederick W. Putnam. Fletcher traveled throughout the United States, creating documentation of Omaha traditions, as well as those of Pawnee, Sioux, and Chippewa communities, among others. Fletcher is considered a pioneer in fieldwork, whose numerous publications and collections are held here in the Library and American Folklife Center. These collections include the Alice C. Fletcher and Francis La Flesche collection of Omaha cylinder recordings (AFC 1948/123), which are part of the larger Omaha Indian Music Online Presentation, and the Alice C. Fletcher Collection of Plains Indian Cylinder Recordings (1948/157), to name a few. Fletcher later worked as well on behalf of these communities and was asked to administer settlements for land-allotment programs on several reservations.
The American Folklife Center’s Archive is home to the largest collection of ethnographic wax cylinder recordings in the world. The Federal Cylinder Project was created in 1977 by the Center to document, preserve, and disseminate the recordings held on these wax cylinders, whose dates of creation range from 1890 through the 1930s. While the majority of the cylinders are Native American, small collections like Fletcher’s Korean recordings testify to the historical significance of AFC’s cylinder collections to diverse communities all over the world.
Note: An earlier version of this blog listed an incorrect affiliation for Dr. Provine.