Friday, June 30, 2017

Laura Boulton

“To capture, absorb, and bring back the world‘s music; not the music of the concert hall or the opera house, but the music of the people...."

The Mississippi Delta in July is not a place to be for one who has lived his life in the upper longitudes of the United States.  While it could be hot and humid at any time of year, in the summer one feels as if they are on the surface of the sun.  At 11pm one evening, I recall that we went out for ice cream because it had cooled to "only 87 degrees".  That was Fahrenheit but, as it was matched by a 95% humidity, the temperature may as well have been measured in Kelvin units.

One day, though, I unconsciously left the protection of the house, car, and church's air conditioning when I heard an oddly alien, yet familiar, sound coming from the town square.  I knew that it was a guitar, but there was something off about it.  Like a horse with a slight injury, unnoticeable save for an odd canter in its gait, there was something askew in the instrumentation, but it was being compensated for by the virtuosity of the guitarist.

I traced the sound to the steps of the laundromat, where I found an elderly man, bent over a guitar of dreadnought design, but of unrecognizable manufacture, wearing a disreputable wool fedora and skimming the fret board with a bent spoon.  The missing portion was from an absent sixth string.  It didn't matter, though.  He was playing old classics, familiar to the area, which was the birthplace of Muddy Waters and not far down the road from the infamous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for an unmatched ability to work strings and chords into something deeply resonant in the human experience.

With five strings and that old spoon, the laundromat bluesman took the handful of us in the square through the "Parchman Farm Blues" to "Goin' Down to the River" to, of course, "Kind-Hearted Woman Blues".  I forgot all about the heat in the midst of this aural wonder.

My only wish at the time was that I had a tape recorder [affordable small digital recorders and smart phones were still a ways off] so that I could have caught not just the songs themselves, not just the five-string, bent-spoon blues, but the entire experience of hearing those antique songs so lovingly played in the midst of the mugginess, magnolias, and mockingbirds.

That wish was exacerbated when, upon my return for the funeral of one of my in-laws a few years later, I heard that the bluesman, too, had surrendered his mortality.  The square was quiet, the steps of the laundromat holding nothing more than the wisps of cotton carried through the air.

In my imagination, Laura Boulton had one of those moments, too, when she heard something rare and wonderful and wanted to capture it so that others could hear it.  As she was born in 1899, even further away from the days of electronic gadgets, her achievements are all the more impressive and invaluable for those who savor indigenous, and often historically transient, music.

Born in Conneaut, Ohio, a small, pleasant town on the shores of Lake Erie, where both land and water birds make their avian songs, Boulton developed an interest in both ornithology and birdsong.  She ratified this interest through studies completed at Western Reserve University [now Case Western Reserve University] and Denison College.  So successful was she that she became a lecturer in biology at Carnegie Mellon University.

When in her thirties, through a grant from the University of Chicago, Boulton began the first serious, modern studies of birdsong using a wax cylinder recorder to catalog the various ornithological tones.

I'm trying to imagine how one of these would endure harsh, overland travel; not to mention what the African heat would do to the wax of the recording cylinders.

While traveling through Egypt, The Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika [modern Tanzania], she also recorded the local folk music, using her highly trained and scientific mind to organize the music according to geography, instrumentation, tribal usage, and language.  This is when I wonder if she had one of those transcendent moments when she heard music, unusual and alien to her culture, and realized that it carried within it something terribly deep and meaningful to the genetic memory.

Upon her return to the United States, Boulton added musicology to her resume and began to spend the remainder of her academic life studying ethnic and folk music throughout the world, especially in areas where it was likely that the music was being performed by its last generation of musicians.  On behalf of the American Museum of Natural History, she collected musical instruments, too.  These currently may be be viewed among the museum's permanent collection.  Her expeditions on their behalf took her to Mozambique, Nyasaland, Rhodesia, Transvaal, Cape Province, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Dahomey and other parts of French Equatorial Africa, the British Cameroons, the Belgian Congo, Ethiopia and Ghana.

[A note of interest: In recent years, more has been learned of Boulton's quiet husband, Wolfrid Rudyard Boulton, Jr., who was also an ornithologist of some reputation.  In the late 20th century, it was revealed that "Rud" Boulton also worked for military intelligence and, as of World War II, the OSS and its successor agency, the CIA.  Because of his surreptitious activities on behalf of U.S. intelligence, the Boultons received a remarkable collection of advanced, and expensive, equipment that Laura used for her studies and Rud used to spy.  For example, during their pre-World War II expeditions on the African continent, the Boultons carried with them a telescope, portable bird blind, five high-speed cameras, a parabolic sound reflector capable of picking up bird calls from 500 feet away, and a wire recorder all packed into a four-ton truck with an air-conditioned house trailer equipped with a darkroom.  Nowadays, I think this would be called "glamping".]

After her African work concluded, Boulton accompanied a film crew to record the music and instruments of the Inuit and Navajo tribes, capturing yet again songs and manners of life on the verge of extinction.  Her catalog became the foundation for Columbia University's Center for Ethnomusicology and Harvard University's Collection of Byzantine and Orthodox music.  She recorded thirteen albums, made fifteen film documentaries, and wrote an autobiography, Music Hunter.

Laura Boulton died in 1980 after a very full life spent enriching our general knowledge of music, folk dance, instruments, and styles of performance that would have been lost to history if not for her efforts.  Even now, when listening to the car radio, I can pick out of popular music some musical phrase that owes more to Boulton and her labors than most casual listeners realize.  Not only does she continue to influence what we hear and appreciate, but she serves as a champion for the contribution of women to the sciences.