Revolutionaries, Nursery Rhymes, and Edison Wax Cylinders: The Remarkable Tale of the Earliest Sound Recordings of Korean Music
On 24 July 1896, three young Korean men in Washington DC were recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the famous American proto-ethnomusicologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher, as they sang traditional songs from their home country. These recordings, now stored in the Library of Congress, predate the next known recordings of Korean music, made in Japan, by eleven years. There were only a few Koreans in the United States capital at the time, most of them associated with the Korean Legation that represented the largely unknown country named Chosŏn. These musical recordings, part of the complex story of early Korean-American relations in the turbulent late nineteenth century, resulted from circumstances involving an extraordinary collection of interesting and influential people, from exceptional historical events in Korea and the United States, and from a fair dose of serendipity. The recordings form one part of a wider research project that might be described simply as Korean music in late-nineteenth-century America, the other parts being two museum collections that include Korean musical instruments and the matter of Korean musicians sent to the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
Robert C. Provine has just retired from his position as Professor in the School of Music at the University of Maryland. He holds a B.A., two M.A. degrees, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He researches the music of East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan), with a particular focus on Korean traditional music. He taught from 1978 to 2000 at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, where he rose from Lecturer to full Professor and Chair of the Department of Music. He has served as President of the Association for Korean Studies in Europe (1993-95) and as President of the Association for Korean Music Research (1996-2000). He contributed the country article “Korea” and numerous shorter entries to the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001), and he is the author of Essays on Sino-Korean Musicology: Early Sources for Korean Ritual Music (1988) and many articles in varied academic journals.