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Wiser Than the Wisdom of Geese: U​.​S. Game Culture Discs, 1940s​-​50s

by Canary Records



Within the origins of music, speech, and language are woven strands of our relationship with the natural world that remain mysterious areas of speculation.

Hunting among hominids preceded language by millions of years. If stone tools were employed more than three million years ago, at what point did imitative calls of other species assist our ancestors in hunting? Earlier? Later?

Within the span of those millions of years, were there great imitators of birds and beasts whose abilities to hear and vocally reproduce their prey influence their companions and allow their group to survive in greater numbers? When exactly was it that a person was so adept at producing a call during a hunt that he was asked to do it again for the entertainment of others or taught it to his children as a life-skill? How many of those phonemes entered into the repertoire of vocalizations that became language? How many traditions of listening to and audibly interacting with our environment have come and gone in just the past half million years of homo sapiens without any record of them to be found painted on some cliff wall or buried in the dirt?

Are we evolved to find pleasure in pitched and more-or-less repetitive sequences of sounds because they remind us, somewhere in a locked box of our shared neurology, of the sound of birds, which in turn indicate that we are in an inhabitable climate, close enough to food and water and relative safety?

Musicology and folklore are poor tools for these questions. If linguistics, neurology, and philosophy are any better, I’d be happy to hear about it.

Articulating the questions seems worthwhile, because music is so effective at separating us from one sense of time and locating us in another sense of time that during its performance that, for one thing, our relationships to our bodies changes involuntarily, resulting in what we call in English “dance.” The implication is that if there several ways to feel time pass within ourselves that there is something important to know about what makes one person (or other creature) distinct from another and what makes being alive difference from being dead. If our experience as a species of music writ large can teach us anything, outside of its relatively short-lived and localized vernacular systems and sets of symbols, it is that there is a great deal that we don’t know about our place in the world as human beings. Direct experience in lived time may be useful.

This group of recordings, all made in the rural United States for the commercial consumption of people engaged in hunting culture between the years 1947 and 1959, may be received as meaningless or absurd to the majority of listeners. They represent a deviation from typical uses of sound recording, but consider that they are a rare and wonderful vestige of deeply ancient traditions. And they are an anomaly in the history of mechanical/ electronic sound reproduction.

Hunting game fowl in the U.S. with guns was widespread in the 17th century. Friction devices of several types - wood boxes, peg-and-plate, and cylinders - have been used for centuries to call turkeys and remain popular today along with mouth-held palate-plate diaphragms and trumpets (also used for calling elk). In the middle of the 19th century “tongue pincher” double-reed duck calls were produced under patents by Elam Fisher in 1870 and a half-dozen others over the next 50 years. Early barrel-style Illinois River calls were patented by F.A. Allen in 1863 and developed by others over decades, followed by Victor Glodo’s reelfoot calls around 1880, and then lvariants of the Illinois River calls, typified by Kuhlemeier and Olt at the beginning of the 20th century. Mass production of calls exploded during the first half of the 20th century, coincident with the growth of the phonograph record business. After the Second World War, demonstration discs of the use of these devices as well as discs of the winners of calling competitions were produced as access to tape recording and disc manufacture became more accessible outside of urban centers. And, at the same time, tape recording and parabolic microphones made outdoor recordings of wild birds possible to listen to at home for the first time.

A half-century later, mechanical bird calls of many varieties are cheap and widely available (as are bugles for elk, moose, and deer, although we have not yet found disc recordings of those) but are becoming rapidly superseded by plastic boxes with microchips and speakers playing mp3 recordings of calls. Discs and tapes are obsolete. Instructions from champion callers are available on YouTube, differing little from the discs made 70 years ago, but allowing one to see the caller’s hand and mouth. Whether continued advances in recording of game fowl calls will cause the extinction of of mechanical calls or decreased traditional bird imitation remains to be seen.

People are still going to need dinner, and they’re still going to play with sound as long as there are people.


released May 9, 2020

Where the actual performer is not known, the company represented by the performer is listed as the "artist."

Locations of recordings:
1 & 20 Cambridge, Maryland
2 & 19 Birmingham, Alabama
3, 4, 13, 14 Waseca, Minnesota
5, 6, 7, 8 Pekin, Illinois
9 & 10 P Hopkins, Minnesota
11 & 12 Minneapolis, Minnesota
15 & 16 Kansas City, Missouri
17 & 18 Moline, Illinois

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski


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early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

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