At first glance, the gathering in the Great Hall at the Library of Congress Monday evening looked like any other Capitol Hill reception. There were suits and ties, senators and congressmen, finger foods and photo ops -- standard props in the game of politics.
Look a little closer, though, and things aren't quite what they seem. True, that is Sen. Patrick Leahy, the august Democrat from Vermont, posing for pictures over in the corner, but the gray-haired gentleman beside him is Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Across the room, there's Rep. James Moran, a Virginia Democrat, busily chatting up Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Can it be that Congress is full of Deadheads?
Not if by "Deadhead" you mean fans of the Grateful Dead. California Congressman Tony Beilenson did allow that "some of the women in my office are longtime fans," but that was about as far as it went. Nor was the band -- in town for a three-night stand at the Capital Centre, ending tomorrow -- on hand simply to press the flesh with our elected officials. "I'm here to help Mickey," said Garcia. "And also the rain forest, that's real important to me."
Helping the rain forest, hanging out with the Grateful Dead -- what has any of this to do with the Library of Congress? Plenty. Because this whole shebang was convened to celebrate the release of "The Spirit Cries," an album on Rykodisc of music from the rain forests of South America and the Caribbean, culled from the Library of Congress collection, and edited for commercial release by Hart.
It's all part of the library's "Endangered Music Project," a program designed to study and disseminate the music and art of cultures whose very existence is threatened by deforestation and development. This is "the ecology of culture," as Librarian of Congress James Billington put it during a symposium earlier that day, and few things document it as vividly as field recordings.
And there is no shortage of such things in the Library of Congress. "This is the big wine cellar for world music," enthused Hart. "The oldest field recordings in the library were made March 15, 1890, an Edison cylinder of a Chappaquaddi Indian in Maine. There's hundreds of thousands of hours [of music] here."
Hart discovered the library's collection while working on "Drumming at the Edge of Magic," his book about the spirit of percussion. "I would hear the rumors in the corridors," he said. "I knew that the repository here was great, and I also knew that they really didn't have a handle on it."
So Hart decided to help out, making digital transfers of aging tapes, and taking notes on what he heard. Eventually, an idea took root -- why not compile some of these recordings into albums? Not only would that make it easier for others to discover the gems in the library's collection, it could actually help preserve the cultures being documented.
"It's like giving their culture back to them," he said. "In some cases, a lot of their songs, a lot of their traditions have become gibberish. They lost the connection from the ancient spirit music."
But recordings of those songs and rituals can help restore those connections. "That CD goes back into their culture," Hart explained. "Now it's in the museums, it's in the libraries, it's in their own classrooms."
Putting this music on album wasn't easy, though. For "The Spirit Cries," Hart's goal was to present music from different rain forest peoples, to show the richness and diversity of their cultures. "I wanted it to go from the Amazon basin, all the way up to the Maroons of Jamaica," he said. "To hear that span of music, that would be wonderful. What a road map!"
What a lot of work, too. "It took me almost three years to do this," Hart said. He and co-producer Alan Jabbour started with 80 hours of tapes, which were condensed to 70 minutes of music. "I went two and a half weeks to an island," said Hart.
"Just me and my wife, previewing these tapes. Every time the tape ran, I gave my impressions to myself over and over. I slowly eliminated what didn't move me. What we have here is what I consider the power songs, the essence of this collection."
Once he'd selected the songs he wanted, Hart worked on bringing the recordings -- some of which dated back to the '40s -- up to CD standard. "I brought the same production values to this as I would to a Grateful Dead record or to a Mickey Hart solo record," he said. "It's as if it would win a Grammy and sell a million records."
Will it sell, though? "In the old days, if you sold 300 of them at the Library of Congress, you were a success," he answered. "Now, it's different. Steven Feld's CD, 'Voices of the Rainforest,' is at 40,000 and going. That's amazing.
"And [the musicians] get the money," he added. "That's the other part of it. Once they know it's a commodity, they don't have to run away and work in the oil fields. They can make their music, and they can make a damn good living by making music. These recordings will more than support them in whatever they want to do down there."
Still, what Hart and his bandmates wanted out of this trip to the Capitol was to raise consciousness, not sales. As Garcia said, "This is one of those things where one or two souls count. So if all that happens from this is that on person gets interested, it's worthwhile."