|Ninostoko interprets a song he sang, as recorded by Frances Densmore, 1916|
Secret recordings made in the workplace, surveillance videos made in public spaces, smartphone recordings that capture police brutality—these have been in the news for the past few years and have come to be accepted by the news media, if not the general public or the law. National Public Radio (NPR)’s All Things Considered broadcast a news story about them on August 28th, highlighting workplace recordings (those made in the White House, and others made by a federal employee whose boss, Mel Watt, was interested in sexual favors in exchange for a pay raise). NPR was interested in whether these surreptitious recordings were legal, even when this was the only way the complainant could provide what seemed like incontrovertible evidence. Undercover workplace recordings are now commonplace, according to NPR. But the laws covering them are complex. In most states they are legal; in eleven states, however, consent of the recorded is required. NPR was interested in how this atmosphere is changing the atmosphere of the workplace, making everyone far more careful about what they say to each other. The result is an increasingly toxic workplace culture. On the 29th, during a related discussion of the news media itself, a NPR interviewee pondered whether the public thought internet searches were reliable, and whether their technology was sustainable.
Listening to this, it occurred to me that somewhere, when a recording is played back as evidence in a court of law, the defendant will reply, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying ears?” For recordings are easily edited, just as pictures are easily photoshopped. Reality itself is challenged; but that is not news in a post-truth society that challenges the rule of law. But laws are one thing, and justice is another. Thinking about this in the last couple of days reminded me about the debate in the 1970s among those of us who did and do fieldwork, over whether, transcribing the contents of the interviews we recorded, to transcribe every word or only what we thought were the important parts, to be edited into a more coherent conversation or narrative than the original had been.
There was no debate over secret recordings, then. We chose not to make them. The people we recorded in the field, still called informants (they would later be called field partners or consultants), had the right to know they were being recorded, and the right to know what would happen to those recordings—would they be deposited in an archive, might they be published at a later date, what control would they have over what they had said after they said it—because the words they spoke, or the songs they sang, were their property, not the property of those of us who were recording them, even if we possessed the tapes. For those reasons, secret recordings were unethical. Also, if an informant objected to being recorded, we didn’t record. We recognized that setting up a recorder would make the events un-natural to some degree; but then interviews were un-natural in the first place, while the very presence of the fieldworker, whether recording or not, altered the events being documented. We felt that the more honest and trustworthy the fieldworker, the more accurate the documentation would be. Ethics was aligned with truth. There was no "speak my truth" then; there was only one truth, the truth.
In the early 1980s I learned about Lawrence Gellert, a folksong collector in the 1930s who was said to have made secret recordings of direct racial and social protest songs sung by African Americans. (Although other contemporaries had recorded protest songs, the lyrics were coded as metaphors, not direct.) During the Depression era he published two books featuring these songs, but the accuracy of his work was challenged because he refused to name the singers, the places where he recorded them, and so forth. He was accused of making the lyrics up. After many years researching his life and examining his papers and his recordings, his biographer, Bruce Conforth, concluded that he did fabricate lyrics; nonetheless, his collection of blues and religious songs is valuable even if the songs do not differ much from the songs recorded by other collectors in the 1930s. Yet a reviewer, Jerrold Hirsch, contends that Conforth is wrong and that Gellert’s collection was genuine.
When challenged, Gellert said he could not reveal names, dates and places because he had gone undercover to make the recordings. To my generation of scholars, he stood as an outlier, an example of someone whose work was compromised by a failure to provide proper documentary annotation, by his secrecy in making the recordings, and by his supposed fabrications in presenting the songs to the public. Hirsch, on the other hand, in a review coincidentally published today (August 30), takes a much more positive view of Gellert and calls for revisiting his work. “Gellert . . . looked not to a folklore from the past, but to a folklore of the present, a folklore-in-the-making, as a contemporary creation contributing to the understanding of American class conflict, emerging class consciousness, and realization of liberal/Marxist radical ideals on the American left,” Hirsch writes in the Journal of Folklore Research, reviewing Conforth’s 2013 biography of Gellert.
Gellert's recordings were published in 1983. They were not remarkably different from recordings of African American songs other collectors had recorded during the 1930s. In the early 1990s the subject arose yet again, this time in a presentation before the Society for Ethnomusicology, in a paper that I heard when it was delivered there. Its author, Jay Pillay, had gone undercover in apartheid South Africa, recording conversations that revealed the prejudicial use of music in education for non-White youth. The project, and the paper, was annotated insofar as possible, and the documentation was not doubted; in fact, the paper won the Seeger Prize for the best student paper presented at the annual conference, and as a result it was published in Ethnomusicology, the Society’s official scholarly journal. And yet although this project continues to have admirers, it's thus far remained an outlier, not a signal of a new direction or a model for future research.
These examples present contemporary fieldworkers with a dilemma that goes beyond the current discussion of de-colonizing ethnomusicology and other fieldwork-based disciplines. A pervasive atmosphere of surveillance works against the possibility of trust in any field research situation. Smartphones and smart homes may be too smart for us. Apple’s facial recognition program for the iPhone X, coupled with the possibility of constant smartphone GPS tracking our whereabouts, to send it—where?—along with reports that so-called smart speakers like Alexa are recording us in our homes, is enough to make anyone refuse to cooperate with anyone who proposes a documentation project, without, perhaps, a legal contract. And, I would argue, a legal contract is a far less trustworthy instrument than the trust that arises from rapport that is achieved over time, much time, that fieldworkers and field partners spend together when working toward the same agreed upon goals. Of course, fieldwork changed in the last century, becoming more self-conscious, more tentative, and more reflexive. But today, recording has become a victim of its own success. What resilience strategies will fieldworkers adopt to maintain the integrity of ethnographic research and writing in the face of the challenges and opportunities posed by a surveillance society?