Across the Universe with Mickey Hart
Photo by Kelsey Winterkorn
RR: When you said “it’s the rhythm, stupid,” I suddenly thought of your relationship with the late Joseph Campbell.
MH: He thought the same thing. He was one of my greatest pals. Joe realized through the shaman traditions because the shamans always used rhythm instruments whether it be rattles or drums to go to the other worlds, and to heal, and to prophesize for crops, or where the herds were. They went into trance using rhythm because the rhythm’s redundancy is the basis of trance. So that is how Joe really understood the mythos of the human condition—it was all based on rhythmic stimuli, and that was our bond right to the very end.
RR: You brought up the spirit world, which leads me into a natural segue to bring up the forthcoming Mickey Hart Collection on Smithsonian Folkways. About the release, you said, “Music is our talking book, our portal to the spirit world.” Obviously, on this diverse collection, the music supports that excellent point.
MH: Yeah, that pretty well says it. That’s a good quote because this is how we deal with the mystery of life, and this is where we store all of our stories. This is our talking book. Songs are just not like la la la, ya ya ya; they tell a story. Some are more intelligent than others—[Hart sings] Louie Louahh…yeah yeah yeah. That doesn’t necessarily tell a literal story, but it does tell a story. Most folk songs and most songs that are written tell about the human condition—the fears, the hopes, the dreams, love, hate. All the ideas of the subconscious coming up to the top, rising to the top, are turned into vocalization, or rhythm, or musical, or melody, or harmony that tell a story. If you look at it in those terms, these little tidbits, these little sound bites called songs really represent thousands of years—millions of years, perhaps—of evolution because songs are the containers of these stories. That’s how music is mostly passed on until the recorded age, which is just a little over a hundred years old. We’ve only been recording since 1877. Before that, there was no way of actually imprinting sound, so that is really recent, a recent discovery. Edison’s patent was 1877, and the first field recording was 1890. That’s 121 years ago. That’s really not a long time in the evolution of our species.
So how was all that information forwarded, do you suppose? Of course, through songs and dance, and that’s how we learned to write—the Gutenberg press, and all the inventions—forwarded the history of the world like in Alexandria on scrolls, on parchment. People wrote things down, and there were tablets. Tablets don’t make a sound, but they do tell a story, so does the parchment and papyrus, which was gathered at the great libraries of Alexandria. We’ve been transferring information and stories through these different media for many years, and now we have a recorded medium.
That’s where my Smithsonian Folkways collection, my recordings from around the world, come in. They’re an extension of what I just spoke of. These recordings are made at the highest resolution. In those days, when I started recording, those kinds of music were Third World, Fourth World music—they weren’t really considered worth recording, or keeping. Most people didn’t recognize them as great jewels. I thought they were immediately. There was no guessing game for me. I thought these were the real jewels. Popular music was about popular music. It was famous, as well. That was everywhere. This wasn’t, but I knew that it would become very valuable and I loved it.
So I started learning to become a remote recorder back in ’67, my first. It just went from there to my access to the world’s music by going around the world and recording, and the world coming to me. With both cases, I always had my instrument with me, whether it be a Nagra tape machine, or a digital device, whatever the circumstance allowed, I
recorded it and put it away in the archive. Now, I’m very proud to be part of the greatest collection of indigenous music in the world, the Folkways collection, which is at the Smithsonian, and I’m on the board there, as well.
It comes full circle because that was the collection that turned me on when I was 6, 7 years old. I was listening to Pygmy music when I was a kid. I found a Pygmy collection inside my mother’s Count Basie and Duke Ellington collection that she inherited from a relative. There was a bunch of pygmy music there. Aturi rain forest music. African music.
PART IV – No Particular Way But Our Own
The ability of music to open doors and make connections among people from different cultures is both quite common and at the same time extraordinarily powerful… – Mickey Hart, Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music, Hart and Fredric Lieberman
RR: The discovery of the pygmy music was an accident? The wrong records were in the sleeves?
MH: Yeah, it just happened with no explanation; there was some pygmy music, and that’s what started it all, and I just fell in love with those beautiful high-pitched voices. Had no idea what they were saying; it didn’t matter. It was speaking to me. I loved it. Still love it. Matter of fact, yesterday, I listened to some. Every once in a while, I’ll just go back and listen to that rain forest music. Yeah, it was just captivating, it turned my light on, and I started exploring more music from around the world, and still loving the music of Latin America, Tito Puente, was big and rock ‘n’ roll started happening, and what they called “race music”, which is all the Delta Blues and Robert Johnson. The blues was really big for me, too. I like fiddle music, back porch music. I like all kinds of music, but it was folk music, people music— spontaneous music. It wasn’t necessarily studio music that really fascinated me; music that wasn’t written, oral traditions really taught me.
The Grateful Dead was a jugband. It then based its whole repertoire on the blues. Appalachian music, banjo music, blues—we tease on the blues until we got good enough to play Grateful Dead music, our own music, a new kind of music based on the old. That’s why preservation is so important. Anybody who learns an instrument, or falls in love with music, usually practices that music. If that music isn’t there to turn you on, then where do you get the music from? You have to get it from somewhere. You have to learn something; you just can’t pick up music and come up with completely new music. That doesn’t happen. It usually starts with something that you love. You learn a few scales, a couple of rhythms, and then, if you practice and get a skill, you develop your own style, your own music that is a hybrid, or a fusion, of the music that came before you. That’s how it works.
Somebody doesn’t come up with completely new music. The only non-fusion music on the planet is the overtone singing of Tibet. The triphonic singing of the Tyuto monks is probably the only music that has not been fused—those celibate monks who live in monasteries in Tibet for thousands of years. No music came in; no music went out. Then, when recorded sound happened and radio, everybody started listening to other people’s music, and it started to fuse and become a global music.
Now, with this band, it becomes universal music. Now, it becomes not just the world’s music, but the universal music, the sounds of the universe, because the global music is just a part of the universe. There’s the music of the sun, there’s the music of Saturn, there’s the music of Jupiter, there’s the music of pulsars, there’s the music of the seed sound, the Big Bang. These are all music. What I’m doing is I’m taking them and sometimes fusing them, and making them into a new symphony, like a universal symphony. That’s what we did here on Earth with our sounds, our Earth-borne sounds. I’m doing the same thing with the sounds of the universe.