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In Writing

Read an extract from The Vinyl Frontier: The Story Of The Voyager Golden Record by Jonathan Scott

March 2019

In 1977 a team lead by Carl Sagan compiled a playlist of music, sounds and pictures that they thought would represent Earth and the human race to any extraterrestrial beings that might chance upon the selection. The compilation was cut to record, strapped to the back of NASA's Voyager probe and launched into space.

The Vinyl Frontier tells the story of that Golden Record.

On the music team was Linda Salzman Sagan, Frank Drake, Alan Lomax, Jon Lomberg, Jimmy Iovine, Ann Druyan (creative director), and Timothy Ferris (producer), who selected music by Bach, Beethoven, Glenn Gould, Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as music from China, India and the Solomon Islands.

This extract features members of Sagan's team, Ann Druyan, Tim Ferris and “a very cranky, cantankerous, difficult” Alan Lomax, and the errors crept into Voyager’s sleevenotes that would last for decades.

Ann and Tim paid the first of several visits to Alan Lomax’s place. He lived in an apartment in uptown New York, 215 West 98th Street, “a warren of 100,000 LP records”. One of the first things he put on the turntable when they arrived was “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong. Jazz historians generally agree that this period in Armstrong’s career changed the direction of popular jazz music. The focus was torn away from the traditional New Orleans collective improv, to numbers dominated by individual solos. And it wasn’t just soloing; Armstrong was trying out new rhythms and arrangements, and his singing on records such as Heebie Jeebies would popularise scat. These records shook up jazz, influencing his contemporaries and generations to come.

In among 12 songs with his Hot Seven was a number called “Melancholy Blues”, recorded in Chicago on 11 May 1927. The fact that it was chosen above all others from this period is all down to Alan Lomax and his warren of LPs.

Alan played them one song after another. Throughout he enthused about his theories of cantometrics, about how the Voyager record could be used as a platform to show the development of human culture through music. One highlight that would also make the final cut was a haunting Bulgarian folk song called “Izlel Ye Delyu Haydutin”. It tells the story of a folk hero who harasses and badgers occupying troops, a tale of resistance to an outside invader. It was performed by Valya Balkanska, backed by gaida players Lazar Kanevski and Stephan Zahmanov, and recorded by Martin Koenig and Ethel Raim in Smolyan, Bulgaria in 1968. When Alan first played it for Ann, she was moved to dance. Lomax leaned forwards, grinned, called her ‘honey’, then explained that this was the sound of agricultural communities, the first people who had enough to eat.

Tim says: “Alan was a good producer. His dad was a good producer. He was very valuable to me on the record... We left on pretty good terms but he always felt that he should have had more to say about the choices rather than just coming up with material.” Ann says: “[Alan] was a very cranky, cantankerous, difficult man. But he was a genius of ethnomusicology. Some of the stuff that he gave us turned out to be other than what he told us it was. You know, he told us it was one thing, and then we find out later on that it was something else, but he was hugely important to the music.”

This uneasy interface between Lomax and the record team is also where some errors crept into Voyager’s liner notes, many of which would last for decades. They were first printed in Murmurs, and were continually reprinted and shared by NASA online and in print. It wasn’t until the crowdfunded 40th-anniversary project by Ozma Records, which succeeded in bringing out a deluxe reissue of the Golden Record in 2017, that some errors and missing pieces of information were uncovered and put right.

David Pescovitz – who co-produced the Ozma Records project with San Francisco record store manager Tim Daly and music packaging designer Lawrence Azerrad – explained that in some cases Alan had provided the Voyager team with unreleased recordings on tape reels that just simply didn’t carry any information. He found this out when viewing scans of the original reels and tape boxes from Lomax’s collection that are now stored in the US Library of Congress. In the case of the Solomon Islands track, this had been known simply as “Solomon Islands Panpipes”. David called the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC), the local radio station that had made the original recording, to see what he could find out. The librarian knew about the record, sure, but didn’t know who the performers were. David’s next step was to seek the help of anthropologists and musicologists in the region, including Martin Hadlow, a communications professor at the University of Queensland who had done extensive research at the SIBC. None of the leads paid off until months later when Hadlow happened to attend a meeting at the SIBC and mentioned the Voyager record. A young woman working there overheard and revealed that she was related to the original musicians. Several weeks later, Pescovitz received a recounting of the song’s recording as told by Isaac Smith Houmaawa’i, leader of the group. So a song, formerly known simply as “Solomon Islands Panpipes”, was now correctly labelled “Naranaratana Kookokoo” (“The Cry Of The Megapode Bird”) as performed by Maniasinimae and Taumaetarau Chieftain Tribe of Oloha and Palasu’u Village Community in Small Malaita.

Another piece that came straight from Alan Lomax was “Senegalese Percussion”, an atonal piece that’s all about rhythm – the instruments are drums, bells and flutes, but even the flute-like instruments really serve as another drum. If you go online to read some official NASA history of the Voyager record, it will usually still identify one of the tracks as “Senegalese Percussion”, or sometimes by the name “Tchenhoukoumen”. Both are wrong. It’s actually from Benin and called “Cengunmé”. The errors this time were revealed to David and his team by Charles Duvelle, the musicologist who had collected the recording in the field. The title of the song was incorrectly listed on the jacket of the LP that Lomax loaned to Tim Ferris – from which they sourced the song. David said: “I know which LP that was because I have a receipt that Lomax made Tim sign when he loaned him the records.”

“Cengunmé” was performed by Mahi musicians and recorded by Duvelle in January 1963 in Savalou, Benin, West Africa – about 1000 miles from Senegal.

Tim told me: “I read somewhere that Alan had contributed three-quarters of the record or something, and that’s nonsense. But he did contribute a lot. He was a unique individual... He was not the best person in the world at working with others. He had some frustrations in life, he was broke all the time. And we tried to help him out a bit, but he always wanted a bigger role and more recognition.”

The Vinyl Frontier: The Story Of The Voyager Golden Record by Jonathan Scott (Bloomsbury Sigma, £16.99)

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