October 10, 2002

Hart to Heart

Print More

In Mickey Hart’s own words, the Grateful Dead, is more “in the transportation business” than the music business. With a firm declaration of the transcendent nature of music underpinning every part of his Monday night lecture in Statler Auditorium, Mr. Hart took his audience around the world and into the soul of what he sees as humanity’s most essential appendage: the music that accompanies each of the world’s citizens through every stage of life.

Seated comfortably in an armchair in the middle of Statler Auditorium’s stage, Mr. Hart took a broad step out of the Grateful Dead spotlight to reminisce his way through the history of his own relationship with music, and the 100-some year history of sound recording. He carried his audience back to his first obsession, African Pygmy music from a compilation by Duke Ellington and Count Basie; through his early attempts at making his own recordings, beginning in 1967, when, attempting to record the animals of the San Francisco zoo at the full moon, he and Bob Weir impaled themselves on the entrance gate and were arrested; and into the work he does today, as a leader of the Library of Congress’ Endangered Music Project.

He also presented samples from the timeline of recorded music — Thomas Edison’s high-pitched voice, squeaking out of 1878 in the first recording of the human voice, an American Indian in Maine recording in 1890 the first field recording by an ethnographer, and more recent recordings of Tibetan monks, singing in a unique style that allows a single voice to produce three different pitches simultaneously.

An enormous collection of rare recordings is all very well (“I could go on all day,” he says), but it is the connections music creates between people that bind him to it. He describes music as one of the most human elements of our species, pointing out that whatever other differences they may display, all cultures have music; as Mr. Hart describes it, “we’re coded for it.”

He told numerous first-had accounts of music transforming human relationships; guards and inmates of San Quentin prison, singing arm and arm, in a recording session Mr. Hart facilitated inside the prison; a drum circle of KKK kids, anti-semites, and others, transformed by a shared heartbeat from sullen antagonists to smiling compatriots.

If Mr. Hart’s experience with musicians of six of the world’s continents has shown him the constructive power of music, it has also convinced him of the dangers it faces in the ever-shrinking world around us. He described his first recording trip to the Amazon Rain Forest, “when it dawned on me that rainforests are more than critters and trees,” and he sees the endangerment of diversity in music and art as a force as dangerous to the health of the human species as the endangerment of biological species is to the global ecosystem.

With these concerns in mind, Mr. Hart reminds the people he meets all around the globe to maintain their ancient styles even as they learn and invent new ones with musicians like him. And his deep respect for the people and music that he touches is reflected in his commitment to the musicians he records; the profits from all the albums he makes and sells in the United States return the origins of the music.

Mr. Hart’s lecture showed him to be a passionate and very much alive Dead drummer — nothing close to any burnt-out rocker stereotype — and much more. Near the end of his lecture, an audience member asked for his opinion on electronically recorded and produced music. Of the digital age, Mr. Hart said, “I see only possibilities,” and urged contemporary musicians not to cut themselves off from the possibilities afforded them by new technology.

In the digital domain, he mentioned his fascination with the Chemical Brothers and Loop Guru, but instead of recommending any music over any other, he prescribed a continuous dose of any and all music his audience, and expressed a far-off wish that George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein could sit down to a much-needed jam session; music must be as essential to the good decisions of leaders as it is to the daily lives of all people; “Music is not a luxury; it’s a necessity of life.”

Archived article by Chris Wells