Music, more music

When I first started doing fieldwork in the Arctic, recorded music was an important aspect of our camp life. In those days we had a cassette player, run on a limited supply of C-cell batteries. Everyone had brought along a few of their favorite tapes, but the two we played the most often were compilation tapes made by one of the crew members, back when making a compilation was a lot of work, mostly taping from record albums. There was a lot of good music on those tapes: blues; classic rock; even Dire Straits (Twisting by the Pool was a popular number that summer). Whenever I hear some of those songs I am transported back to the Truelove Lowlands.

The Arctic Institute of North America's Truelove research station, 1986

Before long, CDs had replaced tapes, and now of course, everyone brings an iPod or other digital device. This has its advantages and disadvantages. It means far greater selection of music, but unless someone plugs their iPod into a set of speakers, only one person at a time can hear the music. We try to prevent people from spending too much time plugged into their devices – for one thing it can be dangerous when the music is so loud you can’t hear someone yelling “BEAR!” The sharing of musical tastes can also be important and even enlightening. Inevitably, everyone has some music that no one else likes, but there can be some surprises too. My iPod has music for my daughter on it too, and one season I was amazed to see how delighted my undergraduate student workers were to discover the soundtrack to Muppet’s Treasure Island.

This year is likely to be no different. I still have the same eclectic mix on my iPod, heavy on the classical, but some of just about everything (even, thanks to my daughter, some Abba). One of the crew, Fred, will have a good mix of contemporary Canadian music (Bedouin Soundclash!) I am pretty sure, though, that our play lists will look nothing like Peary’s.

Peary was just as aware of the importance of entertainment as we are. On board the Roosevelt he had a pianola (now on view at his summer home, Eagle Island), as well as a phonograph, and an impressive collection of music.  Luckily for us, the list of records he purchased for the 1905-06 expedition has been preserved at the National Archives.

Popular and Dance music for the Roosevelt, 1905

Operatic selections for the Roosevelt in 1905

One of the interesting things about this list is the price for the music, which ranges from $.50-$1.75. It seems not too different from what digital songs cost these days, until you think about it in 1905 dollars. According  to this conversion web site, one dollar in 1905 is equal to about $24 today, so for every song Peary bought in 1905, someone could buy about 20 today. Putting it another way, Peary paid $135 for this music, at a time when the average wage in the United States was about $400 – quite an investment.

Some of the music he chose for his team is familiar today, particularly the operatic selections. Carmen, the Mikado, and Sousa marches such as Prince of Pilsen are all readily available on iTunes. Others are more obscure. A Google search on Maid and the Mummy reveals that is was a Broadway musical that ran for 42 performances. You can even listen to computer generated versions of the music here. The popular music seems even more obscure. Turkey in the Straw and Blue Danube have survived, but Gin and Razors (a cakewalk as far as I can tell) has disappeared, despite its intriguing title. Some have survived when perhaps the shouldn’t. Under the Anheuser Busch lives on in multiple youtube videos showing original recordings played on phonographs not unlike Peary’s.

The phonograph was available to the men on the expedition, but  the pianola was in Peary’s cabin. That is not to say he didn’t share. In How Peary Reached the Pole MacMillan recounts how, when he was bedridden with a high fever in the fall of 1908, “Commander, always considerate and ever kind, never failed nightly to open his door and play for me my favorite pianola record ‘The Wedding of the Winds.'” It too can be seen and heard courtesy of youtube. Maybe we could make up a playlist of Peary’s music…

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