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Library of Congress Gets South Seas Recordings

March 14, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A rare collection of early 1940s recordings of native South Seas music which was found gathering dust in a widow’s attic was presented Monday to the Library of Congress.

The collection, which went to the museum’s American Folklife Center, includes 143 acetate disc recordings of music from the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, Bali, Java, Madura and the Kangean Islands north of Java. The recordings were made by Sheridan and Bruce Fahnestock of Long Island, N.Y., in 1940 and 1941.

Touring the South Seas aboard a three-masted, 137-foot schooner, the brothers collected Pacific bird specimens for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, updated nautical charts for the U.S. Hydrographic Office and recorded indigenous music for a family foundation in New York.

The Fahnestocks also made several shortwave radio broadcasts from the Pacific that were carried live by the NBC network. A recording of one such broadcast by Bruce Fahnestock from Fiji in 1940, taken from the library’s collection of NBC transcriptions, was played at Monday’s ceremony.

Their ship, Director II, struck a shoal and sank near Gladstone, Australia, on Oct. 18, 1940, without loss of life, but the Fahnestocks returned to the Pacific in February 1941 and chartered a sailboat to make new recordings and secretly gather intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in anticipation of war with Japan.

Besides the 16-inch, 78-rpm discs, which the Library of Congress plans to clean and transcribe on tape, the Fahnestock collection also includes five reels of color film, a ship’s log and numerous letters and magazine and newspaper articles about the expeditions.

The collection had been stored in the attic of Sheridan Fahnestock’s widow, Margaret Fahnestock Lewis of Great Mills in southern Maryland until she decided to donate the materials to the Library of Congress in December 1986.

It is the largest collection of Pacific Islands recordings ever acquired by the library’s Archive of Folk Culture, and the last known attempt to record a documentary of traditional cultures in that region before the mass disruptions of World War II.

The library’s American Folklife Center, established in 1976, engages in scholarly research, preservation and presentation of folk culture traditions.

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