Whales, Fish and muddied waters?

(…of knowledge based on undistorted and equitable access to histories)  

In September BBC radio 4 broadcast a programme about the album ‘Songs of the Humpback whales’ credited to Roger Payne. An album that is the biggest selling ‘nature’ album of all time and is widely credited as sparking public interest in the plight of whales worldwide. Search for the album online and in archives and it is listed as ‘by Roger Payne’. It isn’t, at least not by him alone. Indeed some, myself included, argue that Roger was only one small part of a project and process along instigated by many, many others. Patriarchal bias in the music / media / academic and wider aspects of society and culture did mean that he was the person that was given access to the ability to push the project forward, and he deserves recognition for that, but it is time that his role in the project is seen, clearly, as one of both privilege and of successful domination of the public perception of the album and all of the research it involved, that preceded it , and indeed, as a consequence, adding to the continued sublimation of decades of work that preceded it. 

(if you’re in the UK you can listen to the programme here; https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000mk2j )

During the programme it is stated, by Payne, that he was the first to identify that the sounds were ‘songs’, by which is meant information carrying sounds that repeat or are have specific patterns. The first problem here is that Payne wasn’t the first to conclude this, nor was he the first to go well beyond his own research / thinking at the time which concluded that the ‘songs’ usually lasted a few minutes.

What’s more the album wasn’t recorded by Roger Payne at all. Three of the recordings are by Frank Watlington, the person who first played the sound of whales to Payne. The other two involve Roger Payne but, importantly, also Katherine Payne (1), who was married to Roger at the time but was already working with monitoring of mammals (inc. whales) when they met as students. It was also Katherine Payne who, having spent over 30 years working with whale sounds, along with her colleague Linda Guinee, discovered that whales change their songs each season and even use rhymes. In the 1980’s she switched her research to Elephants, establishing the Elephant Listening Project. 

At the time Roger Payne became interested in whale sounds, around 1968, there were already a number of key researchers who had been working with the sounds of aquatic life for some years. Significantly a large number were female and include Dr. Marie Poland Fish (2) (yes, that is her last name), whose book ‘Sound of Western North Atlantic Fish’ (3) (co-authored with William Mowbray, who assisted Fish) is still one of the only books ever written on the subject (originally published in 1970). Fish had been recording and researching from 1936, with specific focus on fish and other large species from 1948-1970 when she led the ‘Underwater Sound of Biological Origin’ project for the office of naval research. She published over 300 papers during her career and along with the written research presented in book form on the sounds of fish, she collected hundreds of recordings (4), most of which are archived and available to listen to here;
The book now is rather expensive to buy (a reissue with the sounds is needed) and I first managed to find a copy to purchase back in the 2000’s. Before that I had checked it out from a the main city library here in East Yorkshire when I was in my teens. Whilst I knew about hydrophones I have to admit that I loaned it based on the title and the descriptions of the sounds; low-pitched thump, teeth stridulation, small knocks, rumbling chorus, toothy clicks, sharp barks, spontaneous swish, complex pulses – they seemed almost like extracts for concrete poetry.

Most of these researchers, it has to be said, whilst interested in all sea life, found researching whale sounds problematic not only because hydrophone technologies were either not yet developed or, when they were in the 1930’s, were hard to come by and usually part of military developments and research, but also because attitudes at the time were that female academics should not be allowed on field trips to study larger species at sea. This could partially explain why most are known more for their work with fish species in particular.

A paper by Patricia Stocking Brown ‘Early Women Ichthyologists’ (5) details some of these early researchers of aquatic environments and sounds;

Marion Griswold Grey (working from 1943-1963) (6)
Francesca Raimonde LaMonte (working from 1933-197?) (7)
Erna Mohr (working from 1914-196?) (8)
Canna Maria Popta (working from 1880-1928) (9)
Margaret Hamilton Storey (working from 1937-1960) (10)
Grace Pickford (working 1930’s to 1970’s) (11)
Cornelia Maria Clapp (working 1860’s-1930’s) (12)
Edith Grace White (working 1920-1960’s) (13)
Helen Irene Battle (working 1920’s-1990’s) (14)
Francis Naomi Clark (working 1918-1980’s) (15)
Rosa Smith Eigenmann (working 1880’s-1940’s) (16)
Lucy Wright Smith Clemens (working 1909-?) (17)
Laura Clark Hubbs (working 1917-1970’s) (18)
Francis Voorhees Hubbs Miller (working 1930’s-1970’s) (19)

‘Songs of the humpback whales’ did mark an important point in nature sound, given that some 10 million copies of extracts were given away free to readers of national geographic in 1979, but we can, without taking away from that, do better at ensuring that not only are all of those involved in it are properly credited, given space and cited, but also acknowledging that patriarchy played its part in how Roger Payne was able to get the album released and in how it is presented even now, including, to some degree, in this BBC radio 4 programme. Perhaps if there was as much focus on Katherine Payne’s work in interviews and radio programmes it might be clearer, and I for one am sure it would be a much more interesting story. Having researched this myself, with the usual inequity of sources, it seems obvious that Katherine was actively working with sound at the time and that Roger was less so. Either way, the recordings on the album were collected not by Roger alone. To continue to focus on him and his story of the album and research is problematic and is connected to some of the very structures that restrict or select knowledge.

It is undeniable that a lot of good has resulted from the success of that album. Hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, no doubt went on to think more carefully about whales, and nature in general. There was no need for it to be credit mainly to one person involved. Further, given how Roger Payne marketed and promoted it amongst the sixties counter-culture movement it could be argued that it contributed to the new-age objectification of nature. Had the promotion taken steps to acknowledge the legacy of strong women in these areas of nature research some might argue it would have been less successful. We can’t know, but it’s not unreasonable to ask whether it would have added also to the growing attempts to address sexism and patriarchal bias within society at the time, and still could do now. It is a shame that in 2020 the BBC couldn’t avoid repeating some of the same mistakes and instead broadcast a programme that looked at the albums importance but also at the women whose work paved the way for it and indeed the one who was involved in making it. Since it’s release in 1970 there has been so much work done in this area of research by women, and given that the radio programme also included areas of music that were influenced, a huge amount of creative work (music, sound art etc) taking aquatic sounds as a key source. It would have been useful for the programme to reflect that in a much better way than it did perhaps, simply to show the thread that runs throughout the entire history, scientific and cultural.

(1) https://www.cornell.edu/video/katy-payne-whales-elephants-what-their-sounds-reveal

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Poland_Fish

(3) https://www.worldcat.org/title/sounds-of-western-north-atlantic-fishes-a-reference-file-of-biological-underwater-sounds/oclc/92568

(4) https://search.macaulaylibrary.org/catalog?searchField=animals&userId=USER832156&user=Marie%20P.%20Fish

(5) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02197830

(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Griswold_Grey

(7) http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/bitstream/handle/2246/4565//v2/dspace/ingest/pdfSource/nov/N0781.pdf?sequence=1

(8) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erna_Mohr

(9) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canna_Maria_Louise_Popta

(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Hamilton_Storey

(11) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_E._Pickford

(12) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelia_Clapp

(13) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Grace_White

(14) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Battle

(15) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Naomi_Clark

(16) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Smith_Eigenmann

(17) https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~dalbino/letters/women/lwsmith.html

(18) https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-06-26-me-8282-story.html

(19) https://www.jstor.org/stable/1445911

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