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Honoring Vernacular Sounds: AFC Recordings on the National Recording Registry

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Javanese Gamelan Orchestra and Topeng masked dancers, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Last week, the Library announced this year’s inductees to the National Recording Registry.  There, along with classics by The Doors, Radiohead, Steve Martin, and Joan Baez, was a fascinating AFC collection: The Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection Recorded at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago. This collection of 101 wax cylinder recordings was created by Benjamin Ives Gilman (1852-1933), who was a Harvard psychologist, and, later, curator for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The recordings contain Fijian, Samoan, Uvean, Javanese, Turkish, and Kwakiutl or Vancouver Island Indian songs and ceremonies, along with recordings of other Middle Eastern, South Seas, and Native American musicians and singers. The musicians had been hired to perform in specially constructed “villages” along the midway of the exposition. In addition to being the first recordings ever made at any World’s Fair, these are also the earliest known recordings of many non-western musical styles, such as the Javanese Gamelan, the traditional orchestra pictured above.

Like all of us at AFC, at least one prominent music fan is happy to see these recordings recognized: Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer, advocate for endangered music, and former AFC Trustee, is a member of the Library’s National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB), which advises the Librarian about each year’s selections for the registry. He recently told the Washington Post he’s particularly pleased about the Gilman cylinders making the cut. “Indigenous music, that’s my baby,” he added.

The selection of recordings for the registry each year falls to the Librarian of Congress. With the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the U.S. Congress directed the Librarian, with advice from the NRPB, to select recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and are at least 10 years old. Since 2002, the registry has inducted 425 recordings or sets of recordings spanning every genre imaginable, from music to political speeches and from animal sounds to the voice of the first talking doll. At AFC, we’re very proud to be the custodians of many recordings listed on the registry, and we’re also happy that the registry recognizes so many recordings representing folk cultures, even if they don’t happen to be in our archive.

James H. Billington, who has been the Librarian of Congress since the registry was founded in 2002, recently explained the program’s significance:

Congress understood the importance of protecting America’s aural patrimony when it passed the National Recording Preservation Act 15 years ago. By preserving these recordings, we safeguard the words, sounds and music that embody who we are as a people and a nation.

The bulk of the recordings on the National Recording Registry were released commercially, and the Library of Congress typically has a copy of those commercial recordings in the Recorded Sound Section. But in the case of some recordings, including the Gilman collection and most of AFC’s other collections on the registry, the Library of Congress has the unique or original copy, which only highlights our responsibility to preserve the country’s audio heritage. For that reason, AFC’s originals, like those of the Recorded Sound Section, are stored at the Library’s state-of-the-art Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia.

In keeping with our own congressional mandate to “preserve and present” folklife, and to honor the work and vision of the Librarian, the NRPB, and the U.S. Congress, I thought it would be interesting to let our readers in on which AFC collections have been named to the registry in previous years.

Jesse Walter Fewkes. Photo by Harris & Ewing. LC Prints and Photographs Division:

In 2002, the first year of the registry, two of AFC’s collections were inducted. One of these, The Jesse Walter Fewkes collection of Passamaquoddy cylinder recordings, contains the earliest known ethnographic field recordings in the world. Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) invented the wax cylinder recording machine in 1877, and it became available commercially about 1888, becoming the first widely available technology for recording and playing back sound. The machine facilitated documentary work by many private individuals, as well as those employed by government agencies and public museums. Wax cylinders could be recorded in a real time and then brought back to a studio for intensive study. This was a big change from previous methods; prior to this, ethnographers had to impose on their informants to sing songs or tell stories over and over again in order to record them in writing and study them. Harvard anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850-1930) was the first to use Edison’s machine for ethnographic research when he brought one to Calais, Maine, in March, 1890, to record the songs and stories of two Passamaquoddy tradition bearers, Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore. Although we don’t have the tribe’s permission to post these sensitive cultural materials online, we do have one online recording included in the collection, in which Fewkes himself speaks into the Edison machine to demonstrate how it works to a Passamaquoddy consultant:

In the early 1980s, AFC repatriated copies of the Fewkes cylinders to the Passamaquoddy, so that tribal linguists, singers, and elders could learn from them. In 2009, Passamaquoddy elders Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin came to the library to perform songs of their people, and explained the significance of the Fewkes recordings. That concert is available as a webcast at this link.

The other collection inducted in 2002 was the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 southern states recording trip, an ethnographic field collection that includes nearly 700 sound recordings documenting a three-month, 6,502-mile trip through the southern United States. Beginning in Port Aransas, Texas, on March 31, 1939, and ending at the Library of Congress on June 14, 1939, John Avery Lomax (1867-1948), Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center Archive), and his wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax (1886-1961), recorded approximately 25 hours of folk music from more than 300 performers. These recordings represent a broad spectrum of traditional musical styles, including ballads, blues, children’s songs, cowboy songs, fiddle tunes, field hollers, lullabies, play-party songs, religious dramas, spirituals, and work songs. While the registry specifically includes the sound recordings, the collection also includes manuscript materials elucidating the recordings, including a 4-page trip report, 307 pages of fieldnotes, 57 items of correspondence, 37 song text transcriptions, and 104 extant dust jackets from 267 acetate discs, which contain handwritten notes. Five years after this collection was selected for the registry, the American Folklife Center made the entire collection available for online viewing and listening at the Library’s website; you can find it here.

In 2003, no fewer than 5 collections were selected that reside in whole or in part at AFC. The Frances Densmore Chippewa/Ojibwe Cylinder Collection, a three-hundred cylinder sub-set of the thirty-year collecting effort of ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore (1867-1957), includes some of the earliest recordings she made. Her collections document Native American traditions and performances, many of which have since been lost even within their native communities. AFC has repatriated copies of many of these recordings back to their communities of origin, while maintaining the originals, with preservation and reference copies, here in Washington, D.C.; the originals were more recently moved to the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia. Although we don’t have permission to put Densmore’s Chippewa/Ojibwe recordings online, we do have a song she collected from the related Menominee tribe, by singer and storyteller Louis Pigeon, which was part of the story of the culture hero Manabus:

LB Gottleib
Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948. William P. Gottleib.

“Goodnight, Irene” is one of the songs recorded from the influential African American singer Lead Belly by John and Alan Lomax when they first met him in 1933. Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), better known as “Lead Belly,” was serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary when the Lomaxes came through collecting songs. When Ledbetter was released, he contacted the Lomaxes, who helped him establish himself as a folksinger in New York. He was a versatile performer, and sang and played spirituals, popular songs, field hollers, prison work songs, cowboy songs, children’s songs, play-party songs, blues, dance tunes, and traditional ballads, as well as his own compositions. He played several instruments, including a button accordion, but was especially associated with the 12-string guitar, which he played on this song. “Goodnight, Irene” was Lead Belly’s best-known song, and this is the first recording of him performing it, which includes some lyrics that Lead Belly later changed. “Irene” was quite possibly based on an earlier popular song, but Lead Belly learned it from the oral tradition of his own family; his uncles Bob and Terrell both sang it, and John Lomax later recorded it from Uncle Bob Ledbetter as well.

In 1950, the year after Lead Belly’s death, the Weavers, a popular folk group that included Lead Belly’s friend Pete Seeger, recorded “Goodnight, Irene.” It was a number-one hit, which spurred many other artists to record their own versions. Only a month after the Weavers’ rendition, Frank Sinatra released his own version, which reached number twelve on the charts. Later that same year, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley reached number one on the country music charts with yet another rendition of the song. Also in 1950, Dennis Day, Jo Stafford, and Moon Mullican each released a successful recording of “Goodnight, Irene.” Among the many artists who subsequently recorded the song are Jerry Lee Lewis (1957), The Kingston Trio (1969), Mississippi John Hurt (1972), Little Richard (1972), Ry Cooder (1976), and the Meat Puppets (1994). Because of its seminal importance, the Recording Acad­emy recognized Lead Belly’s Library of Congress recordings of “Goodnight, Irene” with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2002, and gave the Weavers’ ren­dition the same Award in 2006.

In 2003, the registry also recognized the Jelly Roll Morton interviews conducted by Alan Lomax in 1938. Lomax recorded this extensive series of interviews right here in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress with musician Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941). Morton performed his own compositions and those that influenced him, and told the story of his life over his piano vamping. While Morton might not have “invented” jazz, as he claimed to have done in the interviews, he was the art form’s first great composer. These recordings offer a fascinating, if not entirely accurate, autobiography of the musician, and a rich picture of life in early 20th century New Orleans. They comprise the earliest extensive oral history interview of American popular music; they drew on Lomax’s experiences in interviewing Lead Belly, and influenced his later approach to such singers as Woody Guthrie and Vera Ward Hall. Two years after their recognition in the registry, the recordings were released as a box set by Rounder Records, and won two Grammy Awards; here’s a story about it by Matt Barton, now the Library’s Curator of Recorded Sound.

The 2003 registry also included the Guy B. Johnson cylinder recordings of African-American music, recorded at various times in the 1920s. These cylinders, made by the distinguished sociologist and anthropologist Guy Benton Johnson (1901-1991), comprise some of the earliest field recordings of African-American music. They were recorded on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, in the 1920s. The original cylinders are held primarily at the Southern Folklife Collection of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but AFC acquired tape copies of some of the cylinders when we helped transfer the original cylinders to tape for UNC in the 1990s. Johnson’s academic research was broad, and in addition to traditional music and folktales in the Gullah dialect, he researched many other topics: the history of the Ku Klux Klan; the John Henry legend; the culture of the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, N.C. (known during the time of his research as Croatan or Cherokee); and the desegregation of higher education.

Finally, in 2003 the registry inducted The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, made by the delta blues guitarist and singer in 1936 and 1937. These commercial blues sides had a significant impact on fellow bluesmen, as well as on such rock musicians as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. In fact, Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is one of the few musicians who really deserve the adjective “legendary,” since a significant body of legends has grown around his life story. AFC has one unique recording from this collection, a test pressing of an alternate take of the song “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Test pressings are individual pressings from a commercial master disc, typically made for internal record-company use. At some point in the 1940s, Alan Lomax apparently requested test pressings of 6 Robert Johnson performances, one of which was the take in question. Subsequent to that, the master disc was destroyed or lost, so that the disc Lomax had made is apparently the only copy in existence from the master. This copy remained in Lomax’s personal effects until 1997, when it was purchased by AFC along with the other 5 test pressings. At the time, Lomax himself did not recall exactly when or from whom he got the test pressing; AFC’s director at the time, Alan Jabbour, commented, “Whoever he got it from has long since passed from the scene, no doubt. And there was no paper trail.”

JohnsonTransfer 001
Michael Donaldson, Senior Audio Production Specialist, in the Recording Laboratory of the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, 1997. Mike was making a transfer of the Robert Johnson test pressing of “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Photo by James Hardin, Library of Congress.

AFC has test pressings of much of the Robert Johnson oeuvre, some of which probably preserve the sound better than extant commercial copies, but the alternate “Traveling Riverside Blues” is the only performance whose unique primary source is here. When The Complete Recordings was issued as a box set in 1991, AFC’s test pressing was unknown to the world. But it obviously belongs with the rest of the collection, and when The Complete Recordings was reissued in 2011, AFC’s pressing was included. The purchase of the test pressing was also significant to AFC’s history; the money went toward indexing the Lomax archive in New York, which ultimately contributed to AFC’s acquisition of the Alan Lomax Collection in 2004.

I’ll return in my next post with the rest of the AFC recordings on the National Recording Registry–stay tuned!

[Note: This post drew on text prepared for the National Recording Registry by other Library of Congress staff members.  I don’t know the authors’ names, and the text is in the public domain. However, I’d like to acknowledge and thank my colleagues throughout the Library!]


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