This is a guest post by Amanda Jenkins, a librarian in residence in the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. It was first published on the Now See Hear! blog last week. We’re republishing a slightly edited version, as we’re counting down until the newest 25 additions to the Library’s National Recording Registry are announced tomorrow, March 20.
The National Recording Registry is well-known for its selections of music of all genres, but many historic radio and spoken word recordings also have been inducted. The Registry ensures that “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” recordings are preserved for future generations, and that includes speeches, field recordings, comedy albums, early attempts at recording sound, oral histories, literary readings and…whales.
In this post, we’re celebrating some of the fascinating non-musical titles in the Registry.
Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong Broadcast from the Moon (July 21, 1969) – inducted in 2004.
Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moonwalk, in which he was joined by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lasted two hours and 13 minutes. They collected soil samples, took photos and hoisted an American flag. Throughout their excursion, the astronauts maintained a steady radio conversation between themselves and Mission Control in Houston, Texas. From that conversation comes some of the most famous words in human history— “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Read an essay by Cary O’Dell of the National Recording Preservation Board (and regular Now See Hear! blogger) about the broadcast.
A transcript of the transmission, with audio and video clips, can be found on NASA’s website.
“2000 Years with Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks” (1961) – inducted in 2008
The secret to living 2000 years? “Never touch fried foods!” In their party routine first performed for friends, Mel Brooks played a 2000-year-old man, while Carl Reiner interviewed him. After much convincing, the two writers for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” recorded their ad-libbed dialogue for a 1961 album. Interview subjects ranged from marriage (“I was married over 200 times!”) to children (“I have over 1500 children and not one of them ever comes to visit!”) and to transportation (“What was the means of transportation? Fear!”).
Listen to a Studio 360 feature on this comedy recording.
Phonautograms, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (ca. 1853-1861) – inducted in 2010
In late 1853 or early 1854, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville captured the first recorded sounds by etching onto blackened glass plates the movements of a boar’s-bristle stylus, vibrating in sympathy with a guitar and a human voice. Later, Scott made recordings on paper wrapped around a drum. The resulting “phonautograms” proved crucial to the development of recorded sound. Scott was interested solely in the visible tracings of sound waves in order to study acoustics and did not record with the intention of playing back or listening to his recordings. Nevertheless, in 2008, researchers from the First Sounds group, using contemporary audio technology (developed with the support of several institutions, including the Library of Congress and the National Recording Preservation Board) were able to play back Scott’s recordings for the very first time.
Listen to the phonautograms on the First Sounds website.
Cylinder Recordings of Ishi (1911–14) – inducted in 2010
Recorded on 148 wax cylinders between September 1911 and April 1914, these recordings represent the largest audio collection of the extinct Yahi language. Ishi, the last surviving member of the Northern California Yahi tribe and the last speaker of its language, sings traditional Yahi songs and tells stories, including the story of “Wood Duck” recorded on 51 cylinders. The complete recordings, totaling 5 hours and 41 minutes, were made by anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman during Ishi’s five-year residency at the University of California Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco (now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley). The cylinders are held at the Hearst Museum in Berkeley.
Read an essay by Cary O’Dell for a more detailed account of these recordings.
“All Things Considered,” first broadcast (May 3, 1971) – inducted in 2016
The National Public Radio flagship news program “All Things Considered” launched on May 3, 1971, one month after the network itself began broadcasting. With an emphasis on “interpretation, investigative reporting on public affairs, the world of ideas and the arts,” in the words of programming head Bill Siemering, “All Things Considered” aimed to give voice to diverse segments of American society in a relaxed, conversational mode. The first broadcast, however, featuring recorded excerpts from a huge antiwar protest in the nation’s capital that took place the same day, was “raw, visceral, and took listeners to the heart of America’s agonies over the war in Vietnam,” remembered Susan Stamberg, an NPR staffer at the time, who became a co-host of the show the following year. While the inaugural program was broadcast to approximately 90 stations across the nation, reaching only a few hundred thousand listeners, “All Things Considered” has since become, according to NPR, “the most listened-to afternoon drive-time news radio program in the country.”
“The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” Reverend C. L. Franklin (1953) – inducted in 2010
Long before his daughter Aretha attained stardom in the 1960s, Rev. C.L. Franklin (1915-1984) was a recording star in his own right, with dozens of his riveting sermons reaching an audience well beyond his New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. African-American entrepreneur Joe Von Battle, whose record shop was only a few blocks from Franklin’s church, recorded Franklin’s sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” and released it on three 78-rpm discs on his JVB label in 1953. In the sermon, Franklin draws his text from the Book of Deuteronomy and expounds on the parallels between “God and the eagle.” He builds to a thunderously emotional climax before his very enthusiastic and vocal congregation. Franklin’s many vocal devices inspired not only other preachers, but also gospel and rhythm-and-blues artists who appropriated many of his techniques. Franklin was a national figure in the African-American community from the 1950s on and a close friend and ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Songs of the Humpback Whale” (1970) – inducted in 2010
The use of underwater microphones, called hydrophones, showed that not only can whales communicate, but they do so with beauty and complexity. Frank Watlington and Roger Payne, among others, made these unique recordings. The haunting sounds on “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” along with Payne’s liner notes for CRM Records, helped turn the tide of U.S. public opinion against whaling. In addition to the album’s aesthetic and political significance, it can also be considered historically valuable: whales change their songs over time so these recordings document a cetacean performance practice of a time gone by.
“Murmurs of the Earth,” disc prepared for the Voyager spacecraft (1977) – inducted in 2007
This disc was prepared to introduce our planet aurally to any alien intelligence that might encounter the Voyager spacecraft many millions of years in the future. The disc contains encoded photographs, spoken messages, music and sounds as well as greetings delivered in 55 languages. The sound essay includes life sounds (EEGs and EKGs of the human brain and heart), birds, elephants, whales, volcanoes, rain and a baby. The 90 minutes of music features selections ranging from ragas to Navajo Indian chants, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, a Peruvian Woman’s Wedding song, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Learn more about the “Golden Record” and listen to excerpts on NASA’s website.
Due to copyrights, many Registry titles are not available for listening online. Early musical recordings are available in the National Jukebox, including a few Registry titles; interviews conducted in the 1980s by recording industry giant Joe Smith for his 1988 book, Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music, feature dozens of the musicians behind Registry titles; and many musical titles are discussed in an NPR series as well as a Studio 360 series on the Registry. Many of the non-music Registry titles can be listened to in the Recorded Sound Research Center.
A full list of the recordings in the Registry with descriptions and links to essays, podcasts, and ways to listen is available here. Have suggestions for further additions to the Registry? Take a look at the list of titles already in the Registry, and nominate a recording here.