The vast collections of creative works deposited at the Library of Congress for copyright registration over the decades chronicle the artistic genius of generations of Americans — even budding geniuses.
When Paul Simon came to the Library in 2007 to accept its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, Music Division librarians were able to present him with the original manuscript for the first song he ever wrote, a tune he composed at age 12 or 13 called “The Girl for Me.”
Simon’s dad had written out the music and lyrics on paper and submitted it for copyright registration. The Library stored the submission away for safekeeping — years before Simon composed “The Sound of Silence” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” years before anyone could know the historical significance that piece of paper would one day hold.
Over the past 150 years, the Library has preserved millions of such works as submissions for copyright to the U.S. Copyright Office, located in the Library.
Those submissions preserve works everyone knows (Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) alongside multitudes that went unheard (an unpublished musical version of “The Great Gatsby”) or were heard and forgotten (“Do the Oz,” a song based on the “Hokey Pokey” that John Lennon wrote to raise funds for the defense of Oz magazine in an obscenity trial).
In 1870, Congress passed legislation that transferred the copyright function from federal courts to the Library — a milestone in copyright history and in the development of Library collections.
The law required authors, poets, artists, composers and mapmakers to deposit at the Library two copies of each published work registered for copyright in the U.S. Later, the law also allowed for the submission of some unpublished works.
Portions of the massive collection of copyright deposits eventually were transferred to other Library divisions for preservation — a treasure trove of history that otherwise might be lost.
We know how the march played at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral in 1865 goes because the composer’s daughter submitted the music manuscript, “To the Memory of President Lincoln,” for copyright in 1911.
Copyright deposits capture milestones, even if they aren’t recognized as such until years later.
The Copyright Office holds the unpublished deposit for a 1980 “Star Wars” Christmas album that marks the recording debut of Jon Bon Jovi, who sang lead vocals on “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” (Sample lyric: “If the snow becomes too deep, just give a little beep. We’ll go there by the fire and warm your little wires.”)
They reveal new dimensions to famous folks — an unpublished composition by a 14-year-old Aaron Copland, for example, or unpublished plays written by Tennessee Williams and Zora Neale Hurston.
The Manuscript Division holds 13 such plays by Mae West, the actress and sex symbol whose ability to impart suggestive meaning to any line onscreen is immediately apparent in her writings, too. “The things I can teach you are not in the books,” a seductress slyly tells Professor Thinktank in “Ruby Ring,” a 20-page play West submitted for copyright in 1921.
In 1997, a Library staffer discovered 10 unpublished plays written by Hurston, the African American anthropologist and author who died in obscurity in 1960. She later became celebrated for her novels and work as a folklorist, but few knew of her ambitions as a dramatist until that discovery among copyright deposits nearly four decades later.
Copyright deposits record the history of events that never even happened.
The Music Division holds songs composed for productions that were begun and then called off, including dozens for a live TV musical version of “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rainbow Road to Oz,” a film project that proposed to star the Mouseketeers as characters from the Land of Oz.
They help scholars and artists better understand the works they study and perform.
William Grant Still, the “dean of African American composers,” wrote “Grief” in 1953, and a version published a few years later introduced an error into the final line of vocals. For decades, performers unwittingly sang the piece wrong.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Still’s daughter, feeling something wasn’t quite right, examined the original version submitted for copyright and discovered the mistake — finally, some 50 years on, allowing the piece to be heard as the composer intended.
Copyright deposits are a great resource for the study of early African American music.
That material preserves songs by well-known figures: the original manuscript of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and Bessie Smith’s manuscript for “Wasted Life Blues,” on which she crossed out her husband’s name as composer and wrote in her own.
But they also are invaluable for preserving works by lesser-known artists, shows such as Henry Creamer and Turner Layton’s “Ebony Nights” (1921) and Louis Douglass and James P. Johnson’s “The Policy Kings” from 1938.
Movie studios tragically threw away historical music scores to save the expense of storage — even the original music for “The Wizard of Oz” didn’t survive. Copyright deposits preserve elements of films and TV shows that otherwise might not exist.
The Music Division holds original scores for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and lead sheets to songs — “I’m in the Middle of a Muddle,” “Pretending,” “Raga-Daga-Day” — that didn’t make the cut for Disney’s classic “Cinderella.”
Copyright deposits preserve Elmer Bernstein’s score for “The Ten Commandments,” Jerry Goldsmith’s avant-garde work on “Planet of the Apes” and music Charlie Chaplin composed for his own films.
With the advent of sound technology, Chaplin went back and wrote scores for his silent features. In his 1919 film “Sunnyside,” Chaplin milks a cow directly into his coffee and holds a chicken over a pan to get an egg for breakfast — a scene eventually accompanied by a waltz composed by Chaplin and submitted for copyright in April 1977, eight months before his death.
Pieces of history, preserved by the copyright process for posterity.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.
That was very interesting and entertaining (especially the part about Charlie Chaplin adding the milk directly to the coffee cup from the cow)!
Wonderful story. I really love the thought of a father sending in his 12 year old’s song who may or may not become famous. And the laugh I got from Bessie Smith crossing out her husband’s name. Your efforts are truly appreciated to preserve both renown and obscure treasures. Thank you.