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American Music from A to Z in the NLS Music Collection: G is for Groove

What do you associate with the term “groove?” Perhaps you are a vinyl fan, or you may think of a cool piece of music. This blog is going to look at the meaning of groove from three angles. First we’ll investigate where the term comes from, then talk a little about analog records and how digital technologies have helped to restore them here at the Library, and third, we’ll look at the groove that is inherent to American music.

So, where does the word come from? Back in the 1400s, the term first appeared in Scandinavian and Middle Dutch languages. In Old Norse, “grod” was the word for something that designated a pit dug in the earth, or a cave. Similarly, in Middle Dutch the word “groeve” referred to a furrow or ditch, which was very similar to the Old High German word “gruoba” which also meant ditch, grave or pit. In 1902, technological innovation began to record sounds by engraving them into lacquer, then later vinyl. The word “groove” started to become the term to describe the spiral track cut into an analog phonograph record.

IRENE is a digitizing machine that captures the audio information of grooves in a non-invasive manner through high resolution imaging. In the front of the picture is the machine that has a turntable with a laser over it. In the background is an enlarged photograph of the image of a recording's grooves as taken by IRENE. The grooves are vertical lines with some wave-shapes. The lines are represented in two shades of purple and separated by white lines in between.

Digitizing machine IRENE with image of grooves in the background. Picture taken by the author, November 16, 2018.

This brings us to the second perspective on grooves: the grooves of records and their digital restoration. Sound recordings have been around since the late 1800s, starting with grooves cut onto wax cylinders, and moving on to grooves cut onto flat round discs in various materials from lacquer to vinyl.

Playing back sounds in an analog fashion by placing a stylus to go through the grooves is a somewhat delicate operation. In fact, the grooves of a phonographic record wear out every time you play them. For sure, such recordings are more fragile than their digital counterparts, as analog records can be damaged by dust, or by scratches and even breakages. Since 2006, the Library of Congress has worked and improved the project called IRENE, which stands for “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.” IRENE is a digitizing machine that captures the audio information of grooves in a non-invasive manner through high resolution, three-dimensional imaging. It can help to complete damaged or missing grooves in digital format. More information is available through various Library of Congress blogs and videos. If that sparks your interest in best practices on preserving audio materials, you may find this link helpful: //www.loc.gov/preservation/care/record.html.

From here, let us talk about the musical groove. Like the photograph, which creates a sense of structure and steadiness with its parallel vertical lines, a musical groove provides exactly that: a feel of a constant, regular beat. Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, musician and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, describes the two-beat groove in an excellent manner during his Harvard lecture “Music as Metaphor,” (DBM04299). He states that the two-beat groove provides a steady ground rhythm, an unyielding reference point that musicians may challenge with variety of crossing rhythms, but the groove stays stable. Marsalis further explains that it is this type of groove, that “gives us an African sensibility in the heart of American music,” and that it “is common ground, what we all agree upon … like a musical version of the rule of law, steady and undisputed … it derives from the most basic and constant motion and rhythm you create by walking.”

Would you like to get into the groove with some NLS materials? Below are some choices for you. You can download them directly from BARD or you can contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected] If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

From the NLS Music Collection

Audio – Music Appreciation

Fatha Hines Groove. From the series: Origins of Jazz. Traces the development of Hines’s unique jazz piano style throughout the long span of his career. (DBM00054)

Wynton Marsalis. Harvard Lecture #1: Music as Metaphor. Two-beat Groove. (DBM04299)

Audio – Music Instruction

Bill Brown. 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). (DBM02335)

Bill Brown. Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley. For bass guitar. (DBM0431)

Braille – Selected Music Scores

O’Hearn, Arletta. In a Jazz Groove. For piano. (BRM35702)

McLean, Edwin. Cool Groove. For piano. (BRT37440)

Friedland, Ed. Hal Leonard Bass Method. Complete Edition. Volume 3: Locking in to the Groove. (BRM37022)

Fake Book for Jazz Guitar. Book Two. (BRM24399)

Available from the General NLS Collection

Haskins, James. One Nation under a Groove: Rap Music and Its Roots. (DB 52607)

Sax, David. The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. (DB 86737)