This blog post was co-written with Jan McKee, Reference Librarian, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.
During World War II scrap drives were a popular way for everyone to contribute to the war effort. By recycling unused or unwanted metal for example, the government could build ships, airplanes and other equipment needed to fight the war. Unfortunately, much of our aural heritage was compromised or completely lost due to these drives.
The general belief, shared by both the recording industry and the audience, was that entertainment was ephemeral and didn’t need to be protected or preserved. Popular music was perceived to have no lasting value, and the recording companies never viewed it as important to save and archive sound recordings, master recordings and alternate takes. To most of the recording industry, warehousing yesterday’s popular records and the masters needed to press them was just one huge, expensive headache. World War II scrap drives were the perfect answer to the industry’s storage problems. Suddenly, emptying the archive turned into a patriotic duty.
Commercial 78rpm recordings were made of shellac, and during the war record companies’ supply of shellac was severely restricted. Although older recordings were seen as having no worthwhile historic value, the value of new records to the morale of both service and civilian populations was well documented. In June of 1942 a non-profit patriotic organization named Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc. was formed to make record salvage a war effort operation. Kay Kyser, Kate Smith and Gene Autry were initially named president and vice-presidents and many other performers and radio stars such as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Marian Anderson and Fritz Reiner signed on to be sponsors and join the efforts. Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc. recruited the American Legion to handle the actual collection of the discs. The salvaged shellac would be sold to record manufacturers, who would recycle it to make new records, and the money raised would be used to buy new records for the fighting forces. Geoffrey Perret states in his “Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph; the American People, 1933-1945,” “Every drive proved a decided success. When phonograph records were called for (to recover their precious shellac), they piled up by the hundreds of millions.”
In the May 22, 1943 issue of Billboard Magazine, Records for Our Fighting Men announced its second scrap drive. The announcement hoped for greater success than the first drive when only 4 million pounds were collected, resulting in 300,000 newly purchased records distributed for servicemen.
While it is impossible to know exactly how many recordings were lost during the World War II shellac drives, by far the greater loss was the destruction of the metal masters. Most record companies saw little value in archiving their older recordings. An early exception was the pioneering reissues by George Avakian at Columbia Records in 1940 of works by Louie Armstrong’s Hot Fives, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith, among others. The general perception was that recordings from older catalogs were of negligible value and not a source of future revenue. As aluminum and copper, the materials used to make metal masters and stampers, were desperately needed for the war effort, scrap metal became an important commodity during World War II. And record company vaults were full of old metal masters and stampers. Recording companies donated untold numbers of masters to scrap metal drives.
Mr. Avakian, in an interview in October 2000 for Jazz Times, recalls giving Louis Armstrong the newly discovered test pressing of his Hot Fives and Sevens in 1940 and both of them realizing that had he not saved them they would have been automatically recycled because of the scrap drives. In a later interview with Felix Contreas, co-host of the program, Alt. Latino on NPR, Avakian again talks about saving unreleased masters, this time of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and Lonnie Johnson, from being melted down for scrap.
In addition to commercial recordings, early radio broadcast recordings were also affected. Elizabeth McLeod, in her online article on early radio, “Documenting Early Radio,” points out that many recordings of early radio programs were lost because they were usually recorded on aluminum discs. In 1935, NBC, spurred by the introduction of the so-called “acetate” recording disc, established its radio recording division and, for the first time, a radio network began to archive copies of its broadcasts and did not sacrifice them to the war effort. Researchers can use the NBC Radio History Collection, donated to the Library, which contains 150,000 sixteen-inch lacquer discs dating from the early days of the network to the 1980’s, including some that pre-date 1935. But for the most part it’s very difficult to find recordings of radio broadcasts prior to 1935. Ms. McLeod lists World War II scrap metal drives as one of the reasons that so few of these early recordings survived. As she says, what patriotic performer could hold onto ten years of old radio broadcasts when there was a war to be won? There are so few surviving recordings of early radio broadcasts that Ms. McLeod has actually listed all of the known radio broadcasts recordings made between 1920 and 1931 which still exist today. The SONIC catalog, one of the Library’s online catalogs for sound recordings, lists only seventeen recordings including those from NBC from the same time period.
Happily, a lucky exception to record companies donating their metal masters to the war effort was the Universal Music Group (UMG) that donated to the Library more than 200,000 historic master recordings. Totaling in excess of 5,000 linear feet, UMG’s gift is the largest single donation ever received by the Library’s Recorded Sound Section and the first major collection of studio master materials ever obtained making this gift an especially important and significant one. Among the collection’s thousands of metal and lacquer discs are released and unreleased recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, the Andrews Sisters, Connee Boswell, Jimmy Dorsey, the Mills Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Fred Waring, Judy Garland and Dinah Washington. The company’s gift also includes historic masters from such subsidiary labels as Decca, Mercury, Vocalion and Brunswick dating from the late 1920’s through the late 1940s.