This blog post was co-written with Matt Barton, Curator, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress
Each year, the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress chooses 25 recordings showcasing the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage in order to increase preservation awareness. The diversity of nominations received highlights the richness of the nation’s audio legacy and underscores the importance of assuring the long-term preservation of that legacy for future generations. No static, unchanging list can embody all that recordings have meant over the years, but the Registry has grown into a broadly representative collection of our audible heritage. Every item provides a teachable moment in itself, but together they are much more than the sum of their parts, and this rough chronology of the new items puts them in that context.
1. The Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings at the University of California at Santa Barbara (c.1890-1910)
2. The Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection, recorded at the 1893 World’s Columbian, Exposition at Chicago (1893)
One of the most prescient early uses of recording technology was made by art specialist Benjamin Ives Gilman at the 1893 Chicago Exposition, a sprawling six-month event attended by over 27 million. Music of every description was performed, and Gilman recorded 101 cylinders of the most exotic kinds on offer, ranging from the Middle East to the South Seas to the Pacific Northwest, making the earliest recordings of many styles. More mundane, but no less fascinating “vernacular” recordings from this period have also been added, made in the homes of early purchasers of Edison home cylinder recordings.
3. The Boys of the Lough/The Humours of Ennistymon–Michael Coleman, (1922)
Though born in County Sligo, Ireland, fiddler Michael Coleman made his name in America. His recordings sold well throughout his lifetime and beyond, and in Ireland, gave traditional music new health and commercial credibility.
4. Black Snake Moan/ Match Box Blues–Blind Lemon Jefferson (1928)
Another artist whose recordings reached an unexpectedly large audience was bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. Although the “classic” style of blues pioneered by Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and other female vocalists was widely popular, Jefferson was the first country blues player to find an audience on record.
5. Sorry, Wrong Number (episode of “Suspense” radio series, May 25, 1943)
6. Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (single)–Johnny Mercer (1944)
7. Radio Coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Funeral–Arthur Godfrey, et al. (April 14, 1945)
Sorry, Wrong Number, an intense, tightly focused radio play from 1943 of a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on a crossed phone line proved to be one of radio drama’s defining productions. Johnny Mercer’s Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, an optimistic song meant to bolster wartime morale, was one of the biggest hits of 1944. Real life radio drama has also been added in the form of Arthur Godfrey’s emotional coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral cortege through Washington, DC in April, 1945.
8. Kiss Me, Kate (original cast album) (1949)
For most of 1948, a musician’s strike kept new music from being recorded. The strike ended just before the premiere of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate right after Christmas. Porter had been in a creative rut, but the show’s instant success prompted Columbia Records to rush out the now classic original cast album within six weeks of opening night.
9. John Brown’s Body (album)–Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson, and Raymond Massey; directed by Charles Laughton (1953)
John Brown’s Body, a very different kind of show, was memorialized on record in 1953. Charles Laughton’s staged dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic Civil War poem featured three actors handling narration and several character voices, with a choir providing responses, interludes and even sound effects. It lasted nearly two hours, spread over four 12″ album sides, an audacious but highly effective use of this still young format.
10. My Funny Valentine (single)–The Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring Chet Baker (1953)
The rise of bebop and American jazz musicians’ embrace of Latin rhythms and melodies brought a new kind of intensity and excitement to jazz in the 1940s. Both trends remained influential in 1953, but the cool, inward looking sounds of West Coast jazz were now maturing, as can be heard in Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s reworking of the standard My Funny Valentine.
11. Sixteen Tons (single)–Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)
Industrial manufacturing in the United States was at a peak in 1955, yet a 1946 song about Kentucky coal miners captured the popular imagination. When Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded Merle Travis’s Sixteen Tons, he sang in the easygoing rhythms of his earlier country hits, but drew on his formal vocal training to imbue the song with operatic sense of tragic destiny.
12. Mary Don’t You Weep (single)–The Swan Silvertones (1959)
By the late 1950s, rock and roll and R&B were thriving, but artists who sang from the roots of those styles were still a force to be reckoned with. In 1959, the year Ray Charles rocked jukeboxes with What’d I Say, gospel greats the Swan Silvertones recaptured the epic dimensions of the spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep.
13. Joan Baez (album)–Joan Baez (1960)
14. Stand by Me (single)–Ben E. King (1961)
15. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (single)–The Righteous Brothers (1964)
16. The Doors (album)–The Doors (1967)
Meanwhile, young urban singers were finding affirmation in folk music. On her first album, Joan Baez sang from several folk traditions in a ringing, authoritative soprano very different from the harmonies of the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. In the same era, Ben E. King’s Stand By Me and the Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin‘ brought a new depth of feeling to pop music. In 1967, the Doors would reach for a similar intensity but underscore it with a sardonic mixture of blues, Bertholt Brecht and Oedipal tension.
17. New Orleans’ Sweet Emma Barrett and her Preservation Hall Jazz Band (album)–Sweet Emma and her Preservation Hall Jazz Band (1964)
Early New Orleans jazz greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong made it onto records early, and had international impact. Pianist and singer Sweet Emma Barrett stayed closer to home, and was a mainstay of the local scene long after its glory days. Her 1964 album was an unreconstructed celebration of all that is homespun, earthy and enduring in New Orleans jazz.
18. Stand! (album)–Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
Sly and the Family Stone were even more eclectic than the Doors, but their mix of psychedelia and soul music was the vehicle for a wholly different message. The album Stand! was their defining work, and a much needed and appreciated message amidst the strife of the late 1960s.
19. Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues (album)–Lincoln Mayorga (1968)
Recording innovation was fast and furious in the late 1960s as new technologies emerged, but musician Lincoln Mayorga looked to the disc-based recording that preceded tape, and showed how a superior sound could be achieved with a live signal that went straight to a master disc.
20. A Wild and Crazy Guy (album)–Steve Martin (1978)
Steve Martin’s debut album was a major success, but far from basking in that success, A Wild and Crazy Guy shows him building his persona further, still surprising his audience and breaking down whatever rules remained in standup after his first album.
21. Sesame Street: All-Time Platinum Favorites (album)–Various (1995)
Music was always central to Sesame Street. All-Time Platinum Favorites is one of the dozens of albums issued in the show’s more than 45 year history, but this all-star tribute is the best example of the show’s impact on popular music.
22. OK Computer (album)–Radiohead (1997)
Expressions of dread, impermanence and alienation now have a long pedigree in rock music. The Velvet Underground, Love, Pink Floyd and Nirvana have explored these areas in their own eras, and Radiohead’s OK Computer is the most effective and enduring realization of these themes in recent times.
23. Songs of the Old Regular Baptists –Various (1997)
From the same year, but another perspective, come the hymns of the Old Regular Baptist churches of Kentucky, which can be traced to the days of the Protestant Reformation. To the outsider, they seem eerie and otherworldly, but represent a musical and spiritual triumph over earthly fears and deprivations, much as the related tradition of Southern shape note singing also does.
24. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (album)–Lauryn Hill (1998)
25. Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman (album)–Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor; Joan Tower, composer (1999)
Like Stand, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was as a unique blend of mainstream and underground music, fueled by nearly thirty more years of music that Hill drew on for her statement. A year later, as the millennium closed, composer Joan Tower’s five Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman, composed throughout the 90s, were recorded together for the first time by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. Over the years, classical music has been well represented on the Registry, but not women composers or conductors, and these outstanding performances will surely usher in others.
Everyone is welcome to submit nominations to the National Recording Registry. Nominations are forwarded to the Librarian of Congress and the National Recording Preservation Board for their consideration.