When it comes to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry—with which I have worked for the past decade—some questions about it are easy to answer. For example…
How many recordings are on the National Registry? Answer: As of today, 625. (Each year, the Librarian of Congress chooses 25 recordings that are “culturally, historically and aesthetically important” to our American sound heritage. The 2024 NRR is expected to be announced in April.)
How old does a recording have to be before it can be considered for the Registry? Answer: at least 10 years old.
What’s the oldest recording on the NRR? Answer: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograms from c. 1853-1861.
But other questions are, well, a little less cut and dried.
Consider: A question that I sometimes get is “How many women are on the National Recording Registry?” or “How many African American artists are on the Registry?” Both seem like simple, straightforward questions, but, when it comes to the National Recording Registry (along with is companion, the National Film Registry), things can get complicated…in fact, they get complicated really, really fast.
Let’s consider, first, the question of women on the NRR. When people ask this question they probably want to know about some of the world’s most groundbreaking and influential female entertainers who have, so far, been recognized among the Registry’s ranks. And they won’t be disappointed to know that, currently on the NRR, are the albums “Judy at Carnegie Hall” by Judy Garland, “Horses” by Patti Smith, “Tapestry” by Carole King and “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner, among other LPs by female artists. They’ll also be happy, and probably not too surprised, to know that Loretta Lynn’s recording of her own composition “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is on the NRR as is Dolly’s single, “Coat of Many Colors.” Moreover, you can also find on the NRR recordings by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mamie Smith, and Fanny Brice, among many others.
But after those women we must also include in this count some other Registry recordings which, at first, might be overlooked when it comes to the question of women’s involvement—but shouldn’t! The Velvet Underground & Nico, whose debut album was added to the NRR in 2006, includes, not only, of course, Nico, but also influential drummer Maureen (“Mo”) Tucker. Therefore, that is two more “women on the Registry.” Similarly, one-fourth of the seminal rock band Talking Heads (their album “Remain in Light” was added to the NRR in 2016) is female—Tina Weymouth. And Kim Gordon is a member of Sonic Youth whose album “Daydream Nation” was added to the NRR in 2005. That’s two more.
Digging a little deeper… Not surprisingly, one of the first collections of recordings added to the NRR was the Victor Talking Machine recording sessions held in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927. Those sessions—commonly known as the “Big Bang” of country music—are made up of over 70 recordings and while the overwhelming majority of those recorded during the sessions were men, some very vital and important female artists were also there, perhaps most notably Mother Maybelle Carter and Sarah Carter of the Original Carter Family. Hence, we must count these women (among the other women at the sessions) in our master roll call of women on the Registry.
The original cast show album “Gypsy” was added to the NRR in 2009. While composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim were male, what is that show (and this recording) without its powerhouse star Ethel Merman? A similar question can be asked in terms of “West Side Story” (added in 2008) and the show’s lovely soprano Carol Lawrence and about “Sweeney Todd’s” original album (added to the NRR in 2013) and the unique genius of its co-star Angela Lansbury. Other cast albums that also present complexities because they, of course, have female co-stars are “Porgy & Bess,” “South Pacific” and “My Fair Lady.”
Additionally, what also must be considered is the fact that the National Recording Registry honors all sorts of recordings beyond just commercially-released music. The NRR recognizes radio broadcasts, spoken-word recordings, and field recordings among other types of sound documents. And, not surprisingly, many of these works feature women in vital roles. A case in point: a March 4, 1940 episode of radio’s long-running “Fibber McGee & Molly” show was added to the NRR in 2007. The “Molly” of “Fibber McGee & Molly,” was actress Marian Jordan who, of course, appears in this episode. Other radio entries on the Registry include an episode of Mary Margaret McBride’s long-running talk radio program. Specifically what was added—in 2008—was a January 1943 interview that McBride did with acclaimed writer Zora Neale Hurston. (An interview, by the way, which was for many years one of the Library of Congress’ most frequently requested items.) So: I assume this latter program then counts as TWO more women on the Registry?
And things only get more complex from there!
On the NRR there are many symphonic and choral works. Often these orchestras and choruses include female members. These women cannot and should not be ignored. Now, do each of these women count as one entry on the NRR or do I count them all individually?
What then about recordings of songs written by women but recorded by a man? Elvis’ early Sun Sessions is on the Registry, added in 2002 and at least one of those songs (“Tryin’ to Get to You”) was composed by a woman. (Rose Marie McCoy co-wrote it with Charles Singleton.)
Back in 2003, the entire broadcast day of September 21, 1939 from radio station WJSV out of Washington, DC, was added to the NRR. It is a time capsule that begins at a 6:00am sign-on and ends at a 1:00am sign off the next morning. As can be imagined, many women—featured on talk programs, on radio soap operas and on other programs—are all captured therein. Do I count all these women as being on the Registry?
In case you were wondering, yes, all these gray areas exist within the Registry not just in terms of women but also about other groupings that people might be curious about. African Americans on the Registry? Yes, they include Cab Calloway, Aretha, Little Richard, Lauryn Hill, James Brown, Otis Redding, the Supremes and onward. But, also on the Registry is a September 1962 interview that Studs Terkel did with James Baldwin. It was added to the NRR in 2005. I assume Mr. Baldwin should be included in this tally?
Meanwhile, during the aforementioned Bristol Sessions of 1927, among that array of those recordings were two songs by El Watson, an African American musician. He cannot be ignored. So do the Bristol Sessions count among the number of black performers on the NRR? The same question about women as part of choral groups and orchestras (and in Broadway shows, for that matter) also, obviously, extends to tallies of African Americans on the NRR as it would to totals attempting to tabulate Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and everyone else on the Registry.
As the Recording Registry grows—25 recordings are added each and every year by the Librarian of Congress—answers to questions like these will probably only become more complicated and, in the end, be like professional baseball stats and “Guinness World Records” that often have to be listed with a litany of asterisks and caveats and footnotes attached to them.
But rather than dwell on the complexities and difficulty of giving definitive answers to inquiries like this, it seems far better to, instead, use these numbers and totals (inexact as they may be) to highlight not only the extraordinary array of audio recordings commemorated by the National Recording Registry but also the exceptional array of people included in it—all genders, all nationalities.
The Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry accepts public nominations the year round. Feel free to nominate via this link.
For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.