Jazz Recordings Among the 25 New Additions to National Recording Registry

Library of Congress announces list of recordings selected for preservation this year

Willis Conover
Professor Longhair album cover

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Every year the Library of Congress, in accordance with the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, selects 25 recordings to be preserved for posterity. The criteria for selection are both specific and general enough to produce a diversity that would astound just about any record collector. According to a press release received at the magazine, the recordings must be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and be at least 10 years old.

Given those criteria, I’d like to think my homemade yet finely crafted Christmas mix tapes or my bootleg of Fugazi at the original 9:30 Club would be worthy candidates, but the phone hasn’t rung yet. As a Chicago Cubs fan might say, there’s always next year. This is the ninth year of this project and there are now 325 recordings in the so-called registry, but it turns out that the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division’s collections include nearly 3 million sound recordings. Here’s hoping.

This year’s preservation collection, recently announced by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, includes a few very interesting jazz recordings, such as: “It’s the Girl,” from The Boswell Sisters with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra; the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert on July 2, 1944 featuring Illinois Jacquet, Nat “King” Cole, Les Paul, Meade Lux Lewis, Buddy Rich, J.J. Johnson and others; Willis Conover’s interviews with jazz musicians for the Voice of America from 1956; and Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” from 1959. The list also includes blues legend Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” guitarist John Fahey’s “Blind Joe Death,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica, “Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and a 1908 version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Nothing wrong with catholic tastes when it comes to our nation’s library, though their press release describing the selections may very well contain the first use of this phrase: “…and the innovative jazz of Henry Mancini.” A description made more ironic by the fact that the selection was the less-than-jazzy theme for Peter Gunn, that provided a truly seminal lick for several generations of Strat or Telecaster guitar players.

The complete list, along with the Library’s supplied descriptions, is provided below.

Gene DeAnna, whose full title is “Head, Recorded Sound Section, MBRS Division, Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation,” confirmed via e-mail that the selections are made by Dr. Billington, from a list of nominations made by the National Recording Preservation Board members as well as from public nominations solicited on the Registry website. “The staff from the Recorded Sound Section meet every year with Dr. Billington, to play selections and discuss the recordings at length,” explained DeAnna. “But absolutely the final arbiter is the Librarian of Congress.”

In the press release we received at JT, the Librarian himself magnificently described the philosophy of this program. After all, as a librarian and the nation’s top reader, he should be a pretty good writer. “America’s recorded-sound heritage has in many ways transformed the soundscape of the modern world, resonating and flowing through our cultural memory,” wrote Billington. “Audio recordings have documented our lives and allowed us to share artistic expressions and entertainment. Songs, words and the natural sounds of the world that we live in have been captured on one of the most perishable of all of our art media. The salient question is not whether we should preserve these artifacts, but how best collectively to save this indispensable part of our history.”

How indeed? We’re talking about preservation here, so of course the $64 question (probably a bit more costly than that) is: How exactly are they preserved? DeAnna explained that although they try to get the best possible copy of all the Registry recordings, things can get complicated. “Obviously masters would be ideal, but commercial masters are the property of record labels and artists typically, so that can be a challenge,” wrote DeAnna. “In the case of 78rpm era recordings, there may be no extant master, so clean commercial copies are sometimes the best we can do. Pre-1950 radio broadcasts would ideally be acquired on lacquer disc (as opposed to say a commercial release or a homemade dub), while unpublished recordings would be sought at as close to the ‘original’ recording generation as possible. We digitize every registry title we acquire to international preservation standard 96Khz 24 bit Broadcast Wave file format, using state of the art equipment and studios at the Library’s Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation in Culpepper, VA. The master files are archived on servers at the facility and backed up at another Federal facility.” Lest one think that the material has been buried deep in highly secure governmental archives, DeAnna said that the public can hear the digitized recordings in Washington, DC at the Library’s Madison Building, in the Recorded Sound Reference Center.

Call it angling or call it carping, but I had to ask about the final selection on the list, the GOPAC Strategy and Instructional Tapes (1986-1994). Not to be confused with the political satirist Mort Sahl’s “At Sunset” (selection #13), this intriguing material consists of “instructional tape recordings made by Republican leaders.” No, this is not a Daily Show parody. The tapes were created by GOPAC, a non-profit organization established in 1978 to develop and educate conservative leaders in the U.S., and to provide support to Republican candidates running for local, state and national offices. According to the Library’s description: “The tapes inform the public and aspiring politicians of conservative positions and assist them in articulating and honing their language and message on a wide array of issues, as well as providing ‘how-to’ primers on everything involved in running an effective political campaign. The recordings have proved to be extremely influential in shaping political discourse from the 1980s to the present.” You say, tomato, I say propaganda. Or, as the young people of today would text (not say): “WTF?”

DeAnna responded as if bucking for a transfer to a diplomatic position in the State Department. “Per the National Recording Preservation Act, the registry consists of ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ recordings that are ten years or more old,” he wrote. “The GOPAC recordings had an impact on what is a significant political movement in this country-as did the songs of the Almanac Singers on ‘Talking Union’-also named to this year’s Registry.” Nicely played, my governmental friend. Regardless of your politics, please add a trip to the Library of Congress to your next DC visit in order to hear the remarkable interviews of Willis Conover, the field recordings of Alan Lomax or any of the rich recorded material preserved by this country’s library.

2010 National Recording Registry

1. Phonautograms, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (ca. 1853-1861)

In late 1853 or early 1854, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville captured the first recorded sounds by etching onto blackened glass plates the movements of a boar’s-bristle stylus, vibrating in sympathy with a guitar and a human voice. Later, Scott made recordings on paper wrapped around a drum. The resulting “phonautograms” proved crucial to the development of recorded sound. Scott was interested solely in the visible tracings of sound waves in order to study acoustics and did not record with the intention of playing back or listening to his recordings. Nevertheless, in 2008, researchers from the First Sounds group, using contemporary audio technology (developed with the support of several institutions, including the Library of Congress and the National Recording Preservation Board) were able to play back Scott’s recordings for the very first time.

2. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Edward Meeker, accompanied by the Edison Orchestra (1908)

This popular song has become an unofficial national anthem of America’s national pastime. It was composed in 1908 and was recorded by all three of the major U.S. record companies, Victor, Columbia and Edison. Few copies of these recordings are now extant, which may indicate that initially the song was not as popular as it was to become later. Comic vocalist Edward Meeker, whose duties for Edison included announcing the titles and artists on hundreds of cylinder recordings, sings on this Edison cylinder recording. Meeker delivers the song in his stentorian, but good-natured baritone, including both verses, which remind us that the song is about a baseball-loving woman.

3. Cylinder Recordings of Ishi (1911-14)

Recorded on 148 wax cylinders between September 1911 and April 1914, this is the largest collection of the extinct Yahi language. Ishi, the last surviving member of the Northern California Yahi tribe and the last speaker of its language, sings traditional Yahi songs and tells stories, including the story of “Wood Duck” recorded on 51 cylinders. The complete recordings, totaling 5 hours and 41 minutes, were made by anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman during Ishi’s five-year residency at the University of California Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco (now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley). The cylinders are held at the Hearst Museum in Berkeley.

4. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” Blind Willie Johnson (1927)

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), a blind African-American guitar-evangelist from Beaumont, Texas, recorded 30 titles between 1927 and 1930. Although most of them were classics, none were quite like “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” To create this singular work, Johnson drew on an 18th-century hymn of English origin known as “Gethsemane,” which begins with the lines “Dark was the night, cold was the ground/On which my Lord was laid.” Instead of singing the lyrics, however, he evoked the sorrowful intensity of the hymn’s subject matter by humming and moaning wordlessly in the manner of a church congregation, reinforcing and ornamenting his voice with sliding notes on his guitar. Johnson has distilled the essence of the text and the tradition into an unforgettably intense evocation of the Crucifixion as relived in the music of the churches he knew in his youth.

5. “It’s the Girl,” The Boswell Sisters with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra (1931)

The Boswell Sisters-Connie, Martha and Vet-produced vocal harmonies that were magical. While polished, their creamy blend revealed their New Orleans roots with its relentless swing and deep feeling for the blues. “It’s the Girl,” a popular song of 1931, is given a classic Boswell treatment: rhythmic variations on the original song, perfect diction projected with relaxed ease and a fast tempo-with sudden tempo and mood changes-and a sprint to the end. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra accompaniment, like the Boswell Sisters’ performance, pairs the brisk, loose ease of New Orleans jazz within a tight knit ensemble.

6. “Mal Hombre,” Lydia Mendoza (1934)

Singer Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007) once said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a corrido, a waltz, a bolero, a polka or whatever. When I sing that song, I live that song.” Mendoza had been performing and recording with her family’s band since the late 1920s, and was only 16 when she recorded “Mal Hombre,” investing the song’s bitter lyrics with an artistic maturity that belied her age: “Cold-hearted man, your soul is so vile it has no name.” “Mal Hombre” launched her solo career, her stark voice and graceful 12-string guitar lines resounding strongly with the Spanish-speaking audience of Texas. The Houston-born singer was soon known as “La Alondra de la Frontera,” The Lark of the Border.

7. “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” The Sons of the Pioneers (1934)

The cowboy vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers was formed in 1933 by Roy Rogers, Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan. The group became America’s premier western singing group and remained so for decades. They still perform today with different singers. The Sons of the Pioneers are widely admired for their smooth and adventurous harmonies. Their songs serve as the foundation of non-traditional, popular cowboy music. “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was one of the songs cut at the Sons’ first recording session, and it became the group’s theme song, beautifully evoking the cowboy’s love of the land.

8. “Talking Union,” The Almanac Singers (1941)

Proponents of progressive causes and pioneers of the American folk revival movement, the Almanac Singers in 1941 recorded spirited performances of songs that have become labor-movement anthems. The members of the Almanac Singers on this recording are vocalists Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Sam Gary, Carol White, Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger (vocals and banjo) and Josh White (vocals and guitar). First issued on the Keynote label as a 78-rpm album and expanded for long-playing disc in 1955 by Folkways (now Smithsonian Folkways), the album includes songs by Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell, Jim Garland and Woody Guthrie.

9. “Jazz at the Philharmonic” (July 2, 1944)

Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) was the title of a series of jazz concerts, tours and recordings produced by Norman Granz between 1944 and 1983. With these concerts, Granz took the concept of the jam session out of the club and brought it to wider audiences via concert halls. The first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert was held on July 2, 1944, in the auditorium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. It featured many of the foremost jazz musicians of the time, including Illinois Jacquet, Nat “King” Cole, Les Paul, Meade Lux Lewis, Buddy Rich, J.J. Johnson, Shorty Sherock, Jack McVea and others. The audience that night heard a wide variety of styles, including Dixieland, Swing, early Bop, and rhythm and blues. With the publication of these selections from this concert, a wide audience was able to experience and enjoy the excitement of ad-hoc ensembles and extended solos common to jam sessions, but rarely heard on published recordings.

10. “Pope Marcellus Mass,” (Palestrina) The Roger Wagner Chorale (1951)

The Roger Wagner Chorale, established in 1947, initially specialized in madrigals of the 16th and 17th centuries. In this early recording by the Chorale, the ensemble performs with rhythmic precision and tonal opulence, inviting listeners to experience the rich beauty of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s 1562 mass.

11. “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” Reverend C. L. Franklin (1953)

Long before his daughter Aretha attained stardom in the 1960s, Rev. C.L. Franklin (1915-1984) was a recording star in his own right, with dozens of his riveting sermons reaching an audience well beyond his New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich. African-American entrepreneur Joe Von Battle, whose record shop was only a few blocks from Franklin’s church, recorded Franklin’s sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” and released it on three 78-rpm discs on his JVB label in 1953. In the sermon, Franklin draws his text from the Book of Deuteronomy and expounds on the parallels between “God and the eagle.” He builds to a thunderously emotional climax before his very enthusiastic and vocal congregation. Franklin’s many and varied vocal devices inspired not only other preachers, but also gospel and rhythm-and-blues artists who appropriated many of his techniques. Franklin was a national figure in the African-American community from the 1950s on and a close friend and ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

12. “Tipitina,” Professor Longhair (1953)

Pianist Henry Roeland Byrd (1918-1980), aka “Professor Longhair,” was a pivotal figure in New Orleans rhythm-and-blues although he attained little success outside the city before the 1970s. His music was a classic New Orleans fusion of blues figures, parade- band cadences, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies that he worked into dense, but light-fingered piano lines, and topped off with his merrily idiosyncratic singing, whistling and scatting. Although Byrd’s 1953 recording of “Tipitina” had little impact outside of his hometown, it was a signature distillation of the musical ideas and personality that inspired and influenced such New Orleans pianists as Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint.

13. “At Sunset,” Mort Sahl (1955)

“At Sunset” is an early live recording of the influential satirist and stand-up comedian Mort Sahl. Sahl’s comedy is typified by a conversational style, thoroughly grounded in up-to-the-minute topics and events, and is replete with satiric asides and smart, subtle punch lines. Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce are among the many comics who were influenced by Sahl. His approach to comedy became a staple on television and at comedy clubs for decades. This album, Sahl’s second release but earliest recording, had not been authorized and was later withdrawn. “At Sunset” nevertheless retains the distinction of being the first recording of modern stand-up comedy.

14. Interviews with Jazz Musicians for the Voice of America, Willis Conover (1956)

From 1954 until his death in 1996, Willis Conover (1920-1996) hosted thousands of jazz programs for the Voice of America radio service, broadcasting to countries where jazz was rarely heard or even allowed. Ironically, although Conover was barely known in his own country, American jazz musicians knew and appreciated his efforts on their behalf, and were frequent guests on his programs. In 1956, Conover presented a series of interviews with some of the greatest jazz artists of the era, including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and Art Tatum. The Tatum interview is the only known in-depth recorded interview with the pianist; he died later that year. For many, these interviews were a first chance to hear the thoughts of great jazz artists who had come of age with the music itself, as they shared their reflections, opinions and predictions with Conover.

15. “The Music From ‘Peter Gunn,'” Henry Mancini (1959)

The suave detective as lead character in a television program was novel when the “Peter Gunn” series debuted in 1958. To emphasize the cool, sophisticated personality of the private eye, played by Craig Stevens, composer Henry Mancini wrote jazz-inflected instrumental themes. The renowned opening theme features a driving, and catchy, jazz ostinato figure punctuated by big band blasts and throbs. The theme and album became popular in their own right, helping to make the television series a hit with audiences. This album was one of the first television soundtracks to be issued commercially, and was a favorite of the early stereo era.

16. United Sacred Harp Musical Convention in Fyffe, Alabama; field recordings by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins (1959)

Folklorist Alan Lomax characterized the folk polyphony that he and English folksinger Shirley Collins recorded at the annual United Sacred Harp Musical Convention as “choral music for a nation of individualists.” About 150 Southern shape-note singers ranging in age from under 10 to over 90 participated, singing from “The Sacred Harp,” a hymnal written in so-called “shape notes.” This 19th-century notational system was originally devised to teach untrained singers to harmonize more fluently, but it also enabled the creation of invigorating and complex pieces sung in four parts by participants seated around a square, thus creating the multi-directional cascades of voices heard on these recordings. The future of the tradition was very much in doubt when these recordings were made. Lomax and others had earlier documented Sacred Harp singing on monophonic discs. These stereo tape recordings were the first to capture the music’s full vigor and complexity. The dissemination of these recordings helped preserve and revitalize this uniquely American form both inside and outside of their original communities.

17. “Blind Joe Death,” John Fahey (1959, 1964, 1967)

In 1959 solo guitarist John Fahey self-published the first version of this album, pressing only 100 copies and distributing them locally in Washington, D.C. and among his acquaintances. In subsequent years, he re-recorded selections of the album on different occasions, expressing a preference for the more technically demanding performances on the 1967 stereo release. Heavily influenced by classic blues and folk 78-rpm recordings he had collected since his youth, Fahey’s solo guitar compositions also incorporate such surprising influences as the work of Charles Ives and Bela Bartok to forge uniquely personal statements.

18. “Stand by Your Man,” Tammy Wynette (1968)

Of the many popular recordings made by country-music vocalist Tammy Wynette, none elicited the reactions-pro and con-of “Stand By Your Man.” The song, written by Wynette and her producer Billy Sherrill, is an ode to the weakness of men, the strength of their women, love, loyalty and support. When it was released in 1968, the women’s movement in the U.S. was on the ascendancy and interpretation of the song created dissent. Must a woman stand by her man and forgive his transgressions because “after all, he’s just a man” or do such attitudes signify subservience? However interpreted, Wynette’s artistry transcends any literal message in the song. Her performance ranges from quiet, pensive reflection to a soaring, full-voiced chorus of affirmation, contributing to a song that remains one of the most beloved in country music.

19. “Trout Mask Replica,” Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (1969)

This unclassifiable melding of country, blues, folk and free jazz filtered through Captain Beefheart’s feverishly inventive imagination remains without precedent in its striking sonic and lyrical originality. Captain Beefheart (the stage name of Don Van Vliet) and the Magic Band-Bill Harkleroad, Jeff Cotton, Victor Hayden, Mark Boston and John French-had spent months sequestered in a house in Los Angeles foothills, rehearsing and re-rehearsing the compositions to meet Van Vliet’s exacting standards before they entered the studio, to be recorded by Frank Zappa. Upon its release, the album, by no means universally embraced, nonetheless garnered raves from many influential music critics. Scores of pop, new wave, punk and post-punk artists claim Beefheart as an influence, including The Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Minutemen, Pere Ubu, The Fall, Tom Waits, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The White Stripes.

20. “Songs of the Humpback Whale” (1970)

The use of underwater microphones called hydrophones showed that not only can whales communicate, but they do so with beauty and complexity. Frank Watlington and Roger Payne, among others, made these unique recordings. The haunting sounds on “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” along with Payne’s liner notes for CRM Records, helped turn the tide of U.S. public opinion against whaling. In addition to the album’s aesthetic and political significance, it can also be considered historically valuable: whales change their songs over time so these recordings document a cetacean performance practice of a time gone by.

21. “Let’s Stay Together,” Al Green (1971)

Al Green’s musical career began as a member of a gospel music vocal quartet. He found great commercial success when teamed with Memphis producer Willie Mitchell, crafting a singing style that incorporates an understated delivery with occasional climbs to a casual, pure falsetto. Green’s sleek delivery is complemented effectively by underlying brassy horns and funk rhythms played by the accomplished Hi Records studio band. At the height of his popularity in the mid-’70s, Green stopped performing secular music to pursue religious endeavors, singing gospel music and becoming an ordained minister. Since the mid-’80s, he has performed and recorded both secular and sacred music.

22. “Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land),” George Crumb, CRI Recordings (1972)

Composers Recordings Inc. (CRI) was established in 1954 by Otto Luening, Douglas Moore and Oliver Daniel. CRI was dedicated to the recording of contemporary classical music by American composers and, in doing so, helped to introduce hundreds of new musical works to audiences. American composer George Crumb is noted for his challenging and often surreal, emotionally effective works, which frequently incorporate new musical timbres and take complex forms. “Black Angels,” one of Crumb’s best-known pieces, was inspired by the Vietnam War. The piece is written for amplified electric string quartet and includes the playing of a number of percussion instruments, crystal goblets and chanting by the quartet members. The CRI recording of the New York String Quartet performing “Black Angels” creates an opportunity for listeners to appreciate this rich and dramatic work, as have the company’s recordings of so many other new musical compositions.

23. “Aja,” Steely Dan (1977)

“Aja” is an apotheosis of jazz-pop, a seamless fusion of jazz, pop and blues crafted with meticulous precision. Swimming against the tides of then-popular punk rock and disco, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan created an adult pop album- lyrically cynical and cryptic, melodically rich, and musically dense. The impeccable playing by a number of world-class musicians helped to achieve a musical whole even greater than the sum of its impressive parts.

24. “3 Feet High and Rising,” De La Soul (1989)

Bucking hip-hop’s increasing turn toward stark urban naturalism in the late 1980s, De La Soul released this upbeat and often humorous album to widespread acclaim in the U.S. and abroad. The trio-Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos), David Jolicoeur (Trugoy) and Vincent Mason (DJ Maseo)-was ably assisted by producer Prince Paul (Paul Huston) who has reported that these were some of the most productive, creative and entertaining sessions he ever worked on. For the album, the group marshaled an astonishing range of samples that included not only soul and R&B classics by Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays, but also Steely Dan’s “Aja” and cuts by Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, Kraftwerk, Hall and Oates, and Liberace. Perhaps the most far-flung sample is a snippet of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics over the radio in 1945.

25. GOPAC Strategy and Instructional Tapes (1986-1994)

GOPAC is a non-profit organization established in 1978 to develop and educate conservative leaders in the U.S., and to provide support to Republican candidates running for local, state and national offices. Among the most effective and best-known tools developed by GOPAC are instructional tape recordings made by Republican leaders. The tapes inform the public and aspiring politicians of conservative positions and assist them in articulating and honing their language and message on a wide array of issues, as well as providing “how-to” primers on everything involved in running an effective political campaign. The recordings have proved to be extremely influential in shaping political discourse from the 1980s to the present.