U.S. Recordings Most Telling, Not Best-Selling

Times Staff Writer

Leave it to the Library of Congress to come up with one of the most eclectic playlists in America.

Library officials on Monday unveiled the premiere collection of the National Recording Registry -- an evocative cultural snapshot of the nation over the last century, saluting equally the words of presidents and generals, the artistry of jazz and classical masters, and the raw energy of rock 'n' roll and hip-hop rebels.

The nascent catalog of 50 important recorded moments in American cultural history ranged from President Theodore Roosevelt's denouncing corporate swindlers to Bob Dylan's antiwar anthem "Blowin' in the Wind" to Billie Holiday's haunting, socially conscious "Strange Fruit."

Also in the mix of recordings are the "Fireside Chats," President Franklin D. Roosevelt's series of radio broadcasts to the nation from the 1930s and 1940s, Martin Luther King Jr.'s landmark "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963 and "The Message," an inner-city anthem by rap pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

"The registry was not intended by Congress to be another Grammy Awards or 'best of' list," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in announcing the congressionally mandated archive. Instead, he said, the songs, speeches and historic radio broadcasts, deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by a broad panel of experts, inaugurate what the government and archivists hope will become a rich and diverse repository of American sound recordings preserved for posterity, with new items added annually.

Preserving America's aural history is imperative, Billington said, because "bestsellers today are tomorrow's throwaways."

The registry, which is similar to an existing national registry aimed at preserving American film, was established by the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, which requires that recordings must be at least 10 years old to qualify. In making this year's selections, Billington was advised by 20 composers, musicians, musicologists, librarians, archivists and representatives of the recording industry, who together make up the National Preservation Board.

Since 1988, the board has sought to preserve films deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically important." Each year, 25 more films are added to the list, which now includes a wide range of films -- from "Gone With the Wind" and "The Godfather" to "Woodstock" and "This Is Spinal Tap." By 2002, the registry list numbered 350.

The library sought input from the public in compiling its audio list. But Billington said the response was smaller than the panel had hoped it would be. Those who wish to laud or criticize the board's choices, or make their own suggestions for next year's list, can do so on the library's Web site. Access to some of the recordings will be made available at the library's site, www.loc.gov/rr/record.

While some items on the list could be called obscure -- including the songs "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sallie Gooden" (1922) by the fiddler Eck Robertson, the first artist to make country music recordings -- many are easily recognizable. Among them: "Who's on First," Abbott and Costello's signature shtick about baseball, recorded for the first time in 1938, and Orson Welles' radio adaptation of "War of the Worlds," a drama about a Martian invasion so realistic that it triggered nationwide panic, also that year.

Northern California-based sound historians Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, known collectively as the Kitchen Sisters, have made careers collecting and documenting sound, including producing radio documentaries for National Public Radio. Both say they are "thrilled" by the registry's maiden effort. "I think a list like this will turn their ear toward the world of recorded sound as a treasure and resource that needs to be taken seriously," Silva said.

Sound, says Nelson, has long been "sort of the stepchild of the [recording] medium. So it takes something like a registry to open up the eye. There is a democratic aspect to sound. Someone speaking their story or singing their song into a recording machine is a way of capturing so much about the culture."

Some songs made the list because of their commercial popularity, such as Bing Crosby's 1942 classic, "White Christmas," which was until recently the best-selling recording of all time. Other chart-toppers include Frank Sinatra's 1955 album, "Songs for Young Lovers," and the 1959 jazz album "Kind of Blue," featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans.

Others were recognized for the importance of their underlying social message. Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit," from 1939, was credited for "bringing the topic of lynching to the commercial record-buying public." Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," meanwhile, offers rhymes about the sordid realities and hopelessness facing disenfranchised black youth.

The register includes many recording "firsts," including the first jazz band recording, the first radio broadcast and the first stereo recording.

The 50 items also represent a broad spectrum of recording media and templates, including turn-of-the-century wax cylinders, piano rolls, gramophone discs, wires and the first high-fidelity stereo recordings -- of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The preservationists will work with the library to restore and preserve the recordings in their original formats, many of which are incompatible with today's technologies, and in digital files that will be stored on the library's servers at a repository in Culpeper, Va.

Elizabeth A. Cohen, a member of the preservation board representing the Audio Engineering Society, cautioned that efforts must be made to preserve the tone and fidelity of the original recordings.

But further challenges lie ahead for the preservationists. Chief among them will be balancing the library's mission of making the nation's cultural riches accessible to the public against its obligation to protect the intellectual property rights of copyright holders. Several items included in the registry are copyrighted, including King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which is owned by the family of the late civil rights leader.

In maintaining the registry, Billington said, the library has a "dual responsibility ... both to preserve and to provide access" in the public's interest. That dual responsibility may be further complicated by the Supreme Court's decision earlier this month to uphold a law extending for 20 years the copyrights of movies, songs and books from the 1920s and '30s.

In the meantime, David Sanjek, a member of the preservation board representing Broadcast Music Inc., summed up the library's challenge in unearthing recordings this way: "If a recording is made and you are not able to hear it, does it really exist?"

Barry Hansen, musicologist and host of the nationally syndicated "Dr. Demento" radio show, gave high marks to the initial choices for the registry.

"Basically, I like it," he said Monday. "Obviously they were not just here to pick bestsellers. Some of those early things I've never heard and would love to see them released and made available in some way. I'm sure this could be debated for centuries, and that may be part of their purpose."

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Times staff writers Lynell George and Randy Lewis contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sounds like America

The Library of Congress has released a list of 50 recordings that will be the first to be included in its National Recording Registry. They are, in chronological order:

1. Edison Exhibition Recordings, "Around the World on the Phonograph," "The Pattison Waltz," "Fifth Regiment March." (1888-1889)

2. The Jesse Walter Fewkes field recordings of the Passamaquoddy Indians. (1890)

3. "Stars and Stripes Forever," Berliner Gramophone disc recording. (1897)

4. Lionel Mapleson cylinder recordings of the Metropolitan Opera. (1900-1903)

5. Scott Joplin ragtime compositions on piano rolls. (1900s)

6. Booker T. Washington's 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech. (1906 re-creation)

7. Enrico Caruso, "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci. (1907)

8. Fisk Jubilee Singers, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." (1909)

9. Lovey's Trinidad String Band recordings for Columbia Records. (1912)

10. "Casey at the Bat," DeWolf Hopper, reciting. (1915)

11. Original Dixieland Jazz Band, "Tiger Rag." (1918)

12. Eck Robertson, fiddle, "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sallie Gooden." (1922)

13. Bessie Smith, "Down-Hearted Blues." (1923)

14. George Gershwin, piano, with Paul Whiteman Orchestra, "Rhapsody in Blue." (1924)

15. Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. (1925-1928)

16. Victor Talking Machine Company sessions in Bristol, Tenn., Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman and others. (1927)

17. Harvard Vocarium record series, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, others, reciting. (1930-1940s)

18. Highlander Center Field Recording Collection, Rosa Parks, Esau Jenkins, others. (1930s-1980s)

19. Bell Laboratories experimental stereo recordings, Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, conductor. (1931-1932)

20. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio "Fireside Chats." (1933-1944)

21. New Music Recordings series, Henry Cowell, producer. (1934-1949)

22. Description of the crash of the Hindenburg, Herbert Morrison, reporting. (1937)

23. "Who's on First," Abbott and Costello's first radio broadcast version. (1938)

24. "War of the Worlds," Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater. (1938)

25. Kate Smith, "God Bless America." (1938)

26. "The Cradle Will Rock," Marc Blitzstein and the original Broadway cast. (1938)

27. The John and Ruby Lomax Southern States Recording Trip. (1939)

28. Grand Ole Opry, first network radio broadcast, Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, and others. (1939)

29. Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit." (1939)

30. Duke Ellington Orchestra "Blanton-Webster Era" recordings. (1940-1942)

31. Bela Bartok, piano, and Joseph Szigeti, violin, in concert at the Library of Congress. (1940)

32. Igor Stravinsky conducting the New York Philharmonic, "Rite of Spring." (1940)

33. Bing Crosby, "White Christmas." (1942)

34. Woody Guthrie, "This Land Is Your Land." (1944)

35. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's D-Day radio address to the Allied Nations. (1944)

36. "Koko," Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. (1945)

37. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, "Blue Moon of Kentucky." (1947)

38. Les Paul and Mary Ford, "How High the Moon." (1951)

39. Elvis Presley's Sun Records sessions. (1954-1955)

40. Frank Sinatra, "Songs for Young Lovers." (1955)

41. Tito Puente, "Dance Mania." (1958)

42. "Kind of Blue," Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and others. (1959)

43. Ray Charles, "What'd I Say," parts 1 and 2. (1959)

44. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. (1963)

45. Bob Dylan, "Freewheelin'." (1963)

46. Aretha Franklin, "Respect!" (1967)

47. "Philomel," for soprano, recorded soprano, and synthesized sound. Bethany Beardslee, soprano. (1971)

48. "Precious Lord: New Recordings of the Great Gospel Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey," Thomas Dorsey, Marion Williams, and others. (1973)

49. Crescent City Living Legends Collection (WWOZ radio, New Orleans). (1973-1990)

50. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message." (1982)

Los Angeles Times

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 527 words Type of Material: Correction Library of Congress recordings -- An article in Tuesday's Section A incorrectly reported that President Theodore Roosevelt's speeches were among the 50 recordings added to the national sound registry at the Library of Congress. Roosevelt's speeches are in the library's general audio collection, but they are not in the new registry.
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