Wednesday, May 11, 2011

National Tunes

Talking Points Memo passed along some information from Sam Biddle at Gizmodo which may bring all of us some cheer (particularly Dogs who like to listen to Victrolas).

The Library Of Congress, that repository of the documents, books, journals, Congressional Records and ephemera that constitute our national collective memory, have just made a huge library of cylinder and 78 Disc recordings available, online as streaming audio. For free.
The "National Jukebox," available on a streaming-only basis, unfortunately, is a massive trove of audio recordings. Music, speeches, humor readings--spanning decades of American history. The original words of Teddy Roosevelt. "Rhapsody in Blue" with George Gershwin on piano. Serious national gems. And, due to some cuddling with Sony, the label's entire pre-1925 catalog will be accessible, encompassing a significant (and widely forgotten) musical past.

Accompanying the huge sonic repository is a ton of album and label artwork, as well as biographical information on artists (which you'll probably need for artists so dead that Sony gave them away for free).


Here, for example, is Smiler Rag, by Percy Wenrich and His Orchestra, a 10" 78-RPM record on the RCA Victor label, recorded March 1, 1910 (Please Note The Very Nice Dog On The Label -- A Jack Russell Terrier And No Relation To Mongo; But, Still):


(As Usual, My Dog-Sized Blog Doesn't Allow Showing The Full Area For This Audio Player -- You Can See The Full Version At The LOC Site Here.)

I'm involved in a writing project that's set in 1925, and not necessarily in the United States -- but something I wonder frequently is, how can we know what the music of any period actually sounded like?

After the advent of recorded sound, that becomes easier; but for every Scott Joplin, Glenn Miller, Fats Waller or Reinhardt and Grapelli, there were hundreds of other singers and bands who never 'hit the big time', but whose sounds were part of the audio leitmotiv of an era, and are for the most part lost -- until something like this archive comes along.

Who really remembers what popular music in 1910 might have sounded like? No one living now can -- but something like this effort by the Library Of Congress can give us a taste.