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

January 28, 2003|Aparna Kumar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

"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,

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.

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