By MARK HARTSELL
The Library of Congress on May 10 launched the “National Jukebox,” an interactive website that allows users to play thousands of historic sound recordings—many of them unavailable to the public for more than a century.
The National Jukebox provides access to more than 10,000 out-of-print recordings of opera, popular music, comedy, religious music and political speeches produced by the Victor Talking Machine Co. in the first decades of the 20th century.
The jukebox is the result of collaboration between the Library and Sony Music Entertainment—the company owns the rights to the recordings and licensed them to the Library—and represents the largest collection of historic sound recordings ever made available free of charge to the public.
The site is available at www.loc.gov/jukebox/.
“This amazing collection is a chance to hear history,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said. “This collection includes popular music, dance music, opera, early jazz, famous speeches, poetry and humor. It is what our grandparents and great-grandparents listened to, danced to, sang along with.”
Said Richard Story, president of the Commercial Music Group at Sony: “We are thrilled to be joining with the Library of Congress to launch the National Jukebox. As the steward of much of the output from the American recording industry prior to 1934, Sony Music is excited to preserve and share online these important cultural treasures from its archives with students, historians and music-lovers alike.”
A crowd gathered in the Members Room of the Jefferson Building for a press conference that featured a video of a 9-year-old boy playing a duet of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” with Eubie Blake, the jazz pianist who composed that song and whose work is included on the jukebox.
With that, Harry Connick Jr. entered the room to talk about the importance of preserving the nation’s musical heritage—and to reprise the tune he had played with Blake for the cameras 35 years earlier.
“To have these songs preserved in this capacity … to ensure that new generations have access to these treasures is really heartwarming and inspirational to me,” said Connick, an actor and Grammy-winning singer and pianist. “I was lucky: I grew up with it firsthand. But I look at my kids—that they have a technological way, a vehicle to get these songs is absolutely imperative.”
Connick then sat at the piano to perform “Wild About Harry,” a tune, he said, that meant a lot to his family—the song served as the campaign theme for his father, a longtime district attorney in New Orleans.
The version of “Wild About Harry” on the jukebox, performed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, dates from 1922, a later example of the work collected in the archive.
The music in the jukebox spans little more than two decades—from 1901 to 1925—but covers an enormous range of genres, from jazz to ragtime to Broadway to vaudeville to opera.
The collection includes, for example, Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice singing “My Man,” Enrico Caruso performing arias from “Tosca” when the opera still was new, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band blowing on the first jazz record ever released, “Livery Stable Blues.”
Some of the recorded sounds aren’t musical at all. They include readings from the Bible, recitations of popular poems such as “Casey at the Bat” and novelty recordings of snores and sneezes.
Other recordings document the words of important political figures: The jukebox includes speeches by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft.
“The absence of these recordings for so many decades has created a kind of cultural amnesia for this kind of material—it’s been out of circulation and forgotten,” said Patrick Loughney, chief of the Packard Campus. “This is an effort of archaeology … that the library has undertaken.”
Library staffers created annotated playlists of songs focused on different genres, periods, themes and artists. The site also allows users to create playlists and post them to their own web pages or submit them for posting on the jukebox.
The recordings, however, cannot be downloaded.
The site also showcases thousands of label images, record-catalog illustrations, artist bios and an interactive facsimile of the 1919 “Victrola Book of the Opera,” an early guide to opera recordings.
The University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) will catalog and control the site’s metadata for its online “Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records”.
The Library’s association with the university provides users with an easily searchable database of all jukebox recordings.
Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section, and his predecessor, Sam Brylawski, first proposed such a website nearly four years ago. Sony, because of its ownership of Victor and Columbia records, clearly was the company with which they needed to work, DeAnna said.
The announcement on Tuesday marked the culmination of almost three years of work by Library staff to make that proposal a reality—more than a year to negotiate the agreement with Sony followed by more than a year to digitize recordings, scan images and develop the website.
Packard staff began work on the recordings in March 2010, eventually digitizing more than 5,000 discs. (The rest of the recordings were contributed by UCSB and digitized by a company in Seattle.)
Around the same time, Packard staff met with an Office of Strategic Initiatives web team led by Bill Kellum to plan the jukebox website.
“The Recorded Sound Section team worked incredibly hard to get this project done while at the same time carrying on all of the other assignments, routine or otherwise, that came their way over the past 18 months,” DeAnna said. “From the start, the team in the Library’s Office of Strategic Initiatives was ready to be innovative to make this site something special and was willing to try some things that had never been done before here.”
DeAnna demonstrated the site’s features for the crowd in the Members Room, showing, for example, how the opera book allows users to compare different versions of the same music—he contrasted Caruso’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” from “Rigoletto” with renditions by a solo accordion and a saxophone sextet.
“It’s just amazing,” Connick said. “I can’t get over it.”
This, DeAnna hopes, is just a good beginning: The Library plans to add more Victor recordings and titles of the same era drawn from other Sony-owned labels, such as Columbia and Okeh.
“The true significance of this project,” he said, “is that it makes available to a worldwide audience a vast collection of music and spoken recordings that have fallen from our collective cultural memory, bringing them back onto our soundscape in ways that only digital technology can.”
Mark Hartsell is editor of the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.