By MARK HARTSELL
The National Jukebox makes available to the public for the first time in more than a century some of the earliest recordings of ragtime, jazz, Broadway shows, vaudeville and the biggest stars of the early Metropolitan Opera.
The collection of out-of-print recordings by the Victor Talking Machine Co. reflects an enormous range not only of genres but also of the musicians, singers and composers who in the first decades of the 20th century helped build the recording industry.
The jukebox includes, for example, more than 170 performances by Enrico Caruso, the great operatic tenor whose voice, it is said, helped create a mass market for recorded music.
Other artists on the jukebox made recordings that represent momentous musical firsts.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band in February 1917 recorded the first jazz sides in music history, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One-Step.” The jukebox includes those recordings and 18 others by the group—among them, classics such as “Tiger Rag” and “St. Louis Blues.”
George W. Johnson, the first African-American ever to make a record, cut several sides for Victor in the early 20th century. Two of them—“The Whistling Girl” and “The Laughing Song”—reside among the nearly 10,000 vocal, instrumental and spoken-word recordings on the jukebox.
The work of many other singers, musicians and composers—some still well known, many long forgotten—also is here: John Philip Sousa, the master of the march; Al Jolson, who later revolutionized the movies with his early sound film “The Jazz Singer”; Billy Murray, a singer of comic songs who was the most-recorded artist of the era; Nora Bayes, one of Broadway’s biggest stars and the co-writer of the classic “Shine on Harvest Moon”; and Bert Williams and George Walker, two Broadway stars immensely popular with both black and white audiences, whose work provides precious examples of African-American musical comedy.
Collectively, the jukebox recordings provide a soundtrack to the lives of the first generation of Americans able to drop a needle on a record and listen to music.
“These recordings comprise thousands of compelling performances covering a breathtaking array of genres and styles,” said David Sager, a curator in the Recorded Sound Section. “Offered up are the biggest musical stars of the early 20th century, whose artistry shines through the challenging recording techniques of the day.
“There was no editing, overdubbing or digital tuning—and no microphone, either. Remember, these were the days of acoustical recording where the artist performed in front of a large recording horn.”