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Library of Congress Revives Thousands of Vintage Recordings

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Perhaps you’ve been searching for that 1912 recording of Movin’ Man, Don’t Take My Baby Grand! by Al Jolson, crooning over the possible loss of his “pie-ana.”

Or Trusting Eyes, a 1914 recording featuring the great tenor Enrico Caruso.

The Library of Congress says: look no further. On Tuesday, the Library launched the National Jukebox, a new Web site presenting free streaming of over 10,000 extremely rare recordings of American music, as well speeches, poetry, comedy and monologues. All were produced between 1901 and 1925, and many have been unavailable since then because of copyright issues.

The collection currently features 1,223 classical tracks, broadly defined. Other genres include whistling (62), ethnic characterizations (729) and humorous songs (613). The Library notes in a prominent disclaimer that some content “may contain offensive language.”

“The Library of Congress has become the largest preservationist organization for American popular culture artifacts,” commented the Library’s Patrick Loughney, chief of the Library’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. “Also, we have a mandate from the United States Congress to serve the public. So we digitized these recordings.”

Sony provided the bulk of the National Jukebox, after a two-year discussion with the Library that largely focused on the rights issues surrounding the free, continuous streaming of the audio tracks. According to a 2005 survey of more than 400,000 American recordings produced from 1895 to 1965, only 14 percent were available from the rights holder, either directly or through licensing. The study further found that American historical recordings are much more widely available abroad.

“There’s a movement afoot,” Loughney said of the effort to digitize America’s audio history. “Not by the corporations that own [the rights], but by the American taxpayer.” The launch of the National Jukebox follows news earlier this year of the Library’s acquisition of a Universal Music cache, a so-called “mile of audio” that the Library will be parsing and organizing for years to come.

The stash of recordings featured on the National Jukebox date from an era before the advent of sophisticated recording techniques. Performances were often captured with recording horns, which amplified the sound to vibrate an attached diaphragm and stylus, carving the sound waves into a spinning wax disc. As a result, National Jukebox tracks can sound entombed in a grainy and distant sonic world.

“We are actually in an age of archaeology of audio visual history in America.” Loughney said. “We are excavating this material metaphorically and bringing it back into the public daylight.” The Library of Congress currently presents over 13 million items on its Web site. “Now for the first time we’re able to put up significant portions of America’s sound history that was previously unavailable,” Loughney said.

National Jukebox classical highlights includes several recordings of Fritz Kreisler, including a performance of Dvorak's Indian Lament from 1914. The collection also features 1,366 tracks under the subgenre of opera, which ranges from a 1906 recording of Elda Cavalieri’s Addio del passato to Marian Anderson's account of Go Down Moses from 1929. The classical genre has been broadly defined to include American classics of country, western and ragtime variations.

“They’re doing it in vaudeville or variety theater style,” Loughney said of many of the classical pieces presented on the Jukebox. “They’re taking it for granted that the audience will know the song and be familiar with it. And these were working class audiences, people who had day jobs.”

The Library of Congress hopes this first foray into a cataloged Web site of long forgotten American audio will help broaden the Library’s own collection, and pave the way for other sites to develop. “If it hits the level of success that we feel it will, we hope it will create a comfort zone for other rights holders,” Loughney said.