Recordings of humpback whales, groundbreaking rappers and GOP campaign strategists are all headed to the Library of Congress on Wednesday, where they will be named to the library’s National Recording Registry.
Every year, the library selects 25 recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” to preserve for all time. This year’s list includes environmentalist field recordings (“Songs of the Humpback Whale” from 1970), prismatic hip-hop anthems (De La Soul’s 1989 album “3 Feet High and Rising”) and a series of how-to-run-a-campaign primers recorded by Republican Party leaders (GOPAC Strategy and Instructional Tapes from 1986-1994).
“America’s recorded sound heritage has in many ways transformed the soundscape of the modern world,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in a statement. “Songs, words and the natural sounds of the world we live in have been captured on one of the most perishable of all our art media. The salient question is not whether we should preserve these artifacts, but how best collectively to save this indispensable part of our history.”
Which is to say the vinyl platters, tape spools and plastic discs on which so much of our recorded history is kept are slowly and constantly deteriorating, and Congress has tasked the library with their preservation.
That feels particularly important in the case of the Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville phonautograms from the mid-1800s, which are the oldest recordings named to the registry. Scott was the man who captured the first- ever recorded sounds by using a boar-bristle stylus to etch them onto glass and paper. His goal was to create a strictly visual record of sound, but 21st-century scientists have found a way to translate the etchings into audio.
Unlike the phonautograms, many of this year’s registry recordings can be found on iTunes, including Al Green’s pining 1971 single “Let’s Stay Together,” Steely Dan’s 1977 breeze-rock opus “Aja,” Tammy Wynette’s 1968 ode to fidelity “Stand by Your Man,” and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s 1971 trippy genre-mash “Trout Mask Replica.”
The library has been adding recordings to the registry since 2002, and this year’s batch brings the total up to 325. (Fifty recordings were added each year for four years, with 25 added each year since. The recordings now being added are from nominations made in 2010.)
Billington makes the selections with advice from the National Recording Preservation Board — a 44-member body of music producers, engineers, historians and industry professionals. In addition to being significant, the recordings selected must also be at least 10 years old. This year’s selections were chosen in recent weeks, and narrowed down from a list of over 900 recordings, about half of which were nominated by the public on the Libary of Congress’s Web site.
Some of those people might have been baseball fans. Edward Meeker’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has been added — the library calls the tune from 1908 the “unofficial national anthem of America’s national pastime.”
The late Rev. C.L. Franklin joins his daughter Aretha Franklin on the registry with “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” a sermon released on three 78-rpm platters in 1953. Another important spoken-word recording, 1953’s “At Sunset” by Mort Sahl, is regarded as the first recording of modern stand-up comedy.
There are plenty of powerful singing voices as well, including bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 lament “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and Tejano icon Lydia Mendoza’s haunting “Mal Hombre” from 1934.
“That’s a voice you just never forget,” says Matthew Barton, the library’s curator of recorded sound. “But she was known mainly in her own community, so I’m hopeful that her music will reach a wider audience in this way.”
And while the library hopes to educate the public, it wants the public to contribute ideas for the registry.
“Anyone can go to the Web site and nominate a recording,” says Barton. “There’s always a spike of those after the registry is announced every year.”
So if you’re wondering why Prince, Bikini Kill, OutKast and Waylon Jennings aren’t on the registry, visit the Library of Congress’s Web site and get to nominating.
(Visit washingtonpost.com/clicktrack for music clips and a complete list of the 25 recordings added this year to the National Recording Registry.