Since 2002, the Library of Congress has selected an annual slate of 25 recordings for preservation in consultation with members of the National Recording Preservation Board and library curators. Nominations from the public — which totaled around 900 this year — are also considered.
The registry includes radio broadcasts, orchestral chamber recordings, albums and songs. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden was expected formally to announce the inductees on Wednesday morning. With the new additions, the registry now includes 575 works.
This year’s selections, each of which must be at least 10 years old and a copy of which must exist (“lost” recordings need not apply), cover a lot of ground. While the National Recording Registry’s film counterpart is still making up for historical underrepresentation of diverse backgrounds in its selections, it’s somewhat easier and certainly more essential to tell the story of American sound through artists of color.
This year’s selections reflect a wide-ranging group of 11 Black singers, songwriters and musicians, including jazz maestro Louis Armstrong (1938’s “When the Saints Go Marching In” joins Satchmo’s other, previously inducted songs); folk revival pioneer Odetta (1957’s “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues”); Kool and the Gang, with an anthem likely to be heard anywhere from a day-care graduation to championship parades (1980’s “Celebration”); and legendary New York rapper Nas (1994’s “Illmatic”). Black opera luminaries Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman were honored for their works (1962’s “Aida” and 1983’s “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs,” respectively).
The registry noted that Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” received the most votes in the public nomination process last year. On top of its musical merit (it sold 12 million copies and spawned seven hit singles, including “Miss You Much,” “Escapade” and its title track), Jackson directly addressed issues that are still dire in American life, including racism, police brutality and poverty.
Inductees to the registry this year span 130 years of recorded history, and there’s still room for (historically) quirky recordings and opportunities to break new ground.
Edison’s 1878 recording is thought to be “a record of the oldest playable recording of an American voice,” according to the Library of Congress, and captures through phonograph a 78-second musical performance from St. Louis on a piece of tinfoil. In 2013, scientists were able to recover the sound of a musical interlude from the extant slip of foil.
The newest recording among this year’s inductees is a Peabody award-winning 2008 episode of “This American Life,” titled “The Giant Pool of Money.” It is the first podcast to be included in the registry.
One crowd-pleasing inductee in this year’s class also makes history by being the first nonhuman on the registry: Kermit the Frog. (He and other “Sesame Street” characters appeared on the 1995 album “All-Time Platinum Favorites,” which was inducted in 2014 but not credited to individual characters.)
Kermit’s “Rainbow Connection,” a banjo ballad about faith, dreams and a frog’s path to enlightenment that opened the 1979 film “The Muppet Movie,” has endeared itself to listeners ever since, spawning countless cover versions and memories for listeners young and old. (Two other sappy yet endearing classics have also been added to the registry: “Free to Be . . . You & Me,” the 1972 children’s album featuring Marlo Thomas, and the almost ethereal 1993 rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/“What A Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.)
Paul Williams, who co-wrote “Rainbow Connection,” has plenty of experience in penning musical mainstays.
The 80-year-old songwriter has written hit songs for bands ranging from the Carpenters to Daft Punk. “Rainbow Connection” was the third of his Oscar-nominated works — following Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” from the 1976 version of “A Star is Born” and the 1974 cult classic “Phantom of the Paradise.” But it’s the song he co-wrote with pianist Kenneth Ascher for the little green puppet that still astonishes Williams.
“The song is amazing,” Williams told The Post. “Because as years have gone by, I’ve had an opportunity to really examine why it works and what is that element in the song that people kind of cling to and keep it alive. I think a lot of it is just pure Jim Henson.”
Williams recalls Henson, the creator and original voice of Kermit, as “one of the kindest people I’ve ever worked with” and attributes Henson’s vision and clarity to making Kermit and his Muppet friends a valuable touchstone for kids and adults alike to this day.
What is it about a frog crooning about “the lovers, the dreamers and me” and intuiting the meaning of life from a rainbow? Williams himself still muses about the mystery of its timelessness.
“Maybe ‘Rainbow Connection’ is a camouflaged hymn,” Williams says. “I never thought that or said that before. Maybe there’s a sense of comfort, a sense of seeing yourself in the pieces of the song and the heart and soul of the characters. Maybe all the songs that we cling to like that for all-time have some magical ability to make us feel a little less alone — or comfortable in our aloneness.”
Recordings selected for the 2020 National Recording Registry (listed chronologically)
1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)
3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)
4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)
5. Christmas Eve Broadcast — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (Dec. 24, 1941)
6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945
7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)
8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)
9. Roger Maris hits his 61st home run (Oct. 1, 1961)
10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)
11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)
12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)
13. “Free to Be . . . You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)
14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)
15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)
16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)
17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)
18. “Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)
19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)
20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)
21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)
22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)
23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/“What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)
24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)
25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)