This year’s inductees for the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry include a speech from Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the educational music of “Schoolhouse Rock!,” Jay-Z’s seminal album “The Blueprint,” soul, pop and disco songs that became anthems for underrepresented groups, and a number of other unique recordings.
Every year, the registry preserves 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” American recordings that are at least 10 years old. The selection process begins with public input followed by recommendations from the board and ends with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden making the final cut.
Hayden told The Washington Post that the registry traces “America’s history through recorded sound.”
The theme uniting this year’s seemingly disparate set of 25 recordings, in keeping with the Library of Congress’s year-long initiative to explore those who altered the cultural fabric of the country, is “American changemakers,” Hayden said.
Some of the entries are obvious representations of this theme, such as Sam & Dave’s horn-driven “Soul Man.” The 1967 song known for punching up weddings was inspired by that year’s 12th Street riot, a bloody set of confrontations between the Detroit Police Department and many of the city’s black residents. Isaac Hayes, who co-wrote the jam with Dave Porter, has said it was meant as a black pride anthem: “The word ‘soul,’ it was a galvanizing kind of thing for African Americans, and it had an effect of unity, it was said with a lot of pride.”
Sam Moore, who performed it with Dave Prater, told The Post he was blown away by the honor.
“I haven’t gotten over it yet,” Moore said. “I had no idea in the world this would go as far as it has gone, so I’m very excited about this. . . . I was just looking for a hit. The Library of Congress, can you believe it?”
“American history, my friend, think about that,” he added in a delighted voice. “Right now, I’m just gonna tell you, I have arrived, my friend.”
Then there’s “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song that Ritchie Valens transformed into one of the earliest non-English-language rock-and-roll tunes in 1958. Though Valens tragically died on “the day the music died” in the same plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly’s life, the song lives on as a totem of Hispanic culture. “It shows the multicultural aspect of America,” said Louie Pérez, the songwriter of Los Lobos, which famously covered the song, in an interview with The Post. “That’s what’s so incredible about this little song that’s sung in Spanish, and what he did to shape it and make it American. . . . It shows the great American experience.
The new class of recordings also includes Nina Simone’s 1964 bluntly anti-racist anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” which she called “my first civil rights song” that “erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down.” Kennedy’s emotional speech on the evening of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in which he called for racial harmony, came four years later and marks another major shift in American culture. “It was one changemaker talking about another,” Hayden said.
That same year brought the 1968 original Broadway cast recording of “Hair,” a controversial musical that celebrates sexual freedom and psychoactive drugs. Many of its songs became staples of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Jazz singer Cab Calloway’s first recorded song, “Minnie the Moocher,” also made the cut. The song has endured through the years, with a 73-year-old Calloway performing it in the 1980 John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd comedy “The Blues Brothers.” But to Hayden, the song is much more culturally significant than its famous cameo. She said “he was one of the first African Americans” to find success on the radio, the stage and the screen.
A bulk of the inductees are hit songs and albums from the late 1950s through the late 1970s, with a particular emphasis on the 1960s, a time when the country was in the midst of extreme change.
“There was a lot going on,” Hayden said. “That was quite a period.”
These include Neil Diamond’s singalong classic “Sweet Caroline,” a beloved staple at sporting events, school dances and karaoke. The singer-songwriter penned the American classic in 1969, and it proved to be a singular U.S. achievement, much like that year’s moon landing. American icons as wide-ranging as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley have covered the tune. The song’s inclusion feels particularly prescient, since it comes on the tail of the 78-year-old Diamond’s retirement from touring after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Some of the recordings, such as Sylvester’s 1978 disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 debut album “She’s So Unusual,” signaled a more mainstream acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Sylvester’s song, which according to the Library of Congress “reflected his childhood background in both African American gospel music and his work as a drag performer in San Francisco,” has become an enduring LGBTQ anthem. The singer’s biographer, Joshua Gamson, called it “a song of freedom.” Meanwhile, Lauper’s debut included “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which she has described as a covert feminist anthem. The pop star would go on to first become an LGBTQ icon (“her flamboyant sense of style and collection of pop classics resonate[s] with the LGBTQ community,” wrote Patrick Crowley in Billboard), and then an activist. She co-founded True Colors United, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of and ending homelessness for LGBTQ youth, whose name was inspired by her song “True Colors,” which has been described as a “gay anthem.”
One of the more surprising entries is “Schoolhouse Rock!: The Box Set” from 1996, which includes various songs from the children’s educational program. The cartoon shorts, which explored topics including civics and mathematics, originally aired from 1973 to 1985 and have been produced sporadically ever since. For a certain generation, songs such as “I’m Just a Bill” (about lawmaking), “Conjunction Junction” (about conjunctions, of course) and “Three is a Magic Number” (about the uses of the number 3) are as canonical as pop hits such as “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Unfortunately, Bob Dorough, the musician who composed most of these tunes, didn’t live to see the box set’s inclusion. He died in April at age 94.
The newest recording preserved by the Library of Congress is Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint,” which was released on Sept. 11, 2001. The album, featuring soul-music-sampling production from a then-mostly unknown Kanye West, made Jay-Z a star and further pushed hip-hop music into mainstream pop consciousness. According to the Library of Congress’s online directory, “The Blueprint” is only the eighth rap album to be inducted.
Here is the complete list of additions to National Recording Registry:
Yiddish Cylinders from the Standard Phonograph Company of New York and the Thomas Lambert Company (c. 1901-1905)
“The Memphis Blues” (single), Victor Military Band (1914)
Melville Jacobs Collection of Native Americans of the American Northwest (1929-1939)
“Minnie the Moocher” (single), Cab Calloway (1931)
“Bach Six Cello Suites” (album), Pablo Casals (c. 1939)
“They Look Like Men of War” (single), Deep River Boys (1941)
“Gunsmoke” — Episode: “The Cabin” (Dec. 27, 1952)
Ruth Draper: Complete recorded monologues, Ruth Draper (1954-1956)
“La Bamba” (single), Ritchie Valens (1958)
“Long Black Veil” (single), Lefty Frizzell (1959)
“Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years” (album), Stan Freberg (1961)
“GO” (album), Dexter Gordon (1962)
“War Requiem” (album), Benjamin Britten (1963)
“Mississippi Goddam” (single), Nina Simone (1964)
“Soul Man” (single), Sam & Dave (1967)
“Hair” (original Broadway cast recording) (1968)
Speech on the Death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy (April 4, 1968)
“Sweet Caroline” (single), Neil Diamond (1969)
“Ola Belle Reed” (album), Ola Belle Reed (1972)
“Super Fly” (album), Curtis Mayfield (1972)
“September” (single), Earth, Wind & Fire (1978)
“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (single), Sylvester (1978)
“She’s So Unusual” (album), Cyndi Lauper (1983)
“Schoolhouse Rock!: The Box Set” (1996)
“The Blueprint” (album), Jay-Z (2001)