Songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Bill Monroe, Grand Master Flash, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Woody Guthrie and Tito Puente are among the first entries into the National Recording Registry, a branch of the Library of Congress dedicated to preserving classic American recordings of music, speeches and readings.
The National Recording Registry was created by Congress in 2000 as an aural equivalent to the National Film Registry (itself dedicated to preserving American celluloid works). The board consists of the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and twenty members representing recording industry organizations including the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (represented by producer Phil Ramone), the Recording Industry Association of America (currently repped by Hilary Rosen), and numerous others, along with at-large board members including pop pianist Michael Feinstein and former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.
"It's about how the nation officially recognizes accomplishment," Hart told Rolling Stone. "The big word here is 'preservation.' We all have our own registry in our heads, but this goes a step further. It says that songs and recorded collections are important, that their preservation is a national priority."
The first fifty entries were selected with diversity in style and era in mind. Among the more modern albums on the list include Bob Dylan's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), Frank Sinatra's Songs for Young Lovers (1954), Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959) and Tito Puente's Dance Mania (1958). Popular singles were represented by Aretha Fanklin's "Respect," Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," Ray Charles' "What I'd Say (Parts 1 and 2)," Charlie Parker's "Koko," Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."
The Board also granted entry to entire recording collections. Elvis Presley's Sun Records sessions, recorded between 1954 and 1955, were entered together. Similarly, the Duke Ellington Orchestra's work from 1940 to 1942, was singled out for the period when the ensemble featured bassist Jimmy Blanton, saxophonist Ben Webster and composer/pianist Billy Strayhorn.
Old country music was also represented: Fiddler Eck Robertson's 1922 recordings of "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sally Gooden" made the registry, along with the first broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, featuring performances by Roy Acuff and Uncle Dave Macon. The development of jazz can be traced from a collection of early twentieth century ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin, to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Tiger Rag" from 1918 to Louis Armstrong's famed Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings from 1925 to 1928.
Spoken word entries include a Harvard University series of authors, including T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, reading their works, eleven years (1933-1944) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio "Fireside Chats," Orson Welles' groundbreaking "War of the Worlds" radio drama from 1938 and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963.
The earliest recordings on the list include three Edison cylinders, called "the birth of commercial sound recording" by the Registry from 1888 and 1889, and what is believed to be the first field recording, Jesse Walter Fewkes cylinders of the Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine in 1890.
Hart said that while the more modern recordings give the Registry a higher profile, he'd like to see its focus remain on the earliest of recordings. "I try to steer it towards the more indigenous music, the more endangered stuff," he said, "and not necessarily make this a popular music award thing for things that are already in print. These recordings -- whether they be on wax, tin, glass, wire or whatever -- are deteriorating."
The Library of Congress hopes to digitize the recordings and ultimately make them available for download through the Library of Congress' Web site. "The Library is the Oz of libraries," Hart said. "It's Alexandria and it's the Vatican all rolled into one. We have over a million-and-a-half hours just in the American Folklife Center. It's fucking huge! This is a terrific opportunity, because once we digitize it, we can give the world the music that was taken from it. This isn't a business, this is recognizing national heritage. And it all started on March 15, 1890, when a guy named Jesse Walter Fewkes stepped out on a field in Maine and rolled a wax cylinder of a Passamaquoddy harvest song."
The public is invited to join the process for next year's entries. Anyone can submit nominations through September 1st at www.loc.gov.