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The beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of jazz, country, blues, and big band. But most of the early recordings from the this musical era are either lost or have been unavailable to the public — until now. Sony and the Library of Congress have come together to stream thousands of old tracks over the web on a site called the National Jukebox. We examine the technological and legal challenges of preserving old music in the digital age and listen back on the tracks that would inspire musicians for decades to come.
- Eugene DeAnna Head, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation
- David Sager Curator, National Jukebox Project, Library of Congress; Jazz trombonist
- Sam Brylawski Consultant, National Jukebox Project, Library of Congress; Editor and Project Manager, Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (EDVR)
Today’s “National Jukebox” Selections
“Rhapsody in Blue” Performed by the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra, with George Gershwin on the piano
“All going out and nothing coming in” rec. 10/11/1901 Sung by Bert Williams
“Ain’t that a shame?” rec. 12/4/1901 Sung by Silas Leachman
More National Jukebox Picks from Curator David Sager
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a musical Tech Tuesday. It was a high-tech setup by the standards of the day when the original Dixieland jazz band walked into a New York studio in February of 1917. The musicians crammed around a new recording device with a turntable, a stylus and a large cylindrical metal horn.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere was no technician sitting behind a multicolor soundboard, no amplifiers. There wasn't even a microphone, the sound waves from their instruments leaving a direct imprint on a blank wax disc. Still, the result was impressive.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat's "Livery Stable Blues," commonly said to be the first jazz song ever recorded. It's a critical part of our country's cultural DNA, but, today, most of these early recordings are lost or locked up in old archives and private collections. This year, the Library of Congress unveiled a new webpage that streams thousands of tracks from that era. This Tech Tuesday, we're taking an audio tour of the new National Jukebox and exploring how technology is changing the way we listen to and appreciate music.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Sam Brylawski. He's a consultant with the National Jukebox Project, Library of Congress and editor and project manager, of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sam Brylawski, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SAM BRYLAWSKIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is David Sager, curator at the National Jukebox Project at the Library of Congress. He is also a jazz trombonist. David, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID SAGERMy pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd Gene DeAnna is head of the recorded sound section of the Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. Gene DeAnna, thank you, too, for joining us.
MR. GENE DEANNAGreat to be here, thanks.
NNAMDIAnd you, too, can join the conversation. Just call us at 800-433-8850. 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, or just send us a tweet, @kojoshow. We just heard "Livery Stable Blues" by the original Dixieland jazz band recorded in 1917 by the Victor Talking Machine Company. This was a critical time for popular music when musicians were laying the foundation for uniquely American forms of music, like jazz, the blues and country. Tell us about the National Jukebox. I'll start with you, Sam Brylawski.
BRYLAWSKIWell, the National Jukebox is a project of the Library of Congress to help make its collections more accessible and to help not just Americans but people around the world hear the audio heritage of this country. The project started with Victor Talking Machine Company, as you said, which was the largest company, but the project is going to expand to other labels soon. And the Victor recordings available on the jukebox now represent 1900 to 1925 acoustically made recordings, as you described earlier, and about 10,000 slides and continually expanding.
NNAMDIDavid Sager, what does this mean to you? You are the curator of this project.
SAGERIt's just an absolutely incredible resource to have these recordings available. These are things that I've been interested in for all of my adult life and a good bit of my early life. Interested in early sound recordings and early jazz and vaudeville, and I used to haunt antique stores for these old discs. And to be able to work with this material on a daily basis is really quite wonderful.
NNAMDIGene DeAnna, how important is this for the rest of us who may not have been plugged into this music as early as David was?
DEANNAYeah. I think so many of these recordings are so completely off our sonic landscape. They're new. They're so old, they're new, and they've been out of print for many -- since, you know, the first pressing was gone. And to bring them back and have people react the way they have to the jukebox site is very gratifying for us.
NNAMDIDavid, when you listen -- and, I guess, I'll ask you all this question -- when you listen to a track like "Livery Stable Blues," what do you hear?
SAGERI hear a very -- to me, a very authentic sounding jazz band playing in a very convincing New Orleans style because I've lived in New Orleans for many years and make my living as a musician there. And this is just something I recognize. And here's something that was kind of fully formed at the time. It was a style of playing, I think, that had been around for about a dozen years by the time it finally got on record. So, to me, it sounds very vital and alive.
NNAMDIWell, Sam Brylawski, it's my understanding that what we were listening to were at least five guys from New Orleans in New York in the middle of winter.
BRYLAWSKIThat's right. And, interestingly enough, five white guys that the first jazz recording would be made by this group. The group has a fascinating history because it was -- these records were immediately popular. And yet, jazz itself, you know, wasn't respected that much. And it's sort of odd. As David said, the form had been -- was fully formed by the time they were recording, but it took this group to go into the Victor studios for whatever reasons.
BRYLAWSKIAnd later, African-American groups did record. But, to me, it's just wonderful because it's 1917, and, you know, this project being 1900 and 1925 represents a continuum of a long time ago. But the changes during that 25 years are enormous. And no better example than original Dixieland jazz band.
NNAMDIWhat does that say to you, Gene?
DEANNAWell, I think what it says is that we have this tremendous legacy of sound that has captured our country's, you know, turn-of-the-century -- all of the things that -- all of our social history is caught up in these sound recordings, and they're there for us to hear now in the jukebox. And it's -- I think what excites me is that so many of the things that were going on are reflected in the content of these songs and in this music. And we've forgotten it, and it's there again to search and listen to.
NNAMDII know at least two people associated with this radio station who have not forgotten it, and those are our hosts Rob Bamberger and Dick Spotswood. They have been involved in the study and celebration of this Victor music for quite some time. So I figured I had to mention them. We live in the era of iTunes and on-demand media where we sometimes have the sense that virtually every song ever recorded can be downloaded in a click of a mouse.
NNAMDIBut for most of the past century, many of the tracks in the National Jukebox were completely unavailable. According to one study, less than 4 percent of historically important recordings made before 1925 are available for purchase. Can you tell us how that situation came about, Gene DeAnna?
DEANNAWell, it was -- it's driven by economics. And when records don't sell, they go out. And, really, I think record companies weren't interested so much in history. They were interested in selling records. And what didn't sell went into the vaults and didn't come out. And the other big part of this is that archives couldn't pick up where the record companies left off with these historical records because of the copyright restrictions on sound, which are the -- probably for any media, the most restrictive to this day.
DEANNASo this jukebox would not have been possible. The first thing we had to do is to talk to Sony Music and get the approval of them, the agreement, a license essentially, a free license to stream this material.
NNAMDIQuestion for you. If you happen to be listening to the broadcast at this time, can technology, in your view, save our historic and cultural memory? You can call us at 800-433-8850. David Sager, can it? Can technology save our historic and cultural memory?
SAGERAs long as the medium to which we are copying these old records to last...
SAGER...there's, you know, these old 78s are still in very, very good condition if they haven't been -- you can find ones that haven't been overplayed or scratched. If you don't drop them on the floor, there's no telling how long they will last. So they may survive.
NNAMDIIt all depends on...
SAGERThe originals may survive the vapor versions eventually.
NNAMDIWhether the technology survives. Sam Brylawski, these old records are obviously fragile, especially when they happen to be dropped. But from a historic perspective, they may very well be more stable than the mp3s I have on my computer or the old CDs I have on my shelf, which is what, I guess, David was just alluding to. Can you, please, explain?
BRYLAWSKIWell, that's absolutely so. Mp3s, we know in themselves, that whatever medium they're on, as David said, and, I guess, anyone here listening, who has used a computer for a long time, has lost a file, has lost a word-processing file or something worse. And I've lost many mp3 files in my machine. They just seem to disappear. CDs themselves are considered to be relatively stable, but they can have manufacturing defects.
BRYLAWSKIBut remember, CDs are made up of different layers, pieces of plastic sort of baked onto one another, and anything that has a strata like that can come apart. And CDs themselves can get oxidation. If air gets in them, they're ruined. So they're not permanent. So, as David said, if you don't drop them or play them poorly, 78s, we know from this project -- we have some online that are over 100 years old.
NNAMDIWe're talking about preserving music in the digital age with Sam Brylawski. He's a consultant with the National Jukebox Project of the Library of Congress. He's also editor and project manager with Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California, Santa Barbara. David Sager joins us in studio also. He's curator at the National Jukebox Project at the Library of Congress. He's also a jazz trombonist.
NNAMDIAnd Gene DeAnna is head of the recorded sound section at the library's Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Nancy in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYThis technology is crazy to me right now. Anyway, I am calling because I'm making a movie at present about a -- he was not a star, but he's with all the stars. He was with the Ink Spots. His name was Huey Long, not to be confused with Huey P. Long.
NANCYAnd I have some wonderful music from Huey playing with Lil Armstrong. It's on a cassette tape, believe it or not, the "Hi-De-Ho Man," and I don't know if that would be of any use to you. That's one question. And the second question is, as I make this movie, Huey was involved with the jazz world from -- he was born in 1904. And I'm wondering -- I'm a small filmmaker. How do I get to some of this music and not have to pay a fortune to, you know...
NNAMDISo you'd like to know if the jukebox music is available for filmmakers at little or no cost?
NNAMDII'm asking. Is that what you'd like to know?
NNAMDIWell, here is Gene DeAnna.
DEANNAWell, that's a different use than our agreement with Sony calls for, so we have -- we do have good contact information for you. If you call the Recorded Sound Reference Center, we can connect you with the right person at Sony to request permission for usage. And, frankly, I don't think you'll have too much of a problem with any of the recordings that are on the jukebox. That's my guess, not significant problems. If they've given it to us, even if it's streaming, they pretty much are ready to part with it.
NNAMDIAnd, Nancy, the first part of your question had to do with whether the project would be interested in your film after it's made?
NANCYWell, no. It wasn't -- that would be great, too. But I was also offering one of the things I have from Huey. I have several things -- is he has a recording with...
NANCY...Lil Armstrong of the "Hi-De-Ho Man" from -- which is a -- from a recording session. I have it on a cassette, and I don't know if that would help you. But I'm sure Huey would like it.
SAGERI would love to hear it, personally. I think we don't have a provision yet to -- for accepting modern, so-called post-1925 recordings into the jukebox yet or from outside contributors. But we're working on that, so we would need to know if the selection has been commercially issued or is this a private recording? Are there any rights attached to it? And...
NNAMDIAnd, of course, Nancy, you can find a link at our website, kojoshow.org, to the National Jukebox project website, so you may be able to contact them in that link.
SAGERSend us an email.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your -- go ahead, Nancy?
NANCYOkay. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll return to this special musical edition of Tech Tuesday, Preserving Music in the Digital Age. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Preserving Music in the Digital Age. By the way, the music you heard in that break, that was the Sousa Band, led by John Philip Sousa that we played on the way out, the original recording. Music in the digital age is what we are talking about with David Sager. He is curator at the National Jukebox Project of Library of Congress. Gene DeAnna is head of the Recorded Sound Section of the library's Packard Campus for audio-visual conservation.
NNAMDIAnd Sam Brylawski is a consultant with the project. He is editor and project manager of Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Gene, you worked at a unique facility in Culpepper, Va. It's an old bunker that literally holds our cultural history in its vaults, 100 miles of shelves, a 45-acre vault. That collection grows by more than 100,000 works per year, it's my understanding. How do you keep track of all that stuff? How do you know what to save and catalogue and what to, well, throw away?
DEANNAWell, it's -- it is a flood. It's a tidal wave of material coming in. And we have -- we've gotten very good at it. The library has a long tradition of handling, you know, lots of material fairly efficiently. We've got it down to a fine art. We have a very broad collection range. There isn't much we throw out, frankly. That's sort of the easy part. I think what we do is we -- the things we actually toss would be duplicate copies of things or poor copies -- poorer copies of things and the few things that overlap into the areas of the other national libraries like agriculture or National Library of Medicine, say.
DEANNABut, otherwise, we're pretty expansive. We collect the materials that reflect the interest of the U.S. Congress after all. So that's quite broad in that.
NNAMDII got to tell you it's exciting to hear John Philip Sousa's music as it was originally conducted by John Philip Sousa or there's this "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin with George Gershwin on piano.
NNAMDIYes. That was the Paul Whiteman concert orchestra, George Gershwin on piano. What you were hearing there when we faded out: four violins, four saxophones, two French horns, two cornets, two trombones, tuba, piano and (word?). That was recorded 1924. What can we learn about this music when we hear it performed by the people who actually wrote it? David.
SAGERIn that case, we're hearing the original orchestration of "Rhapsody in Blue," which is considerably different than the way we hear it today by a symphony orchestra. It was re-orchestrated in the late '20s by Ferde Grofe, who is Paul Whiteman's pianist, who did the original orchestration, which was done -- as he did it, it was literally for piano and jazz band with added strings and French horns.
SAGERAnd it's a very different animal. And to hear different performance practices of the day, for instance, the opening, famous clarinet introduction was played by Whiteman's clarinetist Ross Gorman, who took Gershwin's opening clarinet ascending scale, and he turned it into this marvelous glissando laced with all kinds of inflections from Yiddish dance music from klezmer music. It's really terrific. And performances, since then, never really quite capture that.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about how we listen to music today and try to resolve an issue that I'm sure is burning among our audience: Which is better, vinyl or not? For the most of the last century, listening to music was, well, a tactile experience. We had a big piece of vinyl, or we had to pull it off a shelf. We had to place the needle at just the right place on the groove. Today, though, listening to music is more like about click your mouse or using a touch pad. Does the tactile experience make it sound better?
NNAMDIYou all spend a lot of time loving and caressing old analog technology, but you're using digital technology. So you can help us settle the analog versus digital debate, vinyl versus CD for all time. Which is better, vinyl or CD? I'll start with you, Sam Brylawski.
BRYLAWSKIWell, I've been hearing this argument for a long time. My own opinion, and as a listener and not as any kind of expert, is, if you have a $15,000 system to listen to music, vinyl is better. But for the rest of us, CDs were and are a wonderful thing. I mean, if we were to listen to the greatest sound system, you know, we could find in the area, an AB as we call it, two different versions, we'd all hear the difference in vinyl, I think -- maybe not my age, but the rest of you might.
BRYLAWSKIBut listening in the car, listening on $15 set of headphones or earbuds, I don't think there's much difference. Now, people use to criticize CDs when LPs came in, and now they're looking at CDs as a model because MP3s have so much less information than even CDs.
SAGERI think the problem, as I see it -- or the question, I should say, is more about the equipment that we're listening on. We tend to hear these -- now, they're called vapor recordings on these very loud earbuds, and, to me, there's no real quality to this equipment. It doesn't play the music back at its fullest potential, sonically.
SAGERAnd when you have a -- whether you have a shellac 78 or a vinyl LP or a compact disc or you have your iPhone plugged into a good system with good three-way or even two-way speakers that have some depth and some soul to the sound, I think you're really getting something that really hits the heart. And I think the modern equipment really, really misses the mark.
NNAMDIWell, Gene, you're the one who has to cast the deciding vote.
DEANNAWell, I agree with both of these guys completely on this. But the thing that everyone forgets is that, in the end, quality isn't going to win out in conveniences. And it's been -- that's been the case. We were just talking about this before we came on, that many people, when the cylinder and the flat disc were both around at the turn of the century, and there was the first format war in recorded sound, most people agree that the cylinder sounded better.
DEANNABut, you know, having cylinders and storing them and playing them were so inconvenient. A flat disc was much better. And there was just no competition in the marketplace. And that's what we're looking at today. There's just nothing more convenient than playing a file or popping in a CD as opposed to dealing with cleaning your -- wiping your LP, getting all the dust off, cleaning the stylus and playing it. But if you take that trouble and you do have a good enough sound system, there's just no doubt about it. It is a -- it's a better listening experience.
NNAMDIWe'll consider the issue resolved.
NNAMDIHere is Thomas in Columbia, Md. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THOMASThank you. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes we can.
THOMASAll right. I am a -- I'm retired now, but I am working part time as a performer and as a music teacher. And I note that there -- when you use a digital version of a recording, 'cause I live through the transition from analog to digital, that it distorts pitch relationships, no matter how good the sampling rate on the digital one. And since this here has an effect on the final sound of the recording, it is more important for performers to be able to hear what was intended.
THOMASThe -- you can sing along with an analog recording in the shower and be right on pitch perfect. But in digital recording, you can't because the semitones have different frequencies or different distances, different harmonic differences. And I was wondering, is there any way of hearing these original recordings like that beautiful piece by -- of Gershwin you played without the string section?
THOMASIs there any way of hearing them -- and the way they were performed without having to listen to a digital version, which is going to, well, frankly, to my opinion, screw up the sound and the performance in a way that you can not really know the way it sounded originally?
NNAMDIThat's why we call it Tech Tuesday. David Sager, can you help Tomas?
SAGERYou can come to my house. I have a copy of the 78. I'll be happy to play it for you.
SAGERI don't live too far away from you. That's the only answer I have.
NNAMDIYou've got to hear the original 78, Thomas, I guess.
THOMASYeah, I know, I mean, it doesn't matter when you're playing something -- where melody doesn't matter, like rap. It's almost all rhythm. But for people who are performing, they have to know how close to the fret to place their finger or how -- where on the violin or wood and strings, it's going to matter.
NNAMDII'd have to walk out of this building and face a very angry rap and hip-hop audience when I get through with this call, Thomas. But thank you very much for your call. Got to play the original 78, I guess. We move on now to Alvites (sp?) in Dayton, Md. Alvites, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALVITESYes, hello. Thank you. I just would like to say how wonderfully knowledgeable your guests are. It's been a real pleasure to be listening to this program. And I'm excited about the jukebox project, and I think that history and preserving history of music is so critically important and digitally just -- it has to be -- you know, this discussion about going from cylinders to vinyl to disc to who knows whatever will come in the future. But I think digital recordings are here to stay.
ALVITESAnd I'm also studying jazz piano, and I need to study the history of this. So it's very exciting to -- that I may have this jukebox. And I have a couple of questions. Will it be available to just anybody on the Internet? And, also, regarding these types of recordings, their massive efforts and -- you know, you can do a lot digitally. But what about redundancy, like, is it possible that you'll do all this work and the server will go down and you'll lose it? You know, how will you protect your work and make sure that it's (unintelligible) ?
NNAMDIEugene DeAnna, I suspect the first -- answer to the first part of the question is, yes, it is available for anybody online, correct?
DEANNAIt is, and it has been since mid-May. And it is -- one of the things we've always hoped that the impact these recordings would have is the rediscovery by musicians, to hear this and react to it and interpret it in their way and have it be part of the musical conversation again, which is really great. I'm glad to hear that. As far as the redundancy, the good news is that we have this Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation there, and there is redundancy built in, in our servers.
DEANNAWe have the -- an amazing digital infrastructure there to do this. Digital -- the listener is right. Digital is here to stay. There's absolutely no question about that. Science tells us it's the right thing to do, to preserve sound right now. But it's expensive, and it does require a lot of technical infrastructure. And we're one of the few institutions to have that in -- at the level we do. So the good news is we're backing up. We've got redundancy, and we have high-quality preservation files made for all of these recordings.
DEANNAAnd what we did was we made derivatives for Web use of a lower quality, but we kept, of course, the higher quality resolution files on the servers.
NNAMDIAlvites, thank you very much for your call. Talk a little bit, if you would, Sam, about how these records were made in the acoustic era. There were no microphones. So how did you capture the sound?
BRYLAWSKIWell, a lot of it was trial and error. There wasn't a great deal of science in doing it. I have to put in my own little plug for Washington, D.C. The 78 rpm record was invented here by Emile Berliner in the 1880s. And he was really the first to envision sound recording as a medium for listening in homes. So Berliner recorded his discs downtown, as later Edison recorded his cylinders and Victor's and all the other companies until mid-'25 with a big cylindrical horn that captured the sound that musicians would gather around the horn.
BRYLAWSKIUsually, the pianist might be raised on a platform so that the piano is even with the bells of all the other instruments. If you look online or look on the National Jukebox website, you can see what's called a Stroh violin, which is a violin with a big horn that helped to amplify the violin for the instruments. And they would experiment a little bit with the balance of instruments and which ones should sit further away from the recording horn, which one should be closer.
BRYLAWSKIThey also did a great deal of experimentation with the recording medium itself or, I should say how they reproduced it, what kind of recipe to use for the shellac pressings.
NNAMDIDavid, you're a curator and preservationist, well, by the day, jazz trombonist by night. And, apparently, you actually recorded yourself using these old acoustic methods. What did you sound like?
SAGERIt was surprisingly real. The playback seem very lifelike and quite a surprise. I had always wondered what a modern acoustical recording would sound like. I did a session up at the Edison site some years ago, Edison National Historic Park. And for their annual Edison Day, they wanted to have a little orchestra playing typical early 1900s orchestrations and have a recording session. So we did that on the old music room, and we had somebody playing a Stroh violin, as Sam just described, and an old recording machine setup.
SAGERAnd it was really -- it's quite sobering just to finish the selection and then hear a playback coming through this horn. And we had to do a lot of experimenting with the balance. We didn't have time to make it quite perfect because we had tour groups coming in, and then they'd bring in another tour group. But...
NNAMDIBut it was acceptable?
BRYLAWSKIIt was acceptable. Yes.
NNAMDIEugene, acoustic recording techniques could only capture certain instruments and certain voices. How did the recording technology of the day affect what we heard and, well, who we remember?
DEANNAThat's true, and musicians were very conscious of that. If you -- Caruso was one of the great voices of his period, and his voice came through very well on acoustic recordings. And he was one of the -- he was the first great name to latch on to sound recording and take it up and be -- and was the first great star of sound recording.
NNAMDIAnd just in case people are wondering exactly what Enrico Caruso sounded like, there's this.
NNAMDI"Serenade Espagnole" recorded in 1914. Gene, what we heard there, why was that different from what we would likely hear today in a different recording environment?
DEANNAThat's a good question, and a difficult question to answer. I think David's take on the immediacy of it and the very unrefined, untampered with -- there's no tone control going on. There's no producer between Caruso and what you're hearing. It's straight from the horn into the wax. So no one's noodling around with balancing things out. It's got a rawness and a live sense that, I think...
NNAMDIImmediacy, rawness, those are the things I immediately picked up, David.
SAGERAnother thing is, back in those days, you -- the artist needed to do his or her own dynamic control. If you went to sing a loud high note, you had to back away from the recording horn, so you did not -- so you wouldn't cut an un-uniform groove, which would blast on the playback. And this caused a problem. It took away some sense of musicality because if there was a crescendo, you had to back away from the horn, and that took away the crescendo.
SAGERSo what you hear is an increase of -- you get an increase of intensity, but you don't get that loudness. And this was something that a lot of the singers complained about, that recording ruined their musicality. Some were very uncomfortable having to do this and had to be suspended in the arms of technicians, who would stand by, who would pull them back, who would learn the music and pull them away from the horn and then push them back towards the horn.
NNAMDIPerhaps push them in the side to see.
SAGERSo Caruso was one -- not only was he a great singer on stage, apparently, but he mastered the recording horn like some modern performers will talk about mastering the microphone and being able to manipulate the microphone. You had to know how to work that horn.
NNAMDILots of people would like to join this conversation. If you have already called, stay on the line. If the lines are busy, send us an email to email@example.com, or a tweet, @kojoshow. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. We're talking about preserving music in the digital age on this Tech Tuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're talking about preserving music in the digital age with Sam Brylawski, consultant with the National Jukebox Project at the Library of Congress and editor and project manager of Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings at the University of California Santa Barbara. He joins us in studio with Gene DeAnna, who is head of the recorded sound section at the library's Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, and David Sager, who is curator at the National Jukebox Project.
NNAMDIWere taking your calls at 800-433-8850. The Victor Talking Machine Company was one of the most important players in early music, Sam. And just as American music began to evolve over the course of the first 25 years or so of the 20th century, so did the company. Why was Victor so important?
BRYLAWSKIWell, Victor was important because, I think, they had good businessmen running it. It was very interesting. They're an outgrowth of the first 78 rpm company, the Berliner Gramophone Company. Interesting tie with Victor with what's going on today is Victor probably made more money manufacturing and selling machines, which they sold -- they marketed as musical instruments. They have a big Victrola in your parlor.
BRYLAWSKIIt was a musical instrument in a beautiful piece of mahogany or cherry furniture. If you could afford it, pay the $2 a week or whatever to your Victor dealer. So the records, like iTunes, were software created to sell hardware so that you would buy these nice machines that started at $25 and went up to $4- and $500 or more. But Victor had wonderful marketing. Like so much business that's successful, a lot of it is marketing. A wonderful -- what was crucial to its marketing? His little dog, Nipper, listening to his master's voice.
NNAMDIHis master's voice. That's what I grew up seeing. That was that.
BRYLAWSKIWell, exactly, one of the most trademarks in history that was crucial to it. But I also think they got to know their markets. At least, for a while, they got to know their markets, although I think they fell behind in the mid-1920s before they were sold. But they knew to make band music like this recent recording we heard and concert music. And they knew how to promote stars. They promoted a star system like Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar and other artists that they touted the way a movie studio might advertise people.
NNAMDIHere is -- here are two emails we got, one from Scott, which simply says, "The clips you are playing are really, really clean. How did you do that?" And another from Mark, who says, "A couple of questions. With this National Jukebox project going on, what fraction of recorded music from 1917 to 1925 has been effectively preserved? And what kind of record players are required to play these old recordings? Finally, do you do a lot of computer-based cleanup of the sound to make it more listenable?" David Sager.
SAGERWell, the first part is how come they sound so clean. We picked the best copies of the records that were in the library's collection. Pardon me. In many cases, we had four, five or six copies of the same record. And our technicians would spend a good deal of time under very bright lights and magnifying glasses and -- looking at the grooves and picking the best copies and then cleaning them, making sure the grooves are free of dirt and all kinds of grime and old oils and whatever else might be embedded in them.
SAGERAnd then came the playback and transfer using very, very fine equipment. We have the best playback equipment, I think, anywhere in our recording lab and fine engineers whose goal it was, and I think they succeeded beautifully, in making these very bright-sounding but still very neutral transfers of these recordings. Neutral, I mean not introducing any equalization into the signal, just taking what -- flatly what is in the grooves and putting that on our -- on a hard drive.
NNAMDIHere now is Shawn in Washington, D.C. Shawn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHAWNThe question I have for your guests is I'm curious if -- you know, with -- you know, sort of based on the discussion that they're having about -- if they have any comment on how sort of the evolution of the format, as it's gone to a digital format and as we've gotten mp3s, where the sound is compressed or the frequency is either lost some on the high and the low end and has changed.
SHAWNIf they have any comment on how they think that may have changed what sort of people that have grown up with it, the way that the composers and producers of the generation has grown up with that kind of music, that format, how it -- how they think it might change the future compositions that those people will create or are creating now.
DEANNAIf I have the question right, you're asking, how does the -- how will the digital formats impact musical creators?
DEANNAWell, I think that's pretty obvious. I mean, I think if you go into some -- certainly, in popular music, it's all digital. They're digital sound. There are digital voice enhancements. It's completely -- it's become a digital process from start to finish. It's what we call born digital, and it stays digital.
DEANNAAnd all of these tools are there to make sound and enhance sound, and there have been some very certainly creative and artistic uses of it. And in other ways, in other -- I would say there's an awful lot of tedium and sort of convention around the use of it that is not so interesting. I don't know if I really answered the question.
NNAMDICare to add anything at all, Sam?
BRYLAWSKIYeah, I'm thinking that, from the very beginning, there was somewhat of a debate, a dichotomy between sound recordings that were great sound recordings and sound recordings that were doing their best to reproduce a live performance. And, you know, there's certain kinds of early recordings you'll hear on the National Jukebox called descriptive specialties. They have dialogue, and they have sound effects, and they have, you know, a band playing in the background, like a vaudeville sketch.
BRYLAWSKIYou wouldn't be able to hear that live unless you're near a vaudeville stage. And yet there are others that were -- a piano and a voice that you could hear in your parlor. And there's -- and think about The Beatles had stopped performing live in 1966 or -'7 because they couldn't do what they could do in a studio. So we've always had that kind of dichotomy.
DEANNAYeah. That's true.
BRYLAWSKII think one of the big effects is -- sound recording effect is that we might be making our attention span shorter in two ways. Recordings were -- the early recordings were mostly three-and-a-half to five minutes. But, I also -- a good critic I knew, David Hamilton, once sort of said to me that having recordings always available lessened our attention span because we knew we could always go back and listen to it again, whereas if you were in New York City and they were performing a Brahms symphony for the very first time, you know, you had to pay attention. You couldn't go home and listen to it four or five times.
DEANNAI think also the format -- an mp3 -- arguably, you could say we probably wouldn't have mp3s if people were listening to a lot of symphonic -- if symphonic music was as popular as pop music, we wouldn't be listening to mp3s. In a way, mp3s are a response to -- are good enough sound for the music that people are buying.
NNAMDILet's talk about race for a second because the Jukebox website has a disclaimer that runs along the top of the page, specifically warning that some of the language may not be appropriate by today's standards. What are you talking about there?
DEANNAOh, this is a time when vaudeville humor was rough around the edges, and there was this incredible ethnic population that were new to each other. And ethnic jokes were on the table. And people told them, and they were often very crude. We like to say everybody is insulted in the National Jukebox, not just one. It's a pretty equal stage. But some of the African-American dialects are cruder probably than the others to our ears. So we want to put a warning up.
DEANNAWe don't -- we'd hate to see things taken out of context and used in a harmful way when what we're trying to do is just present things as they were. So that's the reason for the disclaimer.
NNAMDIWell, that's certainly what Ben Vereen was trying to do in 1981 at the Reagan inauguration when he attempted to provide Bert Williams in context. Unfortunately, much of the context was cut out of it, and what we ended up seeing was Ben Vereen performing in blackface. And a lot of people -- I was looking at the letters that were written to Ebony magazine -- at the time were very upset about that. But, David, talk about Bert Williams because he was the best-selling black recording artist before 1920. How did he manage to navigate the race issues of the day?
SAGERHe was a very patient and, I think, a very frustrated man. Eddie Cantor recalled spending New Year's Eve with him when they were in the Ziegfeld Follies. And they -- Cantor agreed to spend the evening with Bert, who wasn't welcome in the places where the other cast members went. And he looked at Cantor, and he said -- as they were going up the back steps of the hotel, he said, son, you know, it wouldn't really bother me so much if the applause wasn't still ringing in my ears.
SAGERAnd, still, he managed to be such a marvelous -- really marvelous performer and a very talented composer as well. He composed the melodies to a number of his very early material.
NNAMDIHe was born in the Bahamas in 1874. What you are about to hear is a track of Bert Williams recorded in the year 1901.
NNAMDIBert Williams recorded in 1901. On the other side of the spectrum is a musician named Silas Leachman, who -- he was a specialist in something called coon music, emulating the dialects of blacks. And even though it's really offensive by today's standards, these records are actually very historically noteworthy. Why is that?
DEANNAWell, I mean, certainly they're noteworthy because they exist. They were made, and they were accepted at the time. And there's no denying that they -- you can't put a happy face on it. They are offensive. And so you want to -- to not put them out there would be, I think, would be tinting things and shading history to -- cleaning it up. And we didn't want to do that. So I think they're important because of their existence and what they say about society at the time.
NNAMDIIndeed. We are just about out of time, but, Sam, I wanted you to talk briefly about the influence that the two individuals I named earlier -- Rob Bamberger and Dick Spottswood -- have had on all of you.
BRYLAWSKIAbsolutely. I had a discography of Victor Records, and we're going to expand into other labels to support the National Jukebox. And one of the contributors to the discography is Dick Spottswood, from whom I've learned so much, and he's had one -- he's been an editor of the discography and has made great contributions to it. And we call in Rob Bamberger quite frequently for help on the jazz and dance band music.
NNAMDIRob Bamberger and Dick Spottswood. Gene DeAnna, thank you so much for joining us.
DEANNAThanks. Great to be here.
NNAMDIGene is head of the recorded sound section of the Library of Congress' Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conversation. David Sager is curator of the National Jukebox Project of the library. And Sam Brylawski is a consultant for the National Jukebox Project. Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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