100 Year-Old Playlists

The success of the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox is quite a delightful thing.

It’s a collection of recordings made by the powerful Victor Talking Machine Co. (the one with the dog) in the first quarter of the 20th century, and as Will Friedwald explains in the Wall Street Journal, it took 10 years to get the site up and running, mostly because of all the rights issues that had to be worked out. (Many of the songs are not in the public domain, and due to the U.S.’s bizarre copyright laws, even the recordings that are public-domain in most parts of the world aren’t public-domain there.) They still can’t offer anything from later than 1925 – meaning nothing from after acoustical recording was replaced by the electrical recording process, which was better able to capture what voices and instruments really sounded like. And they aren’t able to offer the recordings for downloading. But there are lots of great recordings in there, and it’s great to be able to browse through all these recordings and listen to the birth of recorded music’s ability to democratize and internationalize music.

And since so many musical styles are represented here, there’s something for everyone. As a fan of the American musical, for example, I enjoy checking out Victor’s recordings of show tunes, which rarely utilized performers from the actual shows (that came later) but were often handled by in-house singers like Billy Murray, with his fine diction (that allowed the words to be clear despite the limitations of the recording process) and his famous technique of deliberately singing flat in comedy songs, as in this song from a show by Jerome Kern (music) and P.G. Wodehouse (lyrics). But there’s a lot more in there that I haven’t heard yet and have still to discover.

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