National Treasury of Music: Which Songs Would Yours Include?
The Library of Congress is preserving important recordings for posterity. Tell us yours.
It’s official: Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin and the Ramones are now national cultural treasures.
We’ve known this since high school and college, but last week the venerable Library of Congress (see sidebar at end of piece) did its version of canonizing these rockers by including some of their albums in its registry of recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” This is part of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, a government-sponsored “blueprint for saving America’s recorded sound heritage for future generations.”
Every year for the past 13, the library’s National Recording Preservation Board, a group of musicians, musicologists and preservationists, selects musical and spoken-word recordings that have been nominated by both board members and the public. This year’s addition of 25 brings the total to 375. (Not a Ramones fan? Make your own suggestions for the next registry.)
The 2013 selections are impressively diverse. They include Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence; the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack; Will Rogers’ 1931 “folksy” radio speech supporting President Herbert Hoover’s unemployment-relief campaign; Artie Shaw’s cover of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”; Cheap Thrills, Janis Joplin’s second album with Big Brother and the Holding Company; Van Cliburn’s 1958 interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1; and that “dance-craze sparker” from Chubby Checker, “The Twist.”
But the selection that earned the most public nominations was — drum roll, please — Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which to this day is still one of the best-selling rock albums of all time (and a personal favorite).
Also included were performances by Leontyne Price, Ornette Coleman, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Philip Glass, Betty Carter, Junior Wells, Jimmie Davis, Frank (not Weird Al) Yankovic, and the Brothers Blackwood and Neville (but not Allman or Doobie).
A Personal Musical Registry
Leaving aside the fact I’d have picked Rocket to Russia over The Ramones, Pearl over Cheap Thrills and Bookends over Sounds of Silence, I think this is not only an admirable project, but one that would be fun and “culturally enlightening” to do for ourselves. I can’t speak for all 78 million American baby boomers, but I’m willing to bet a majority of us consider music a hugely important part of our lives and, like a Scorsese film, an essential element of the most memorable freeze-frame moments (or eras) of our lives.
This got me thinking about what my personal registry would include — not an easy task considering that my iPod is maxed out at just under 13,000 songs and there are easily 5,000 more I’d like to add today. To make the process a bit easier, not to mention more enlightening, I would follow the same guiding principles as the Library of Congress and select music that’s not only culturally and artistically valuable but historically important. And by “important,” I mean important to me for specific reasons in my life.
But where to start? (And how to limit?) My first musical crush was, no surprise here, The Monkees. Not only did I deepen the grooves in my records by playing them over and over and over, but I would actually call our local AM station every morning before I left for 5th grade and request “Daydream Believer,” as if I didn’t hear it enough at home. It’s pure bubble gum and I’m no white knight on a steed, but I have to say, I still love that song and the sweet childhood memories it evokes: My sister, two best friends and I in a “girl band” that sang Monkees songs while dancing the Pony and the Jerk at the Girls Club after Brownies.
So that’s got to be on the list. But quickly my tastes grew (even) more sophisticated and I was listening to the Beatles, Stones, Dylan … and then the Doors, the Who, Traffic, Tull, Zeppelin and, well, you know that playlist. From that deep well, it’s impossible to draw just one bucket, but like most teenagers, that time of my life was characterized by exploration, adventure, love, rebellion, but also a deeper yearning for something I didn’t quite have a vocabulary for.
As I reflect back on that hormonal roller-coaster of my youth, certain songs do leap out, forever imprinted on my brain. I don’t play guitar, but I could air-strum my way through any of these iconic songs, which couldn’t be left off my list: "Riders on the Storm," "Norwegian Wood," "Dazed and Confused" (which title was later co-opted by filmmaker Richard Linklater to symbolize teenhood), "Gimme Shelter," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Eyes of the World," "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi’s version), "Don’t Take Me Alive," "Can You See the Real Me?" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond."
A More Mature Playlist
I thought coming up with my own personal top 25 or 50 recordings would be doable. (After all, didn’t we waste hundreds of hours compiling “desert island album” lists?) But as I reel through the years, I realize just how daunting a project this is and appreciate the job of the Library of Congress. If to be fair I could choose only one Talking Heads song, would it be “This Must Be the Place” or “Cross-eyed and Painless”? A single Clash: “London Calling” or “One More Dub”; Elvis Costello’s “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” or “(What’s So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”?
And that’s just six out of 13,000.
Then I started mulling the spoken-word category. How could I not include the audio portions of my parents’ 40th–anniversary party video, when my father, who lost his hearing during World War II, gave a speech telling everyone in the room how much he loved them? Or anything uttered by my son in his squeaky 5-year-old voice? Or a saved voicemail from an octogenarian trumpet-player friend blowing a jazzy "Happy Birthday" to me? I only wish I’d been one of those compulsive video-recorders, except then my collection of collections would be even less manageable.
I can imagine that not everyone would have such difficulty compiling their own list. Perhaps you started as you were reading? We’d love to hear it. (And remember, you can nominate your songs at the Library of Congress.
Library of Congress: One Cool Institution
The Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the nation, established by John Adams as a reference library for Congress in 1800, when the seat of government was moved to D.C. (from Philadelphia). Originally housed in the U.S. Capitol, the first collection was destroyed in 1814 when British troops burned that building down during the War of 1812. The following year, Thomas Jefferson sold the government his entire personal collection (6,487 books and one of the premium personal libraries in the country at the time) for $23,950.
After the Civil War, the Library of Congress got its own building (it’s currently housed in four). The 19th-century Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford helped established copyright law, which led to a massive influx of books, pamphlets, maps, music, prints and photos.
In the 20th century, the library expanded its mission to not merely “support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties” but also “to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” Today, only members of Congress, the Supreme Court and other high-ranking officials are permitted to check out books, but everyone can use the library (which in the 21st century has developed a robust online presence).
Currently the Library of Congress is the largest library in world in terms of shelf space and books (nearly 23 million), employs a staff of 3,597 and includes artwork, newspapers, sound recordings, film, maps and manuscripts and promotes literary and American literature through a variety of projects, including the Poet Laureate.
I can’t help wondering, though: What would Adams and Jefferson have made of “Blitzkreig Bop”?