Library of Congress Honors Beautiful and (Some) Questionable Noise

It will come to no surprise that Broadway and opera are represented on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, which preserves recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”

The original cast albums of Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, The Wiz and Hair are among the Broadway’s best that are on the list with Rumors by Fleetwood Mac, Vin Scully’s call of the 1957 Giants vs. Dodgers game, Tito Puente’s 1958 Dance Mania album, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech and the first transatlantic telephone conversation from January 1927.

Opera selections include the first unofficial “Live from the Met” recordings, made in 1931 … 30 years before the show aired on the radio. Lionel Mapleson used a gramophone to make cylinder recordings of opera singers Emma Calve, Fritzi Scheff and Pol Plancon, among others. This recording, called “invaluable” because if gave a sense of weight and timbre of voices, is on the registry with Leontyne Price in Aida (1962) and A Program of Song (1959), Strauss: Four Last Songs by Jessye Norman (1983), Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas and Carolo Bergonzi (1953) and Renee Fleming’s Signatures (1997).

There are 525 recordings in the registry that was established in 2000 and has, since 2002, annually selected recordings for preservation. During the first four years, 50 recordings were picked from a list of nominees and 25 each year subsequently.

Of the selections, many are shoo-ins while others could be considered off the beaten path.

Among the first inductees were Mercury Theater’s presentation of War of the Worlds with Orson Welles (1938), “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday (1939), Martin Luther King’, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan Album (1963), Around the World on the Phonograph by Thomas Edison (1888-89), the song “The Message” from Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five (1982), “Who’s on First” radio broadcast by Abbott and Costello (1938) and “This Land is Your Land” by Woodie Guthrie.

Also on the registry, Herbert Morrison’s “Oh the humanity!” description of the Hindenburg crash (1937); “Respect” by Aretha Franklin (1967), the first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion by Garrison Keillor (1974); Frances Densmore’s recordings and study of Native American music Chippewa/Ojibwe Cylinder Collection (1907-1910), and astronaut Neil Armstrong’s remarks from the moon (1969).

This year’s inductees included Janet Jackson’s album Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), “Lady Marmalade” by Patti LaBelle (1974), the Marlo Thomas-fronted album Free to Be You and Me (1972) and the play-by-play of Roger Maris hitting his 61st homerun (1961), breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record.

Also among 2021 selections, “The Rainbow Connection” sung by Kermit the Frog, the first puppet, er, Muppet, on the list. That one raised an eyebrow among the Straz blog topic panel, which prompted the question what other “oddities” also have been preserved by the Library of Congress.

Obviously, oddities are in the eye of the beholder, and for the record, Caught in the Act takes no issue with Kermit being on the list. The summation that its hopeful message about dream fulfillment, from 1979’s The Muppet Movie, makes it a deserving addition. Paul Williams, the song’s co-writer with Kenny Ascher, said in an interview he knew the song “had to be meaningful. … A song that spoke of his inner life.”

As for other recordings among the 525 that could be considered head scratchers:

New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics on the radio. Far from FDR’s Fireside Chats, in 1945 LaGuardia, in an act of benevolence or a political statement during a newspaper delivery strike, read the “funny papers,” from Dick Tracy to Little Orphan Annie. Not only did it make children happy, it forever-impacted his image and legacy as a savvy politician.

Sounds of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. The last accepted sighting of this now seemingly extinct bird was in 1935 in the Singer Tract area of Louisiana. Ornithologist Arthur Allen of Cornell University and his team captured sound of the woodpecker and its various calls. According to the nomination’s supporting essay, “The bird’s nasaly, tooting call, or ‘kent,’ was fully registered and recorded. Today, to the untrained ear it sounds very much like a child’s squeak toy; to bird experts, however, it’s the holy grail.” In 2005, a sighting of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was recorded but never substantiated, so alas, it remains the Bigfoot of birds.

“Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp).” This novelty song recorded in 1963 by Allan Sherman is based on a forlorn letter he received from his son who was attending Camp Champlain in Westport, N.Y. One complaint cited in the original letter and in the song – the weather: “Camp is very entertaining/And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.” Another … missing campers: “You remember Jeffery Hardy/They’re about to organize a searching party.” The song captures the summer camp experience of those who weren’t initially enamored of the great outdoors but then come around when the weather broke. A fun note, Leonard Skinner mentioned for getting “ptomaine poisoning after dinner” possibly inspired the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s band name.

A 1945 episode of The Guiding Light. This radio episode of the popular and the longest-running scripted program in broadcast history was cited in its induction for its “breakthrough success of the innovative scriptwriter Irna Phillips, credited for inventing the genre. Though the TV series, centered on the Bauer family, the radio version focused on the Rev. John Ruthledge (Arthur Peterson) and his congregation in Five Points. The episode chosen as representative is a Thanksgiving installment with Ruthledge abroad serving as a chaplain in World War II – his friend, the Rev. Frank Tuttle, giving a moving sermon to a packed church about American values and standing together in times of strife – “The brotherhood of man is not an idle dream, but the only practical hope and certain safeguard of our community, our nation and the world.”

“The Okeh Laughing Record” of 1922. Called obnoxious, hilarious and kind of creepy, this record is what it states – laughter. The Library of Congress calls it “one of the most unusual, (in its way) influential and surprising enduring novelty records ever recorded.” Running almost three minutes, it was originally recorded in 1916 on the German Bekah label by three professional musicians. It begins with a cornetist playing a sad song when a woman’s laugh interrupts the performance. As the solo continues, a laughing man joins the laughing woman. Make sure you listen for the audible “SNORT.” Bekah’s version became a hit and it was exported to other labels including Okeh in the U.S. where it sold an estimated 1 million copies in 1922. Go figure.

A 1941 episode of America’s Town Meeting of the Air. A NBC public affairs show that aired on the radio from 1935 to 1956 was one of the first radio talk shows. Its host, George V. Denny Jr. wanted the show to replicate the town meetings held in the “early days of the United States” that would be educational and mentally challenging. The show opened with a town crier’s bell and included a live studio audience. The episode chosen for induction is titled “Should Our Ships Convoy Materials to England,” centering on the escalating war in Europe with the two debaters raising alarm about the German threat and doing a lot of flag waving. Several boos and shout-outs from the audience can be heard during the broadcast.

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