Listen to Rare Recordings at the Library of Congress National Jukebox

I started in the Internet biz back in ’96, categorizing web sites for Yahoo! It was sort of the web equivalent of being a file clerk, but because the medium was so new and investors were making even the mailroom guys rich, everybody in the building thought they were Bill Gates.

Back then, a lot of Big Thinkers and Web pundits used to wax eloquent about the Information Superhighway and the Limitless Potential of the Web. Yet, as I sat in my cubicle sifting through yet another Geocities “personal home page” visually signaling its creator’s fidelity to Pamela Anderson, or my tenth multi-level marketing distributor’s site of the day, I really had to wonder.

All of which is to say: The thing we’re talking about in this post? This ain’t those.

The Library of Congress has launched its National Jukebox, and it’s the kind of project that makes you fall in love with the web all over again. From the About page:

The Library of Congress presents the National Jukebox, which makes historical sound recordings available to the public free of charge. The Jukebox includes recordings from the extraordinary collections of the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation and other contributing libraries and archives. Recordings in the Jukebox were issued on record labels now owned by Sony Music Entertainment, which has granted the Library of Congress a gratis license to stream acoustical recordings.

At launch, the Jukebox includes more than 10,000 recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1901 and 1925. Jukebox content will be increased regularly, with additional Victor recordings and acoustically recorded titles made by other Sony-owned U.S. labels, including Columbia, OKeh, and others.

You can browse by a variety of categories, including vocalist, genre, language, date, and place of recording. Regarding that last, surprise surprise, 10 entries are listed under Oakland, California: Give a scratchy listen to chestnuts like the Henry Halstead Orchestra’s rendition of “That’s My Girl” or The Art Landry Orchestra’s “Rip Saw Blues.” For more local flavor, try the Peerless Quartet’s 1913 recording of “San Francisco Bound,” written by none other than Irvin Berlin. (Lyrics here for those who want to croon along.) Cultural historians take note: either pop music was as accurate a reflection of real-life then as it is now, or San Franciscans’ moods have noticeably darkened over the last hundred years:

“My little baby brother, sister and mother All my cousins and my uncles and dad Live in a happy, happy, little snappy, snappy Little town where ev’rybody is glad San Francisco town”

You’ll also certainly want to check out the Spoken category, which yields such treasures as De Wolf Hopper performing “Casey at the Bat (1909)” and a pair of speeches by William Jennings Bryan, often described as one of the great American orators. And if you’ve ever wondered what presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, or William Howard Taft sounded like, wonder no more.

Great stuff! Amateur musicologists, armchair historians, and time-wasters of all stripes — get to clicking.

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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