Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
alert top story
Music Historicity

Music Historicity | Archival music: Preserving the most precious sounds

  • Updated
  • 0
Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin performs at the House of Blues, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008 in Los Angeles. 

For me, it takes about two days to get rid of that proverbial "stupid song that's stuck in your head."

It's often a forgettable melody or lyric that you wish you'd never even heard in the first place, like "It's Raining Tacos," by Parry Gripp.

That tune, along with "Baby Shark," was so annoying that the city of West Palm Beach reportedly played it loudly over speakers to deter homeless people from congregating in certain areas.

Another one, apparently sung from the perspective of an evil clown wanting to do away with his girlfriend, is "No More Hot Dogs," by Hasil Adkins.

Stop! Don't look up that song — you'll be sorry.

Instead, let's focus on memorable songs, ones that a listener finds pleasurable enough to keep for the future — ones that you're glad are knocking around in your head all day.

Sometimes a piece of music is compelling enough that a listener feels the need to share it with others. For example, it might perfectly exemplify a genre or a music style and, therefore, must be preserved.

Archiving means that the item must be carefully preserved and stored for posterity by whatever appropriate means are necessary. Whether audio tape recordings, paintings, sculptures, photographs or digital media, archival storage takes into account factors like temperature, light and humidity that can affect deterioration.

Sticking with music — which, like all art, is in the eye or ear of the beholder— questions arise, such as what particular pieces of music should be archived, who chooses the archived songs and where should the archives be stored?

Dr. Carl Sagan made an interesting choice of archival recordings for NASA back in 1977. Along with a team of associates, Sagan chose what audio would be pressed onto a "Golden Record" that was attached to the outside of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts.

Labeled "The Sounds of Earth," the 12-inch gold-plated copper disk contained the audio of surf, wind, thunder and animals in order to show life and culture on our planet. The record also had music and spoken greetings in 55 different languages.

There are at least 39 different audio archive projects in existence around the world. In the U.S., the National Archives is a government resource doing its best to catalog all kinds of sound.

It also has archives relating to history, military records, ancestry and much more. The National Archives, located in Washington, D.C., is open to the public and can be accessed at archives.gov.

Another institution, created by the U.S. government in 1846, is the Smithsonian Institution, a network of 19 museums, 21 libraries, nine research centers and even a zoo.

As you might guess, the Smithsonian contains extensive audio archives, one of which is the Hirshhorn Museum Library Audio Archive. In addition to lectures and broadcast programming, it also has 306 digital audio files reformatted from audio cassettes on various topics ranging from 1969 to 2004.

Smithsonian Folkways is a division founded in 1948 with a stated purpose "to record and document the entire world of sound." One of its archivists is Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, recognized for his deep appreciation for "world beat" and other indigenous music.

Thanks to Robbie Stokes' connection with Hart —Robbie played on Mickey's "Rolling Thunder" album — I was backstage at two different Grateful Dead music concerts and met the legendary drummer.

Some of Mickey's Folkways efforts include recordings made in remote locations around the world.

"The Music of Upper and Lower Egypt" was recorded when the Grateful Dead played concerts there; "Sarangi: The Music of India" documents melodies played on the traditional Indian stringed instrument, the sarangi; "Music to Be Born By" is Mickey's take on sound for the otherwise antiseptic environment of a hospital; "Freedom Chants from the Roof of the World" captures sounds of the Tibetan Buddhist Gyuto Monks.

Hart also recorded two albums of rainforest sounds, a 67-voice female choir from Latvia, a record of songs by six different Native American tribes, field recordings from the Philippines, tribal folk music from west Africa and many more.

You may be surprised to find out that Mickey and fellow Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann provided a percussion underscore for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 epic "Apocalypse Now."

One of my favorite archives of music can be found at archive.org. With a mission of "universal access to all knowledge," it has free public access cataloging websites, software applications, games, books, movies, video and music.

Archive.org contains what's likely the most extensive collection of Grateful Dead recordings available in one place. It also has audio from numerous band concerts in which your humble narrator performed.

Don't forget there's also a wonderful archival resource located right here in Carbondale at Morris Library, on the SIU campus. Many audio recordings can be found at its Special Collections department, which also may be accessed on the internet.

Several archive sources have been mentioned, above, as well as the storage location — on servers and accessible via "the cloud." Let's now consider who chooses what gets archived.

While the appreciation of music is up to the listener and everyone's opinion is equally valid, we should take notice of lists created by Rolling Stone magazine. Although they didn't ask the general public, the publication took a poll of more than 250 musicians, producers, journalists and industry professionals to produce a list of their top 500 songs — or albums, or guitarists, or drummers, etc.

The results were tabulated by a third party and ended up with a fair approximation and consensus of what's best. The lists of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" and "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" were first created in 2003 and then updated in 2010 and 2021.

We could argue all day over the definition of "Greatest" as well as whether the 2003 list is more valid than the more recent updated rankings. Nevertheless, here are the latest results for the top five of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

#5, "Abbey Road," The Beatles, 1969. #4, "Songs in the Key of Life," Stevie Wonder, 1976. #3, "Blue," Joni Mitchell, 1971. #2, "Pet Sounds," The Beach Boys, 1966. And #1, "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye, 1971.

And here is the latest top five from the magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

#5, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana, 1991, written by Kurt Cobain. #4, "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan, 1965. #3, "A Change Is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke, 1964. #2, "Fight the Power," Public Enemy, 1989, written by Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee and Keith Shocklee. And the #1 song, "Respect," Aretha Franklin, 1967, written by Otis Redding.

Go figure.

Gary Gibula is an SIU alum, musician, writer, editor and author of the Music Historicity columns. He can be reached at gary@gratefulgary.com.

0 Comments
0
0
0
0
0

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News