Tale of the Tape: Saving Historic U.S. Sounds

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We have a series of 20 CDs that we put out with Rounder Records and another series of CDs that we put out with Rykodisc and (Grateful Dead percussionist) Mickey Hart called the Endangered Music Project. Those are six really amazing collections that include things like South Sea islands music and West African music from the 1930s. Most of this stuff had never been commercially released before the Endangered Music Series.

We do a lot of concerts, conferences, symposiums, and exhibits—and on our Web site we are digitizing and putting things up all the time. We have about 19 collections up online where you can download songs, download pictures, look at manuscripts, and see the transcriptions. One collection, for instance, is the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Tour, which is incredible music from all over the South. We have another called California Gold that was created by two ethnomusicologists during the Great Depression. They went out and recorded Dust Bowl refugees in California and it's also just incredible stuff—not only photos but recordings, songs, and stories about what the Dust Bowl meant.

We feel it's very important to let everyone know that there is this resource here at the Library of Congress, and of course the best way we know to do that is to try to get as much as we can digitized and up online. In an effort to do that we worked with the Smithsonian Folklife Office. They are kind of a sister office to us, and they also have a huge archive, mainly of commercial recordings and also all the recordings of their festivals over the years. We got a huge grant from Save America's Treasures to do what we're calling "Save Our Sounds" (SOS). It's a digitization project to actually preserve some of our most endangered recordings, and digitize them, and put them up online so that they can be accessed by folks wherever they are.

Why is the preservation of this collection so important?

This is an intangible cultural heritage—it's not bricks and mortar. Most people understand why you have to save a cathedral or why you have to save "The Star-Spangled Bannner," the actual artifact. But people don't realize how fragile recordings are, and if you'd never heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, if you only had a transcript and had just read it, it's not the same. Think how wonderful it would have been if we could have heard Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, if we'd heard his voice, if we knew what it sounded like.

So, it's incredibly important to save the sound and it is something that most people don't realize is so endangered. For instance DAT tape, which came out in the 1980s, is probably the most fragile and ephemeral sound recording medium that we have. It has a shelf life of about ten years. The reel-to-reel tape of the 60s and 70s gets what's called "sticky shed syndrome," which means that when you play it you can actually see the tape falling off.

One of the points we've tried to make with SOS is that there is nothing that's going to be "archivally" sound, as far as audio recordings you have to just realize that you're going to have to continually be migrating that sound. People say, "oh, isn't there some way to find something where sound will last for 100 years?" I don't think so.

When you think of it, the sound recordings all over the world are deteriorating as we speak, you know, I can hear them now (laughs) being silenced. What we need is for audio engineers to really put their technical expertise towards making sure that we can migrate this sound and be sure that it will be around 200 years from now.

At the same time, you're always adding to the collection?

We're the only division in the LOC that actually is creating collections rather than just waiting for them to come to us. For instance, when we find a gap in the historic record in folklife documentation we go out and do fieldwork, hire fieldworkers. We do field schools each year and they have been a wonderful way for us to add to our collection. There's so much that could and should be documented that we need to have people in their own communities trained to do the fieldwork.

I would say that since the beginning of time people have said "cultures are dying." Well, cultures are changing. I wouldn't say that they're dying, I would say that they're changing and there's no way to stop their change. In fact, you wouldn't want to. You can't preserve culture like you can preserve a cathedral, but what you can do is document the change. Change is a constant thing in the life of a community or in the life of a culture, so we think it's very important that if you have a documentary record over several generations you can actually, I think, understand that culture in a way that nobody else could.

Related Web sites:

Mickey Hart's Web site
"Save Our Sounds": America's Recorded Sound Heritage Project
The Library of Congress American Folklife Center: The Center and its collections encompass all aspects of folklore and folklife from this country and around the world.
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage promotes the understanding and continuity of contemporary grassroots cultures in the United States and abroad.

Related Stories:

"Songcatchers" Document World Music
Q&A: Mickey Hart on New Songcatchers Book
Rural Irish Speakers Fight Influx of English
Explorer on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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