February 12, 2016

LC's National Jukebox: Fascinating… and Uncomfortable

The Library of Congress (LC) unveiled its online National Jukebox this week, and it has so far proved to be a popular treasure trove of turn-of-the-century recorded music. More than 250,000 streams have been played in just the first few days of operation, according to the LC. It’s an indication of a lot of early love for the project. And as a mirror on our society, the National Jukebox indeed has plenty to love—and plenty to make us cringe.

More than 10,000 78 r.p.m. disc sides, all issued by the (now Sony-owned) Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1925, have been made streamable so far, with more streams to be added each month. Later this year, early recordings from other labels, including Columbia, Okeh, and some Universal Music Group-owned labels, will also be made available (hopefully including Okeh’s famous 1922 “Laughing Record”).

The recordings already on the site encompass a wide range of subjects and styles—from more than 170 amazingly preserved recordings by opera legend Enrico Caruso, to the oddity of the Duncan Sisters’ 1924 “Cross-word Puzzle Blues,” to more than 1000 foreign-language songs, including songs in Norwegian, Hawaiian, and Armenian.

That said, there are plenty of uncomfortable recordings here as well, including more than 700 “Ethnic Characterizations”—which include many upsetting portrayals of African-Americans, Asians, and Irish people, among other groups.  It’s no wonder LC added a disclaimer to the section, which reads:

This heading is used for works that incorporate ethnic or regional groups as subject matter. Text and music may involve characters and/or musical elements that reflect attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs associated with ethnic and regional groups at the time the selections were written and performed. These characterizations may utilize outmoded and offensive stereotypes of nationalities, religions, or races.

Nonetheless, even these frankly offensive recordings are a revealing snapshot of their times, and are certainly historically significant. The National Jukebox is an unquestionably worthy project—and worth a look.

David Rapp About David Rapp

David Rapp (drapp@mediasourceinc.com) was formerly Associate Editor, LJ.

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  1. Kudos! What a neat way of tnihking about it.