Note: this is a national list and many of the items listed are housed in collections across the country. The Library of Congress does not currently hold copies of all the recordings listed.
Recordings are listed in chronological order:
Cal Stewart was among the most prolific and popular recording artists of the first 20 years of commercial recording. His “Uncle Josh” monologues offer humorous commentary on American life at the turn of the 20th century. His “rural comedy” describes life in the imaginary New England village of Pumpkin Center, painting humorous pictures of Uncle Josh’s encounters with new technologies as well as pointing out the comic contrasts between agrarian and urban life in America. Stewart’s influence can be heard in the comedy of Will Rogers, in Fred Allen’s character, Titus Moody, and in Garrison Keillor’s stories about Lake Wobegon. “Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company” is especially notable as the first recording of the humorous folk tale and urban legend “Barrel of Bricks.”
Tenor John McCormack’s recording of “Il mio tesoro” from “Don Giovanni” is considered a model of Mozart performance. His rich voice, seamless phrasing and superb technical skill contribute to making this reading the standard by which other performances of this aria have been measured.
In the 1920s, before national radio networks existed, a group of radio stations from across the country cooperated in a test to determine how radio stations might respond in a national emergency. This is the recording of that experiment. It is notable as one of only a handful of extant recorded radio broadcasts from this era. Furthermore, it is technologically significant as an experiment of real-time switching between stations in 14 different cities. Featured on the recording are conversations between General John J. Pershing and other generals stationed throughout the country.
“Black Bottom Stomp.” Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. (1926)
“Black Bottom Stomp” is a masterly example of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton’s creative talents as a composer, arranger and pianist. Moreover, it is an authentic representation of the New Orleans jazz tradition, which relied strongly on an ensemble polyphony where the frontline instruments of trumpet, clarinet and trombone played simultaneous but complementary themes. “Black Bottom Stomp” has more than one theme, or “strain,” a carryover from ragtime. Arranged with harmonized passages, breaks and solos, and a changing balance between the instrumentalists, Morton fashioned a unique, continuous whole.
“Wildwood Flower.” The Carter Family. (1928)
The legendary Carter Family’s most famous recording, “Wildwood Flower,” showcases Mother Maybelle Carter’s legendary “Carter Scratch,” her trademark guitar technique in which she plays melody on the bass strings with her thumb while strumming the rhythm on the treble strings. The Carter Family’s close harmony singing, unique picking style and popularization of folk tunes, as well as other song genres, formed the foundation of modern country music and continues to significantly influence musicians today.
“Pony Blues.” Charley Patton. (1929)
This is the signature recording of Charley Patton, one of the first and finest blues musicians to ever come out of the Mississippi Delta region. “Pony Blues” showcases Patton’s characteristic trademarks: powerful vocals, heavily accented guitar rhythms and unusual vocal phrasing. Patton was an enormous influence on his contemporaries and future blues performers, notably Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White and Big Joe Williams.
“You’re the Top.” Cole Porter. (1934)
“You’re the Top” is a work by composer/lyricist Cole Porter at the top of his form. Seamlessly, the words and music of this quintessential “list song” convey wit, exuberance, and charmingly high- and low-cultural references. This solo performance, by Porter, invites the listener to become part of Porter’s universe and imagine the composer performing, much as he might have for friends on a luxury cruise or in his own Waldorf Astoria suite.
This broadcast is the earliest known recording of this popular series to surface. It features a pair of brothers who rob a bank, hide out in an abandoned mine, and are eventually discovered and brought to justice by the Lone Ranger. The series had been on the air since early 1933 and its popularity was enormous. In fact, the show reversed the failing finances of Detroit station WXYZ, and, when WXYZ banded with several other stations to form the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1934, the show proved central to the success of the network.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." The day after the assault on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress asking for a Declaration of War against Japan, marking the entry of the United States into World War II. The president’s voice, strong and confident, yet familiar and reassuring, rallied the American public and helped to prepare them for the sacrifices that lay ahead.
"Native Brazilian Music." Recorded under the supervision of Leopold Stokowski. (1942)
Leopold Stokowski and his All-American Youth Orchestra performed in Rio de Janeiro as part of a goodwill tour to South America in the summer of 1940. Prior to his visit to Brazil, Stokowski asked composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to help him collect and record popular Brazilian music, of which the conductor was a great admirer. Villa-Lobos assembled an elite group of musicians, including Pixinguinha, Donga, Cartola, Jararaca, Ratinho and José Espinguela. Forty recordings were made onboard the ship carrying Stokowski and the orchestra. Seventeen of the recordings, embracing musical styles such as sambas, batucadas, macumba and emboladas, were released in 1942 by Columbia Records on a 78-rpm album, “Native Brazilian Music.”
“Peace in the Valley.” Red Foley and the Sunshine Boys. (1951)
“Peace in the Valley” was originally written in 1939 by Thomas A. Dorsey for Mahalia Jackson, but as performed by Red Foley and the Sunshine Boys, it becomes an affecting expression of devotion in the Southern gospel music style. At the time of this recording, Clyde Julian “Red” Foley was a recording star for Decca Records and was host of the half-hour NBC network segment of the “Grand Ole Opry.” This blending of Foley's calm baritone with the close harmony of the vocal quartet resulted in the first gospel recording to sell one million copies.
Chopin Polonaise, Op. 40, no. 1 (“Polonaise Militaire”). Artur Rubinstein. (1952)
The names of Artur Rubinstein and Frederic Chopin are inextricably linked in the minds of at least two generations of 20th-century music lovers. At the heart of the bond between pianist and composer is their shared Polish heritage, and nowhere is the connection so great as in Rubinstein’s interpretation of the Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, known as the “Military Polonaise.” Rubinstein supplied the iconic reading of this revered, often-recorded work. The combination of strength and heart-felt poetry is a hallmark of Rubinstein’s playing in this piece, and it stirred the souls of patriots—of all nationalities—during the German occupation of Poland.
“Blue Suede Shoes.” Carl Perkins. (1955)
Carl Perkins was one of the pioneers of rockabilly, the up-tempo fusion of country-western music and rhythm and blues. His aggressive vocal stylizations, backed by electric lead guitar, slapping string bass and drums, were of immediate appeal to the burgeoning teenage population of the mid-1950s. Due to an extended recovery from a serious car crash, Perkins never gained the popularity of his contemporary Elvis Presley, yet this first-generation rocker’s driving style maintains its rebellious allure more than 50 years after its creation.
Representative the Edward D. Ives Collection held at the Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, and the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Folklorist Edward D. “Sandy” Ives, author of “The Tape-Recorded Interview” and many other influential publications, met with 75-year-old Billy Bell in 1956 and in the discussion discovered the Northwoods singing style. These occupational songs of lumbering, driving and woods traditions, based on British broadside ballads, were sung by second-generation Canadian-Irish workers who originally came from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia farms and were part of the Maine lumbering workforce. Ives’ initial interview with Bell was his first encounter with these narrative songs, songs that illuminated a tradition extending from Maine to Minnesota, from Newfoundland to northern Ontario.
“Howl.” Allen Ginsberg. (1959)
“Howl,” Ginsberg’s most famous poem, was an experiment in the invention of a new style of poetry, one based not on “little short-line patterns” but on “the formal organization of the long line.” The poem employs vivid visual impressions and chaotic phrasing. In his recitation, Ginsberg is particularly effective in his relatively unemotional delivery despite his passionate language and the work’s frequent literary anger which describes the history of the Beat Generation and documents its anti-establishment rage. When “Howl” was first published in 1956, it was banned for obscenity and became a celebrated legal case among defenders of the First Amendment. Ginsberg appears on this recording at a 1959 Chicago “Big Table” reading presented by the Shaw Society in Chicago, Illinois.
“The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” (album). Bob Newhart. (1960)
Bob Newhart introduced his fresh, new style of deceptively satiric comedy to audiences with this recording in 1960. “The Button-Down Mind” is the first collection of Newhart’s subtle, archly understated, humorous monologues that often represent a one-sided dialog with an unheard partner delivered in his characteristically deadpan style. His humor focuses on an average guy trying to hold on to his composure under some of the most unusual predicaments imaginable. Like Jack Benny, Newhart uses significant pauses to achieve heightened humorous effects. This recording contains his comedy classic, “The Driving Instructor,” where he shines in a one-sided monologue as the instructor of the most dangerous and inept driving student ever to get behind the wheel.
“Be My Baby.” The Ronettes. (1963)
This single is often cited as the quintessence of the “girl group” aesthetic of the early 1960s and is also one of the best examples of producer Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” style. Opening with Hal Blaine’s infectious and much imitated drumbeat, distinctive features of the song, all carefully organized by Spector, include castanets, a horn section, strings and the able vocals of Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett. Enhancing the already symphonic quality of the recording is Spector’s signature use of reverb.
“We Shall Overcome” (album). Pete Seeger. (1963)
Pete Seeger's Carnegie Hall concert on June 8, 1963, was the culmination of his recent tour on behalf of civil rights. A highpoint of these concerts was his performance of "We Shall Overcome." First sung as a gospel song, "I Shall Overcome," and later used on labor picket lines, Seeger changed the opening word from "I" to "We," enlisting the song in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Seeger and many other musicians of the 1960s hoped that music would be a strong force in the struggle to eliminate injustice and heal divisions in our country. This live recording of his concert captures not only Seeger's masterful performance but also the communal spirit of the folk revival movement.
“A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sam Cooke. (1964)
Sam Cooke, a central figure in the creation of soul music in the 1950s and 1960s, composed “A Change Is Gonna Come” to express his impatience with the progress of civil equality in the United States. The song would go on to become an anthem of the civil rights movement in the United States.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Rolling Stones. (1965)
Initially released as a single in the United States, “Satisfaction” also appeared on the Rolling Stones’ 1965 album, Out of Our Heads. Guitarist Keith Richards claims to have woken up in the middle of the night with the famous fuzz-laden guitar riff in his head and immediately committed it to tape. Although he was ambivalent about the riff, he nonetheless presented it to vocalist Mick Jagger, who penned the song’s anti-commercial lyrics. Despite both Richards’ and Jagger’s feelings that the song should not be released, the other members of the Rolling Stones voted to release the song and it became a classic of rock ’n’ roll.
"The Velvet Underground and Nico" (album). The Velvet Underground and Nico. (1967)
For decades this album has cast a huge shadow over nearly every sub-variety of avant-garde rock, from 1970s art-rock to No Wave, New Wave and Punk. Referring to their sway over the rock music of the ‘70s and ‘80s, critic Lester Bangs stated, “Modern music starts with the Velvets, and the implications and influence of what they did seem to go on forever.” Otherworldly vocals by the international model and actress Nico appear on three of the songs. John Cale’s hard-edged electric viola playing adds an eerie quality to singer and guitarist Lou Reed’s frank lyrical depictions of sex and addiction. Percussionist Maureen Tucker and guitarist Sterling Morrison make additional noteworthy contributions.
"The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake" (album). Eubie Blake. (1969)
This two-LP set introduced ragtime composer, performer and songwriter Eubie Blake to a new generation of listeners. The recorded musical autobiography featured his ragtime compositions from the early years of the 20th century and his musical theater pieces of the 1920s. In the recording, Blake is reunited with his partner from the 1920s, Noble Sissle. The recording captures the full range of Blake’s genius, his ebullient music and his infectious personality. It also documents his enduring contributions to jazz and musical theater.
"Burnin'" (album). The Wailers. (1973)
This 1973 release was the last album reggae master Bob Marley released under the name The Wailers and featured the final performances of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer within the group. While the group was rhythmically tight, Marley's role on this album is predominant. The album covers a variety of topics and moods from the militancy of “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff" to the heartfelt rage and poverty-induced despair of “Burnin’ and Lootin'.” The final track, the traditional “Rastaman Chant,” sounds a more redemptive note. These themes continued in Marley's work after he left the earlier Wailers lineup and became an internationally acclaimed solo artist.
"Live in Japan" (album). Sarah Vaughan. (1973)
Captivating performances by singer Sarah Vaughan, who Gunther Schuller once called “the greatest vocal artist of our century,” are preserved in this two-LP set. The 1973 recording is an excellent example of Sarah Vaughan’s range of talents: her stunning virtuosity, glorious instrument, heartfelt interpretations, and ease of performing before a live audience. It features several signature tunes, including “Summertime” and "Poor Butterfly." "Live in Japan" was produced relatively late in Vaughan’s career and illustrates that, unlike most singers, Vaughan’s voice seemed to grow richer, stronger and more versatile as she aged.
"Graceland" (album). Paul Simon. (1986)
On "Graceland," Paul Simon not only incorporated a great number of musical styles, including zydeco, Tex-Mex and African vocal music, but also showcased the talents of many accomplished musicians. The recording features Linda Ronstadt, Adrian Belew, Los Lobos, the Everly Brothers and Youssou N’dour. The album is probably best known for Simon’s collaboration with the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Graceland” fueled that group’s rise to international fame.