The Virtual Theater Shelf - Part 2

April 23, 2013

Last week I wrote about the coming revolution in access to music, including theater music, fostered by digital technology. It was a look toward the future when virtually all available recorded music will be accessed through streaming technology from digital libraries using the internet, or its successor. This week, let’s look at a different aspect of this revolution, one that is up and running today – the Library of Congress' National Jukebox. 

Through the good will of Sony Music Entertainment, the current owners of the remnants of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the Library has been preserving thousands of recordings from the first quarter of the twentieth century. Each recording is now available online free of charge.

Each has been subjected to an amazingly effective restoration process that involved going back to the original recording sessions to select the best copy and then using preservation techniques to clean the surface before making a digital transfer. They recorded the sound from both walls of the record groove in order to then create a monaural copy that has the fewest possible scratches, pops or skips.

This work has been done at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. That facility is usually just called the Packard Campus in honor of its benefactor, David Packard. It includes both restoration facilities and storage space for the Library’s ever expanding audio and video collection.

The Library’s National Jukebox now contains over 10,000 of the 78 rpm sides issued by Victor during the years 1900 to 1925. These recordings are now at your fingertips – assuming you have access to a computer and the internet, something I feel safe in assuming since you are reading this column online. All you need do is type into your browser and use the Jukebox’s search feature to locate the recording you want to hear.

If what you want to hear is theater music, you can click on “genres” in the navigation box on the left side of the screen and then select “popular music” from the heading and select “Musical Theater” from its list. That will reveal search results showing 717 different recordings, 511 of which are vocals, 195 instrumentals and 11 instrumentals with a vocal refrain.  I know this because the “Refine Your Search” box offers you the chance to filter the search by these and other factors.

Want just vocals by Olive Kline? That will give you 82 recordings. Or cut it down by composer. That way you can access just the 46 recordings of music by Jerome Kern or the 42 of Victor Herbert’s or the 30 of Irving Berlin’s. Use the lyricist’s names and you can get 17 recordings of George M. Cohan’s work.

Some examples? How about “Gems from Follies of 1914″ or the famous Follies song “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” from the 1919 edition? You can listen to George M. Cohan singing his “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune” in 1911. (The song is actually from his 1903 show Mother Goose.)

The recording of his “Give My Regards to Broadway” from Little Johnny Jones, however, is sung by a Frank Kernell in the 1905 recording. Irving Berlin’s “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” is sung by Arthur Fields in 1918, just months before the Armistice ended World War I.

You can hear Victor Herbert’s march from Babes in Toyland as it sounded in 1904 or the title song from his Eileen sung by John McCormack in 1917. Jerome Kern’s “Till the Clouds Roll By” from the 1917 Oh, Boy! can be heard in a jazz band arrangement while Vincent Youmans’ “I Want To Be Happy” from No, No, Nanette has a snappy recording from 1924.

The files which are streamed to your computer are not intended for copying, but you can create a playlist for later or repeated listening. The Library doesn’t save your playlist as it isn’t necessary to create an account to use the jukebox. However, you can email any playlist you create to yourself. It arrives as a unique URL which displays the playlist in your browser. I created just such a playlist with each of the recordings mentioned in the paragraph above. If you want to listen, just enter and listen away.

If you find hundreds or thousands of titles intimidating you can also avail yourself of the playlists – there are 13 of them on the site now – that the Library has created. There’s one on "Black Broadway and Tin Pan Alley," one of songs by George M. Cohan and another of songs by Irving Berlin. 

Playlists are the modern, digital equivalent of a marketing technique the Victor Talking Machine Company used in the early days of the last century. In 1912 the company published a “Victrola Book of the Opera” with full descriptions of over a hundred operas. Included was a listing of all the Victrola recordings of the music from those operas and they updated the book each year. The National Jukebox project has digitized the 1919 edition and hyperlinked each of the references to Victrola recordings to the Jukebox’s file that can be streamed into your browser. While most of the entries are grand opera rather than musical theater pieces, its a great way to find Gilbert and Sullivan samples.

As good archivists would want them to do, the preservation team not only captured the audio from these recordings, they created a digital image of the labels as well. I found it fascinating to see the “fine print” on the labels as far back as 1900 included language that looks a lot like the “anti-piracy” notices on today’s CDs and DVDs. The 1900 version read “This record is leased for the purpose of producing sound directly from the record, and for no other purpose; any attempt at copying or counterfeiting will be construed as a violation of this condition and as a basis for legal proceedings.”

The staff at the Packard Campus are not finished with this project. They are currently working on digitizing more of the earliest Victor discs including some which were 14 inches instead of the then-standard 10 and 12 inches. These were the “long playing records” of the day. They have also begun to process thousands more 78s from the collection of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Still to come are the records of other labels such as Columbia and Edison.