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Save Our Sounds: America's Recorded Sound Heritage Project

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, ca. 1942
Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, ca. 1942. Library of Congress.

Historic Sound Recordings Collections Win Save America's Treasures Preservation Grant
by James B. Hardin

A joint proposal from the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress has been awarded a grant for $750,000 to preserve the historic sound recordings housed at the two institutions. The White House Millennium Council's preservation program Save America's Treasures, in partnership with the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, made the grant. "This award gives recognition to the important intellectual and cultural significance of the recorded voices and music of the American people," said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center. "It will help to preserve our irreplaceable aural history."

Pete Seeger at a 1965 peace rally.
Pete Seeger at a 1965 peace rally. Photo by Diana Davies. Smithsonian.

On July 7, at Anderson Cottage, on the grounds of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton announced this year's Save America's Treasures grants. The summer residence for President and Mrs. Lincoln, Anderson Cottage is typical of the historic sites that have received the preservation grants. But along with the "bricks-and-mortar" projects on this year's list were a number of projects from archives containing historic records, photographs, and sound recordings, including those at the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.

Together the two institutions hold unparalleled collections of audio recordings documenting the American experience dating from the 1890s some 140,000 non-commercial recordings of American stories, songs, poems, speech, and music. There are original recordings of Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, and Leadbelly; the very first field recording of Native American music; the voices of cowboys, farmers, fisherman, factory workers, and quit-makers; African American spirituals and stories from Jewish immigrants.

Ethnographer and author Zora Neale Hurston, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938
Ethnographer and author Zora Neale Hurston, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938. Library of Congress.

"These are the diverse and distinctive voices of the nation," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "They provide splendid evidence of the remarkable creativity of Americans from many different communities and from all parts of our country."

In urgent need of preservation are thousands of original audio recordings made over the twentieth century by folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and other ethnographers, on wax cylinder, wire, aluminum disc, acetate, and audio and video tape. Many, including those from the past several decades, require immediate conservation treatment and copying to other formats. Also in need of preservation are scores of photographs, drawings, diagrams, maps, and fieldnotes that complement and provide interpretive information on the recordings.

Lottie Espinosa performing Spanish songs, 1939
Lottie Espinosa performing
Spanish songs, 1939. Library of Congress.

Preservation is an ongoing and expensive process, and this grant provides resources and incentives for carrying on that important work and for facilitating additional fund- raising efforts. As a condition of the grant, the Smithsonian and the Library must now raise $750,000 in private matching funds.

It is central to the mission of the Library of Congress "to preserve, secure, and sustain for the present and future use of the Congress and the nation a comprehensive record of American history and creativity." The White House Millennium Council's Save America's Treasures program calls attention to the remarkable examples of American creativity captured on the ethnographic sound recordings at the American Folklife Center and the Smithsonian Institution, and helps to ensure that they will be available to future generations.

John Botica plays the misnice, 1938
John Botica plays the misnice, 1938. Library of Congress.

The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center incorporates the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in the Library's Music Division in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world.

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  April 27, 2005
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