Project puts long-unavailable recordings online

Many recordings dating as far back as 1890 will not enter the public domain before 2067.

The Library of Congress has made available a large chunk of its national archive of more than 3 million music and spoken-word recordings for online public streaming as part of a new National Jukebox project, a joint venture between the library and Sony Music that will give free access to thousands of Sony-controlled recordings long out of circulation because of commercial or copyright issues.

Some of the 10,000 titles streamable at the new National Jukebox website have been unavailable for more than 100 years, a significant chunk of them because of complex laws controlling ownership of sound recordings, which did not become subject to federal copyright laws until 1972.

Among the highlights are vintage performances by celebrated classical musicians, including Enrico Caruso and Fritz Kreisler; the first blues recording, “Livery Stable Blues,” made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; a comedy skit by the vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean; speeches of President Teddy Roosevelt; piano performances by jazz-ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake; and music of the John Philip Sousa Band conducted by its namesake.

“This really blows the top off of a lot of stuff, doesn’t it?” said Chris Sampson, associate dean of the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. “There are so many angles from the academic perspective of how this would be a resource. Just in my small corner of the universe of teaching songwriting, the ability to be able to go to the source so students can see the tradition of American music and American songwriting, to see this lineage and to be able to draw upon it is going to be enormous. … To me, that’s just gold.”

Sony, which claims to control more historical recordings than any other of the three existing major label groups—EMI, Warner, and Universal music groups—has made available all pre-1925 acoustic recordings originally made for the Victor Talking Machine Co., the vast majority of which are not now in circulation.

The next phase of the project, announced earlier this month at the Library of Congress’ offices in Washington, D.C., will add early discs made for Columbia Records, which also is under the Sony umbrella.