In 2000, Congress passed the National Recording Preservation Act, a law "to establish the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress to maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant, and for other purposes."
The first 50 recordings chosen for selection in the National Recording Registry were announced last week, and they represent an audio soundscape of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Included are such landmark broadcasts as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats," Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater's "War of the Worlds," the radio debut of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and seminal recordings such as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." New Orleans' reputation as the birthplace of jazz is validated by the inclusion of Louis Armstrong's Hot 5s and Hot 7s recordings, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Tiger Rag."
But who would have ever thought that a live performance of tortured New Orleans piano genius James Booker at Tipitina's also would be included? Or an interview with the late Doc Cheatham from the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage at Jazz Fest? Those are just two of the segments included in an archive that the National Recording Registry has entered as the "Crescent City Living Legends Collection." The title's obviously a misnomer, but it doesn't diminish this unexpected recognition of New Orleans music and culture -- and puts it on par with the legacies of Miles Davis and the Grand Ole Opry.
Credit for this honor goes to WWOZ 90.7 FM and the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. The New Orleans broadcasts included in the National Registry Collection are a combination of interviews and live broadcasts culled from early interviews and performances at Jazz Fest (beginning in 1973), and live broadcasts and interviews from WWOZ through 1990.
The recordings are recommended and voted on by a 34-member board that includes representatives from diverse entities such as the American Folklore Society, BMI, the Country Music Foundation, and at-large members such as Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. The list of board members doesn't yield any names with direct New Orleans ties, which begs the question: How did the board know these WWOZ and Jazz Fest recordings existed?
That credit goes to an unlikely source: a former Science and Engineering Fellow to the White House Economic Council from 1993-94. Elizabeth Cohen formerly held that position, and currently serves the National Recording Registry board as a member of the Audio Engineering Society. "I'm an amateur ethnomusicologist, and I've always loved the music of New Orleans," says Cohen by phone from California, where she currently teaches at Stanford and UCLA. "I'm a firm believer that there's now evidence of how the arts empower communities, and the arts are good business for communities.
"I was always aware of WWOZ, but my awareness of them really grew back in '93, because we were doing a lot of Internet outreach and showing how various communities could communicate with other communities and the Internet could help develop them as an economic engine for their communities." Cohen helped WWOZ get online at the time, making the station one of the first public radio stations on the Internet.
"WWOZ is public radio at its best, and I've been following them for over a decade," says Cohen. "The music speaks for itself. This is the voice of the city, and a broad cross-section of music. Each of the DJs has such unique personalities and areas of expertise, and that is reflective of New Orleans. Radio is an area these days of tremendous conglomeration, and WWOZ is one of the few places left that is preserving the cultural heritage of their community. The librarians (at the Library of Congress) really recognized that."
The Library of Congress designation for these WWOZ and Jazz Fest tapes also serves a more pressing need, as many of the recordings are older reel-to-reel tapes. "These recordings are more in need of immediate preservation than some of these commercially released recordings like Louis Armstrong," says Mary Bucknum, curator of Sound Recordings at the Library of Congress. "There is also funding to help with preservation with those recordings."
In the case of the Jazz & Heritage Foundation and WWOZ, that funding will help facilitate their own preservation efforts, as well as aid their ability to create research copies for outside organizations. With more than 2,500 recordings currently held by the Foundation -- including approximately 1,500 recordings from the Music, African, Folk, and Food Heritage stages at Jazz Fest -- this Library of Congress recognition can help spread the gospel of Louisiana culture not just locally and in Washington, D.C., but throughout the world.