You can tell a lot about the progressiveness of America by the music you'll find in the National Recording Registry
The Library of Congress has added Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” to its National Recording Registry, along with 24 other entries for 2015. King’s 1961 classic was inducted along with (among others) Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez and Radiohead’s dystopian “OK Computer.” An interesting class of ’15 and it got me wondering. What’s our “official” collective musical imprint?
First, a word about the Registry: it was created by Congress in 2000 to build an archive of sound recordings, not just music. So Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech is included. So is Fiorello La Guardia reading comics on the radio. These are epic. But my world has been about music for many, many years and there was a time when “protest songs” showed the way on big issues. What’s the record on all those records? I decided to wander through the Registry in search of the politics of pop.
I’m pleased to report that the Library of Congress tilts left. Or maybe songwriters do. In any case, the roster is loaded with songs that point to a better day, a more progressive agenda, a more candid and critical assessment of the way things are and the promise of the way things might be.
For starters, consider:
The original cast recording of Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a saga of wicked and corrupt business practices and the struggle to unionize the workers in “Steeltown, USA.”
“Strange Fruit,” the classic Billie Holiday recording of Abel Meeropol’s song drawn from his poem based on a photograph of a lynching.
“Talking Union” by the Almanac Singers, the short-lived amalgam of folk legends Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell.
“We Shall Overcome,” a Pete Seeger concert from 1963 that effectively and generously captures the standout protest and movement movement music of the era.
“This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s response to the flag-waving Kate Smith version of Berlin’s “God Bless America” (which happens to be in the Registry, too).
“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” an album of Dylan’s most compelling statements (it includes “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”)
“The Message” (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) that painted a picture nobody wanted to look at and everybody needed to see: “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back… Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat… I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far… Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car”
“What’s Going on” by Marvin Gaye, an album and a song and an outcry that resonates now, whenever it fights its way through the noise on a jukebox or a radio”
Are there any right-leaning songs in the Registry? Well, a few: “God Bless America” including its little-heard isolationist introduction; “while the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free… let us all be grateful for a land so fair, as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”
There’s Frank Zappa’s “We’re Only In It for the Money” which takes some swipes at what Zappa called the “stupid hippies… who take themselves too seriously.” When Tammy Wynette released “Stand By Your Man” in 1968, she took a lot of flack from feminists who thought it was a terrible message to send to women.
There are, to be sure, a number of military band performances, a few tub-thumping speeches, the pandemonium surrounding Charles Lindbergh. But the list is spared “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” there is no complaint about the taxman, and Ted Nugent’s name is not included anywhere in the Registry. Somehow history will have to excuse the absence of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
We are constantly on the lookout for analytics, systematic ways to look at data and draw useful conclusions. There’s not a lot of data to use in this instance, but the songs chosen for the National recording Registry are nominated by listeners and fans. There’s reason to believe that the overweight of progressive, protest and social-change music might reflect something like a simmering discontent with the status quo and a desire to say yes, absolutely, a change is gonna come (that Sam Cooke classic is in there, too!).