National Recording Registry’s 2016 Picks Are "Over the Rainbow"

March 29, 2017

Pictured (l-r): James Weldon Johnson, Barbra Streisand and Sergei Rachmaninoff

Judy Garland’s hit single “Over the Rainbow,” written by ASCAP songwriters Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg; ASCAP rap group N.W.A’s seminal album, “Straight Outta Compton”; a recording of ASCAP classical titan Sergei Rachmaninoff’s choral masterwork “Vespers”; and the national anthem of black America, co-written by one of our founding members, James Weldon Johnson - these are among the works that were today named to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress because of their cultural, artistic and historical importance to American society and the nation’s audio heritage.
And 10 of them were written or recorded by ASCAP members.

“This year’s exciting list gives us a full range of sound experiences,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “These sounds of the past enrich our understanding of the nation’s cultural history and our history in general.”

Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Librarian, with advice from the Library’s National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB), is tasked with annually selecting 25 titles that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and are at least 10 years old. More information on the National Recording Registry can be found here.

The recordings selected for the 2016 registry bring the total number of titles on the registry to 475, a small part of the Library’s vast recorded-sound collection of nearly 3 million items.

The recordings named to the registry feature a rich and diverse array of spoken-word and musical recordings—representing nearly every musical category—spanning the years 1888 to 1997.  “It is so humbling and gratifying to learn that my recording of the song ‘People’ by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill will be installed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress,” said Streisand, an ASCAP songwriter herself. “This is the prestigious treasure house in which American art is archived and acknowledged as part of the flow of our nation’s culture. I believe ‘People’ touched our common desire to relate to others with love and caring, and I’ve always tried to express this in my renditions of this magical song.”

Several gospel songs made the list, including two renditions of ASCAP founding member James Weldon Johnson’s hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became the national anthem of the African-American community—the 1923 version by the Manhattan Harmony Four and a modernized 1990 all-star recording, headed by Melba Moore. ASCAP folk legend Judy Collins’ a cappella arrangement of “Amazing Grace” was also named to the registry. “I am so honored that the Library of Congress has chosen my 1970 recording of ‘Amazing Grace’ for its collection of memorable songs of the centuries,” she said.

Nominations were gathered through online submissions from the public and from the NRPB, which is comprised of leaders in the fields of music, recorded sound and preservation. The Library is currently accepting nominations for the next registry here.

Some registry titles have already been preserved by the copyright holders, the artists or other archives.  In cases where a selected title has not already been preserved, the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation works to ensure that the sound recording will be preserved by some entity and available to future generations, either through the Library’s recorded-sound preservation program or through collaborative ventures with other archives, recording studios and independent producers. The Packard Campus is a state-of-the-art facility where the nation’s library acquires, preserves and provides access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of films, television programs, radio broadcasts and sound recordings.  It is home to more than 7 million collection items.

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ASCAP music on the 2016 National Recording Registry:

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (singles), Manhattan Harmony Four (1923); Melba Moore and Friends (1990)

With text written by one of ASCAP’s founding members, composer James Weldon Johnson, in 1900 and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905, the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has served as the “Black National Anthem” since its adoption by the NAACP in 1919.  As with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” no single recording captures the hymn’s essence or its overall meaning to Americans.  Therefore, the registry recognizes two recordings:  the 1923 version by the Manhattan Harmony Four, one of the last discs issued by the short-lived Black Swan Company—a pioneering African-American-owned record label based in Harlem—and a modernized 1990 version headed by Melba Moore.  Moore sought to restore the standing of the song among young African-Americans. Among the many participants in her latter, all-star recording were Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick and Bobby Brown. The resulting single, which benefited charity, made headlines at the time and helped to raise public awareness of the Johnsons’ anthem.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” (single), Harry Richman (1929)

ASCAP founding member Irving Berlin’s timeless “Puttin’ on the Ritz” has been an enduring hit since its introduction in the film of the same title. This is remarkable given the rhythmic complexities of the first four measures. Musicologist and author Alec Wilder wrote in “American Popular Song,” “It is the most complex and provocative I have ever come upon.”  The song was introduced in the film by Harry Richman (1895-1972), himself an ASCAP songwriter, a song-and-dance man and star of radio, movies and nightclubs. Although Richman is little remembered today, his top-hatted presence, with cane and tails, set the tone and stage for this swanky tune.  His enduring features—a slight lisp and a tendency to over-pronounce the syllable “oo”—have been parodied in animated cartoons and by musician/comedian Spike Jones.  On this recording, Richman is accompanied by Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore Orchestra, who supply sophisticated accompaniment. Since its debut, the song has become a favorite on television and in movies, most memorably in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”  International artist Taco also turned it into a Top 10 “Billboard” hit for the MTV generation.

“Over the Rainbow” (single), Judy Garland (1939)

One of the best-known ballads of all time, “Over the Rainbow,” from the classic American fantasy film “The Wizard of Oz,” expresses a poignant yearning for escape as sung by the film’s young star, Judy Garland.  “Over the Rainbow” became an anthem for Garland, a song she cherished throughout her life as her favorite.  “It represents everyone’s wondering why things can’t be a little better,” she said in a 1967 interview, two years before her death. ASCAP lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg settled on the image of the rainbow as the “only colorful thing that she’s [the Garland character] ever seen in her life,” he recalled, and created a symbol of hope that also became a reason for the film’s creators to shift its cinematography from sepia tones to Technicolor once Dorothy landed in the Land of Oz. Garland credited the song’s “childlike, wistful quality” to its composer, ASCAP Tin Pan Alley legend Harold Arlen. The song won an Academy Award, and the 1939 Decca recording by Garland—released a few weeks after the film’s premiere—with accompaniment by Victor Young and his orchestra, became a best-seller.

“People,” Barbra Streisand (1964)

Young Barbra Streisand (an ASCAP member), who set out to be an actress, used her singing voice to become both a famous singer and actress. Streisand eventually got a recording contract, then landed the lead in a Broadway show, “Funny Girl,” with music by ASCAP musical theatre legends Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Although “People” was taken from that musical, the hit single was released two months before the show opened. According to some accounts, there was a disagreement about whether to cut the instrumental introduction because, at 3:39, the length might discourage radio airplay, but the intro was kept.  Arranger Peter Matz remembers that “there was a wrong note” by a French horn, but “Barbra’s vocal on that first take was the best, so they went with it, flaws and all.” “People” found a large and appreciative audience, becoming one of Streisand’s signature songs.

“Amazing Grace” (single), Judy Collins (1970)

“Faith’s Review and Expectation,” a hymn written in 1779 by Anglican clergyman and former slave ship captain John Newton, has become one of the most famous hymns in the world, better known by its opening words “Amazing Grace.”  Originally published without music, it was not until 1835 that South Carolina singing instructor William Walker paired Newton’s words to an existing tune, “New Britain,” to create the song we know today.  “Amazing Grace” has been recorded many times, beginning in the 1920s, but ASCAP folk icon Judy Collins’ deeply heartfelt 1970 recording became one of the best-known versions and unexpectedly her second-biggest hit.  “When I sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ my heart soared.  My soul seemed to heal ...,” Collins confided.  Using a simple a cappella arrangement, Collins was beautifully recorded at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel, accompanied by a choir of friends, including her brother and her then-boyfriend, actor Stacy Keach.  Her recording seemed to spark a newfound interest in “Amazing Grace,” with treatments ranging from mournful to joyous.  Collins’ slow arrangement was likely the basis for arguably one of the second-best-known versions of “Amazing Grace,” recorded in 1972 by the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

“Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975),” Eagles (1976)

It’s unusual for a group to be best known for a greatest-hits compilation, especially for the Eagles who, at the time, were thought of as an album band, not a singles band.  It’s even more surprising because the members of the group had no say in the decision to release such an album and didn’t want one released.  Against a backdrop of lawsuits, their record company decided to put out a greatest-hits package while the Eagles worked on their next studio album.  The supposed potboiler “Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975)” - with cuts co-written by ASCAP songwriters Jackson Browne, Bernie Leadon, Robb Strandlund, Randy Meisner, J.D. Souther and Jack Tempchin, and performed by ASCAP songwriter/guitarist Don Felder (formerly of The Eagles) - was intended merely to generate income and buy the Eagles some time while they worked on what would become “Hotel California.” Instead, the overwhelming response thrilled the record company—less so some members of the band. Don Henley complained that cobbling together a hits package diminished the artistic integrity of a concept album like “Desperado,” from which two songs were taken.  Nevertheless, fans loved “Their Greatest Hits.” and it undeniably elevated the stature of the Eagles, making them one of the most successful and best-loved groups of their era.

“We Are Family” (single), Sister Sledge (1979)

The four members of Sister Sledge were veteran performers by their early 20s, but as 1979 dawned, they had enjoyed only intermittent success in eight years of recording.  A collaboration with the members of the disco powerhouse Chic proved to be the turning point for the family group, and they scored their first major hit early that year with  “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” setting the stage for the release of the album and single “We Are Family,” written by Chic founders Nile Rodgers and ASCAP member Bernard Edwards, in May.  Twenty-year-old lead singer Kathy Sledge nailed the eight-and-a-half-minute song entirely on the first take, and it seemed to be everywhere through the summer and fall of 1979.  Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates made it their theme song, and the group’s performance of it at the opening game of the World Series and the Pirates’ subsequent come-from-behind victory to win the championship made “We Are Family” an anthem, with its own status and meaning.

“Remain in Light,” Talking Heads (1980)

“Remain in Light” presents Talking Heads (featuring ASCAP songwriters Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison) at their most essential—contradictory.  Layers of driving dance rhythms balance vague postmodern lyrics about the body and mind.  Accessible pop-music structures make room for experimental instrumental breaks and electronic noise.  The album builds on the successes of the band’s previous three albums while distinguishing them as innovators even among the new wave.  “Remain in Light” fully embraced and assimilated funk and African styles with an expanded ensemble that included guest musicians such as ASCAP members Adrian Belew and Jon Hassell, and David Byrne drew inspiration from rap and preaching for his lyrics.  “Remain in Light” was unlike anything else released in 1980, and little else since then.

“Straight Outta Compton,” N.W.A  (1988)

N.W.A’s seminal album “Straight Outta Compton” signaled not only a seismic shift in rap from East Coast to West Coast sensibilities, but also a startling socio-political shot across the bow of the culture.  With its at times alarmingly blunt, raw language, imagery and subject matter, the musical partnership of ASCAP members Dr. Dre (who co-produced the album), Eazy-E, Ice Cube and MC Ren with DJ Yella and Arabian Prince ignited controversy (via tracks like “F—the Police”) and ample doses of inspiration with the creative rhymes they delivered and the honesty and force with which they were delivered.  Even within the fast-moving, ricocheting world of hip-hop, “Compton” remains—30 years after its arrival—one of the definitive works of the genre.

“Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil),” Robert Shaw Festival Singers  (1990)

By age 75, the conductor Robert Shaw had already attained the heights of musical performance, both as an expert choral conductor with his Robert Shaw Chorale and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  After retiring from the latter group, in 1988 he founded a festival in the rural Quercy region of southwest France, called the Robert Shaw Institute of Music, where he brought together singers, teachers and conductors to study and perform choral masterworks in historic, acoustically resplendent Romanesque churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. During the second festival, Shaw conducted ASCAP classical music titan Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Russian Orthodox “Vsenschchnoye bdeniye” (“All-night Vigil,” more commonly known as “Vespers”) evening service in the Church of St. Pierre in Gramat, France. The work’s texts come from the Psalms and Orthodox versions of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc dimittis,” often adapting melodies from three styles of plainchant:  Znamennïy, Greek and Kiev.

See the full list of inductees here.