“The Rainbow Connection” and Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues Among Inductees into National Recording Registry’s Class of 2020
By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief • March 25, 2021
Kermit the Frog’s plaintive anthem for dreamers, “The Rainbow Connection,” written by ASCAP President Paul Williams with Kenny Ascher for 1979’s The Muppet Movie, joins Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, the debut 1957 album from an important voice in the folk revival, and the groundbreaking hit Janet Jackson album, Rhythm Nation 1814, produced by legendary ASCAP songwriter-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Others include iconic California singer-songwriter and ASCAP Founders Award honoree Jackson Browne’s 1974 Breakthrough album Late for the Sky; Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs, recorded by the powerhouse African-American opera singer Jessye Norman; and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra’s 1938 single, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden today named these among 25 recordings as audio treasures worthy of preservation for all time based on their cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage.
“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”
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 most recently selected for the National Recording Registry bring the number of titles on the registry to 575, representing a small portion of the national library’s vast recorded sound collection of nearly 3 million items.
One song has appealed to generations of Muppets fans and many musicians who revived “The Rainbow Connection” over the decades since it was performed by Muppet creator Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog in 1979. Paul Williams, who wrote the music and lyrics with Kenneth Ascher, said the song is about "the immense power of faith."
“The thing that is so human about the song, and spiritual at the same time, is that it honors the questions, not the answers,” said Paul Williams. “I was blessed to write it with the brilliant Kenny Ascher. And we were both inspired by the gentle heart, mind and spirit of Jim Henson.”
Kermit the Frog recently told Hayden he was deeply touched to have his banjo-strumming recording from 1979’s The Muppet Movie preserved, saying: "Well, gee, it's an amazing feeling to officially become part of our nation's history. I am thrilled to be the first frog on the list!"
The latest selections named to the registry, spanning from 1878 to 2008, range from pop, hip-hop and country to Latin, Hawaiian, jazz, blues, gospel, classical and children’s music. In addition to the musical selections, the new class showcases one of the earliest recordings of an American voice by Thomas Edison, as well as sports history, voices of world leaders during World War II, a soap opera’s roots in radio, and even the first podcast to join the registry, with “This American Life” following its success in radio.
NPR’s “1A” will host several features in the series, “The Sounds of America,” on the selections for the National Recording Registry, including interviews with Hayden and several featured artists in the weeks ahead. Follow the conversation about the registry on Twitter and Instagram @librarycongress and #NatRecRegistry.
Check out this list of the 11 inducted recordings made by ASCAP members, or featuring music written by ASCAP members. Scroll down to hear them on Spotify.
ASCAP Recordings in the 2020 National Recording Registry
“When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)
In this first jazz recording of the famous hymn, Louis Armstrong, in the guise of “Rev. Satchelmouth,” introduces this unusually atmospheric recording. From J.C. Higginbotham’s shouting, preaching trombone, to Rev. Satchelmouth’s respectful vocal (accompanied by some members of the “congregation”) to the soaring and majestic trumpet solo, the performance commands attention. Armstrong fondly remembered “The Saints” from his childhood in New Orleans. His democratic attitude towards music saw little difference between the church and the dance hall, and as a result, he received backlash from clergy and fans for daring to mix the sacred with jazz. While that juxtaposition may seem mild today, the music certainly is not; it stands as a timeless testament to Louis Armstrong’s many gifts.
Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues — Odetta (1957) (album)
This is the debut album from an important voice in the folk revival — featuring a mix of blues, spirituals and ballads. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta was a major influence to a generation of folk singers, including the young Bob Dylan who has cited this album as what convinced him to trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic when he heard it as a 15-year-old teenager in Minnesota. This 16-song LP showcases Odetta’s extraordinary vocal power, which she always manages to temper with great emotion. Among the selections: “Muleskinner Blues,” “Jack o’ Diamonds,” “Easy Rider,” “Glory, Glory” and her concluding spiritual trilogy: “Oh, Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me” and “I’m on My Way.”
Free to Be…You & Me — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)
The 1972 album Free to Be...You and Me, with the title track written by ASCAP members Bruce Hart and Stephen Lawrence, is remarkable both as a snapshot of social change with regard to gender roles and expectations in the early 1970s and for the wide array of talent it assembled. Marlo Thomas explained in a 2003 interview that the inspiration for the project came from her niece and a desire for children’s educational materials that did not impose rigid and arbitrary gender roles and expectations. Thomas expected modest sales at best, but the album quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, ultimately achieving gold, platinum and diamond status. Those sales were likely due in part to Thomas’ own celebrity status but also because the album’s message resonated with a large segment of American society, young and old, male and female. Appearances by talents as varied as Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, Dick Cavett and pro football player Rosey Grier (in “It’s All Right to Cry”) further ensured appeal to a wide audience. The album and follow-up book led to an ABC television special, and the project was reprised in the 1988 TV special Free to Be...A Family.
Late for the Sky — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)
Although Jackson Browne had some success with his first two albums (in ’72 and ’73), in 1974, he was still primarily known as a songwriter, his works having been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Tom Rush and the Eagles, among others. Late for the Sky changed all that. It was recorded more quickly and for less money than his previous album, and neither of the album’s released singles charted. But none of that mattered. The maturity and depth of Browne’s writing did. Brilliantly supported by his touring band, especially David Lindley on guitar and fiddle, the lyrics deal with apocalypse, uncertainty, death, and especially, love and the loss of it experienced by someone transitioning to manhood. In “Fountain of Sorrow,” Browne wrote, “I'm just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you/In my lessons at love's pain and heartache school ....” Bruce Springsteen called Late for the Sky Browne’s “masterpiece.”
“Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)
Pat Metheny’s debut album, Bright Size Life, signaled a new direction for jazz in the mid-1970s — not only for leader Pat Metheny, but also bassist (and ASCAP member) Jaco Pastorius, drummer Bob Moses and Gary Burton, who went uncredited as a producer at the time, though he wrote the album’s liner notes. In their only album together, all participants built on the musical traditions that preceded them to create a new expression of jazz distinguished by their own styles and personalities, before blazing their own distinctive trails in the music. The album saw modest initial sales, but the passage of time has made its significance clear.
“The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)
Written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, “The Rainbow Connection” opened the Muppets’ first foray into film in The Muppet Movie. The song is performed by Kermit the Frog (voiced by Jim Henson), and was produced by Williams and Jim Henson. Williams and Ascher received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song at the 52nd Academy Awards for its composition. Since then, the song has been covered dozens of times, from Judy Collins in 1980 to Kacey Musgraves in 2019, but the Kermit/Henson recording remains the iconic version of the work. It has been used as a theme song by many charitable organizations, and its plaintive message about dreams and their fulfillment remains enduring.
“Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)
Founded in 1964 by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and ASCAP member Ronald Bell, Kool and the Gang (formerly the Jazziacs or the Soul Town Band early on) had already had hits with their songs “Ladies Night” and “Jungle Boogie,” when they released their 1980 album Celebrate! containing the group’s most famous and enduring song, “Celebration.” Led by JT Taylor’s spirited lead vocal, it would be their biggest hit and quickly became a feature of national celebrations like the 1980 World Series, the 1981 Super Bowl and the 1981 NBA Finals. While others have released covers to great success, such as Kylie Minogue in 1992, the original remains a staple of every party DJ’s set list — be it at a high school dance or a 50th anniversary party.
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)
This superb recording by African-American opera singer Jessye Norman of this set of songs (all in the ASCAP repertory) is beloved by critics and audiences alike. In homage to Norman after her death in 2019, fans mentioned this recording most often as Norman’s best, while Alex Ross in The New Yorker wrote of it: “In her prime, she let loose sounds of shimmering magnificence. Her timbre carried with it a sonic chiaroscuro: pure tones gleamed out of depth and shadow. I remember the dazed bliss I felt on first hearing her recording of ‘Im Abendrot’ (‘At Sunset’), from Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs.’”
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)
Despite her record label’s wishes, Janet Jackson resisted the urge to release another album like her previous Control in favor of an album with more socially-conscious lyrics. On Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson explores issues of race, homelessness and school violence among other topics. Musically, the album continued the productive relationship Jackson had enjoyed on Control with ASCAP members and producers James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis. The duo relied on drum machines and samples of street sounds, breaking glass and trash can lids to create several brief interludes between the songs that lent the album a unified feel. Jackson’s impeccable vocal timing also helped the producers build up dense multi-layered vocal mixes of the funky “Alright” and other songs on the LP. Despite such cutting edge touches, Jackson did deliver dance songs like the lively “Escapade,” but also on display were ballads like “Someday Is Tonight” and even the guitar-driven rocker “Black Cat.” Even the tunes with a serious call for racial healing and political unity like “Rhythm Nation” featured catchy beats, proving that dance music and a social message are not mutually exclusive.
Illmatic — Nas (1994) (album)
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones — “Nas” — released his groundbreaking studio debut in 1994. Critics quickly extolled it for its rhythmic originality and its realistic yet fresh take on life in the Queensbridge projects. Characterized by the masterful use of multi-syllabic and internal rhyme, surprising line breaks and rhythmic complexity, the album’s technique has been widely copied and proven broadly influential. The album featured (along with Nas’s father Olu Dara, an ASCAP member) the sample-soaked production of a set of deeply talented and experienced producers including ASCAP members Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and DJ Premier. The sound they forged features gritty drums, hazy vinyl samples and snatches of jazz and ‘70s R&B. It has been described as the sound of a kid in Queensbridge ransacking his parents’ record collection. While the album pulls no punches about the danger, struggle and grit of Queensbridge, Nas recalls it as a musically rich environment that produced many significant rappers, and that he “felt proud being from Queensbridge…. [W]e were dressed fly in Ballys and the whole building was like a family.”
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What a Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, or “Bruddah Iz” or “Iz” as he was also known to his fans in Hawaii, created this medley of two classic ASCAP pop standards (“Over the Rainbow” was written by Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg; “What a Wonderful World” by Bob Thiele & George David Weiss). But, in it, he stayed true to his vision of creating contemporary Hawaiian music that fused reggae, jazz and traditional Hawaiian sounds. Driven primarily by Iz’s angelic voice and ukulele playing, the song is melancholic and joyous at once. Taken from Iz’s album Facing Future — the first Hawaiian album ever certified platinum — this single was an international hit, and it has had a sustained life through its use in motion pictures, television programs and commercials.
For the full list visit the Library of Congress.