Woody Guthrie put a now famous copyright notice on his works:
“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
The inheritors of the recordings he made for Victor, Asch, and Stinton see it differently and due to a series of industry victories their copyrights to his compositions and recorded works from the 1940s did not expire at 28 years, but will remain in private hands for decades to come. Under current copyright law his composition “This Land is Your Land,” written in 1940, will remain under license until 2035, restricting who can perform it, and his 1944 recording of the song will enter the public domain on January 1st, 2045.
That recordings now enter the public domain at all represents a victory. Until January 1st of this year all recordings, even those made in the 1880s, were assumed to be under copyright until proven otherwise. This made the study and dissemination of early sound recordings a scary process, especially for the cautious institutions like libraries with the greatest ability to share the material.
Suddenly the floodgates are open—with a new flood coming every January 1st. As a jazz fan you now own all of the pre-1923 works of the ODJB and everyone else who recorded at the dawn of jazz. On January 1st, 2024 the 1923 recordings of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band will become yours to distribute as you wish. Good times are ahead!
This decade will be full of amazing 1920s jazz restorations and reissues whether or not SONY/BMG deems them commercially viable and we can thank, in no small part, the lobbying efforts of the ARSC. That effort is an exciting 15 year tale that went down to the wire with the 2018 Music Modernization Act, which, for the first time, established a Federal public domain for recorded sound. You can read the story in an engaging article from the Winter 2021 issue of the ARSC Journal, which comes with the CD I am thrilled to be reviewing today.
As one of those cautious institutions, the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) has never been able to release an album before. Think about that. Despite it being a perfectly obvious thing for them to do, earning permissions for the obscure recordings they would like to highlight would have been nearly impossible. Even “orphan” recordings could suddenly produce a copyright holder to sue for large damages.
They are celebrating their victory with this special issue of their Journal. It features the story of their lobbying efforts, a technical essay on fair use and “Anthropological and Linguistic Sound Collections” that highlights the organization’s more usual fare, and a photo essay titled, “The Acoustic Recording Era in Living Color!”
Most enjoyably, it includes a CD highlighting 27 recordings now in the public domain representing a wide variety of recorded sound from classical music, ragtime, and comedy, to ethnic material from around the world. They forgo the temptation to include a track a year from 1888 to 1922, or any other gimmick, and have instead created a celebratory and very listenable album accompanied by short essays about each track from researchers like David Sager.
As someone who has reveled in acoustic era recordings for most of my life, the sound quality achieved here was startling. The ARSC has unusual access to the best copies of recordings and the people who know best how to restore them, and the technology available to preservationists to clear up recordings without diminishing them has seen dramatic improvements in just the last decade. You will not be struggling to find the sounds beneath the hiss on even the oldest of the recordings on offer here.
I read the engaging essay on their long path to copyright victory with the disc playing in the background. I was trying to enjoy the music at first pass without any associations or context from the liner notes. I did need to cheat once though. “The Song of Ten Lashes” was intense beyond measure, reminiscent of a Texas work gang recording by John Lomax but in a language I could not readily identify. Despite its harshness it also reminded me of one of my favorite Smithsonian Records discoveries, an entire LP side of a Buddhist monk chanting while hitting a bell like a metronome but growing infinitesimally faster over 25 minutes until the listener grows feverish. The recording here that tore through me with similar passion was from 1913, the singer and drummer from the Korean Pansori tradition. The singer was telling the tale of a young maiden being lashed for refusing the advances of a powerful man, playing both characters in what is at essence a one man opera.
That track also highlights the significance that it is the recordings themselves entering public domain. The ARSC chose to use as the source record a 1930s reissue with better fidelity than any available first generation copy of the 1913 recording.
A track that highlights the absurdity of how things stood before this year is “Temptation Rag” played on the Russian balalaika. This 1911 German recording of an American ragtime composition of which only a single copy exists, held by the Library of Congress no less, was something institutions were too frightened to share because someone somewhere might someday lay claim to the sound preserved on that lone record.
Off my soapbox now the remaining question is, should you buy this special issue of the ARSC Journal and the accompanying CD. Of course! Not simply to support them, but for your personal enjoyment. The soundscape they present is thrilling, and there is much for the jazz and ragtime fan, classical fan, or any collector of early media. The accompanying essays and notes are at a perfect length. Two pages of interesting background to each track, often accompanied by several photos or ephemera. I made several eye opening connections while reading them.
For example, one essay connected the popular group I Quattro Siciliani, based in New York, to a uniquely Italian style of clarinet playing that could also be heard among the earliest Italian jazz musicians recorded in New Orleans. That connection will have me digging through my green label Columbias and orange Okehs to give the band, which I have always enjoyed, another listen.
This collection, meant as a celebration, also serves as a fine introduction to the hundreds of thousands of recordings that have suddenly become our inheritance and encourages us to explore further. While listening I dreamt of the releases that lie ahead from labels like Archeophone, Dust to Digital, and Rivermont. My hope is that with the new era of Public Domain, brought about in part by the ARSC, many will join me in a lifetime of exploring our shared aural history.
ARSC Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Winter 2021), is available through www.arsc-audio.org for $15 postpaid in North America and $35 postpaid outside North America.