Photo illustration: Claire O'Neill/NPR. Photos via NASA and iStockphoto
Photo illustration: Claire O'Neill/NPR. Photos via NASA and iStockphoto
Where do music historians go to find the sounds that shape the stories they tell? There are some obvious places, like the Library of Congress, whose National Jukebox offers more than ten thousand songs from the dawn of the modern age, or the Internet Archive, which overwhelms with its vast array of material and is especially rich for live recordings. Scholars also use the same sites casual fans employ — YouTube and Spotify and good old Google can yield riches to those who know how to focus a search.
Beyond these well-traveled areas lies a vast and generally unmapped terrain governed by collectors, hobbyists, fan clubs, and artists themselves, sharing gold that once could only be found through hours of prospecting in library reading rooms or at record fairs. It takes time to find the islands richest in resources. In conjunction with our overview of the state of archival music online, we asked some of our favorite writers, all of whom have recently published books on a wide range of historical subjects, to share their favorite spots for pleasurable and informative archival listening.
Author of Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe(Duke University Press)
Here's one: an archive of music from Radio Tanzania back in the day. In the 60s and 70s, there was no music industry in Tanzania to speak of, so everything that got recorded went on radio. A lot of that music, both popular and traditional can be streamed here. Some sweet and otherworldly sounds from an all but lost world.
Author of A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (Penguin Books)
For my Alex Chilton biography, I found some very deep cuts/obscurities on the excellent blog, www.boogiewoogieflu.blogspot.com. Ted Barron's site features his own esoterica, as well as that from other collectors of cool, off-the-grid music. Psychotic Leisure Music is another fab site where I found all the Box Tops' Coke commercials. I'm working on a Janis Joplin biography now, and have used various fan sites to locate her music, but Youtube has expanded to the point where I can find even the most obscure stuff there. Every time I check, there's more - very early, never-released Janis folk & blues acoustic bootlegs and more. For my cowboy music, folk, and blues research, the Alan Lomax World Jukebox and Library of Congress yields great, early stuff — but as for the very early Gene Autry recordings, most of it came from collectors who had digitized 78s. This was back in 2006, so this stuff may be available on YouTube and elsewhere now.
Author of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press)
The poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith has been warning people for years that UbuWeb (his sprawling "clearinghouse for the avant-garde" could cease to exist at any time, and indeed it is a small miracle that this online resource, which is hosted through the generosity of multiple institutions in several different countries, has made it to fifteen years of age. I use it in my research — a comically broad term that also includes listening purely for pleasure — and I don't think that a semester has gone by in my decade of teaching at CUNY in which I didn't access Ubu's holdings in class.
Author of The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof)
My latest book was mostly about digging in my own mouldering garage archives or digging deep into the online pit, but along the way I dug out or repurchased all the music I covered in the book to see how my opinions held up, or to inform my edits as I went through. For that I relied on the archives known as Reckless Records, Wicker Park location here in Chicago. My next book is historical, about something that happens in 1975, and the most useful research has been thrift store vinyl dollar bins and YouTube and the soft rock radio station, 87.7. I generally have found that human knowledge has served my books better than the crannies of the internet.
Author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (University of North Carolina Press)
Although it's not an official (or necessarily legal) archive, YouTube has been the most useful streaming source for the music that I'm looking for, which mostly comes from 1955 to 1985 or so. Particularly with artists whose work is largely out of print, a quick YouTube search often reveals a wealth of stuff that I wouldn't have access to without a serious (and expensive) vinyl search or library trawl. There are also a ton of personal sites collecting rare soul, country and their hybrids. One that I particularly like is Sir Shambling's Deep Soul Heaven, a lovingly curated site that features well-written articles accompanied by a series of clips from the artists and recordings discussed. It's a great help, and it's also great fun.
Author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature (Rutgers University Press)
As someone who studies the afterlife of soul music, I find Who Sampled to be a great resource. The site shows how, and how often, hip hop artists have revived and revised the work of soul legends like Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, and Etta James, in addition to more usual suspects like George Clinton and James Brown.
Author of The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street Books)
I write about DJ music, so my answer is thunderingly obvious: SoundCloud and Mixcloud. I got turned onto my favorite hour of music of the decade, Italian disco-edits king LTJ Xperience's "Sunlight Mix" from spring 2013, when SoundCloud randomly went to it after playing out something else I'd clicked on. Equally crucial for research purposes are the set-list repositories — MixesDB and 1001 Tracklists, which divide roughly in scope to pre- and post-EDM, respectively. And of course, Discogs, which has as close to "it all" as we're going to get.
Author of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music (Chicago Review Press)
I've used redhotjazz.com from time to time myself, but given the areas of music I'm most often researching, whether for journalism or my books — all flavors of historic country, blues, folk, bluegrass, early recorded pop and rock — I don't have set up, readily available informal sites I turn to that often. There are closed specialist's lists in some of these areas that have limited collections open to members only, unofficially, but attempts to "go permanent" online, openly, rarely seem to last. There had been good ones on Western Swing that have come and gone, and I had used Juneberry78s.com for a variety of older roots music, but that's reached a late, static stage, too. Someone could probably do this, hitting where the Big Streamers don't go, but it's not been sustainable for anybody I know of, so far. My odds are better finding something I need to hear or see quick on YouTube. Here's an example. It was hard to get hear that Robeson record anywhere—and now it's in the enhanced eBook version of my Ralph Peer bio, after I heard it there.
Author of Freedom of Choice 33 1/3 (Bloomsbury Academic)
For my book I didn't really need to dive deep, because it was about an easily accessible album — Devo's Freedom of Choice -- and even the contextual research didn't necessitate any super digging for music. But in general I think some of the best stuff is, weirdly, on blogspot blogs, specifically for the purpose of collecting huge archives of a particular artist or label's stuff for download. There is a Factory Records one that is amazing. There are also bands who do it themselves, like Phish and the Grateful Dead and Fugazi. I would also add Concert Vault (the site I used to work at) as a great resource. The library of live audio and video from the '50s on is kind of astounding.
Author of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For the World's Rarest 78rpm Records (Scribner)
My pick is the Association for Cultural Equity's digital sound recordings archive, which contains 17,400 of Alan Lomax's field recordings, collected globally from 1946 through the 1990s. The archive's YouTube channel is also an incredible way to destroy an afternoon — the videos from Cajun Louisiana, shot in the early 1980s, are just devastatingly beautiful (when I was researching Do Not Sell At Any Price, I became enamored with a Cajun fiddler named Dennis McGee, whose 78rpm records are remarkably rare; the Lomax archive has video footage of McGee fiddling on his front porch in Eunice, La., sky going purple, waiting for a thunderstorm to roll in). A good chunk of the material hasn't been commercially released, and because they were recorded in the field, the files include all kinds of so-called "unique ambient artifacts" — errant noises, guffaws, snorts, jokes, stories — that make them feel even more human, computer screen be damned.
Author of It's Been Beautiful: Soul! And Black Power Television (Duke University Press)
You can see a bunch of complete Soul! episodes here. I think Channel 13 has even put one or two up since the book came out! Beyond that — among other things, the Florida Folklife Collection of the Library of Congress gives youaccess to recordings of Zora Neale Hurston, performing songs she learned in the field. You also can go online and hear piano rolls.
Author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area (Duke University Press)
This is rather pedestrian, but Google Books has been an incredible resource for research over the years. The simplicity of the tool is part of its appeal, but beyond that, the fact that it's a searchable database going back decades was a huge boon when I was trying to trace the history of mobile DJing in the 1970s. It came down to only one set of sources — the historical archive for Billboard Magazine -- but even that was a fantastic window back into the past. Not only did I find articles about early DJing technology and key figures but even the advertising that's been scanned from those issues helped to construct an idea of how DJing culture began to build and spread throughout the decade. Now if only we could get every other music magazine beyond Billboard archived in there ...