Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” “The Sound of Music” soundtrack and lacquer disc recordings from the 1945 conference establishing the United Nations are among this year’s selections for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Every year, the registry collates for preservation 25 recordings it deems “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” This year’s musical selections are a diverse assortment that includes disco (Chic’s “Le Freak”), early rock (Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”), postwar gospel (Clara Ward and the Ward Singers’ “How I Got Over”), and pop balladry (Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”).
Bennett remembers the first time Ralph Sharon, his pianist and musical director, showed him the sheet music for “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which he released in 1962.
“We both thought it would just be a local hit for the upcoming engagement we had at the Fairmont Hotel,” Bennett said in an email. “And even after I recorded it as the B-side to my record of ‘Once Upon A Time,’ which I thought was going to be the hit, it wasn’t until the promotions person from Columbia told me to ‘turn the record over’ as ‘San Francisco’ was the song catching on. I could not have asked for a better signature song.”
“We look for things that have had a real impact on the public,” says Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Recording Preservation Board. “Some that are very popular, some that might have had social significance, some which might have had technical significance in terms of preservation or recording history.”
Recordings, which are expected to reflect the American experience, must be at least 10 years old, though almost everything in the registry’s collection of 500 recordings is older. The youngest song on the 2018 list is a 1996 recording featuring Yo-Yo Ma; the oldest is a 1911 single by Victor Herbert and his Orchestra.
The selection process is open to the public in its early stages, though Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden makes the final decisions after recommendations from the board. This year, songs with the greatest public support included “If I Didn’t Care,” the 1939 standard by vocal group the Ink Spots, Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” and Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose.”
No song on the list evokes as much plain joy as “Footloose,” the title track to the 1984 Kevin Bacon film about rebellious teens who best a stuffy preacher thanks to the magic of dance.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about this,” Loggins says in a phone interview. “Other than the pure joy factor, which I totally believe in, that’s what ‘Hound Dog’ was to me, the story of ‘Footloose’ is freedom.” To Loggins, “Footloose” represents the country’s triumph over the heavy hand of religion and politics. “They rebel and they win,” says Loggins. “That’s American history.”
Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” offers a different take on American history. An 18-minute, kind-of-true rambler about how an arrest for illegally dumping garbage on Thanksgiving helped Guthrie avoid the draft, it defined the singer’s career and spawned a movie in which he played himself. Guthrie appreciates the irony of an anti-authority anthem making a list issued by the government. “That’s pretty funny,” he says. “I never imagined that it would become a record, let alone a movie, or almost 50 years later become something of a treasure.”
Run-DMC, the only hip-hop artists on this year’s list, was already a platinum-selling act when “Raising Hell” broke in 1986. A cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” became the album’s biggest hit and helped foment the coming rap-rock revolution. Initially, the group had rapped only over the opening bars of the song, remembers founding member Joseph “Run” Simmons. “The only reason we listened was for the beginning of the beat, the DJ was in trouble if he let the singing come in,” he says. “We didn’t know the name of the record.”
Producer Rick Rubin suggested that Run-DMC cover the whole track, telling them to study it first. The group found Aerosmith’s original version, with its tongue-twisty vocals and heavy riffage, incomprehensible. “(We said), ‘What are you talking about? How are we going to study this?’ ” says Simmons, who still sounds doubtful. When the song hit, “It spun us out of control huge,” he says. “It definitely pushed that album over the top to make us universal.”
Like Run-DMC, Kenny Rogers was already an established star when he met his signature song. By the time it found its way to him, “The Gambler” had been through several singers, including Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash and its original writer, Don Schlitz.
It’s often assumed that the song’s well-known chorus was an already-established bit of wisdom, but Schlitz, then a 23-year-old computer operator, thought it up himself while walking home from work one day. “To be a kid who makes up a song that enters the American imagination as if it’s always been there,” marvels Schlitz, who went on to become a successful Nashville songwriter. “You make up some words – ‘Know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em’ – and people think it’s an old saying.”
Forty years after its release, “The Gambler” is everywhere, relatable to most everyone. “Don Schlitz and I, neither one are gamblers,” Rogers says. “He said he wrote this song more about a thought of how to live your life, and I think it’s good for that.”
Australian billionaire Kerry Packer told Rogers and his wife, Wanda, over dinner one night that his dream was to have “The Gambler” played at his funeral (and it was, in 2006). Both George H.W. Bush and John Glenn quoted the song when they withdrew from presidential races. “It’s become part of our collective DNA,” Schlitz says. “Hooray for Kenny Rogers, for his work to be included. It’s an honor that you don’t dream of.”
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