This week collectors, archivists, audio engineers, and recording historians from across the nation are meeting at the Wilshire Grand Hotel for the 45th-annual Conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC).
Since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, sound recordings have served as an invaluable resource for a variety of scholars, from anthropologists studying a dead language or lost culture to historians sifting through the secret history of the Nixon White House. For those researching our region's history, they also offer a rare echo of sounds from Southern California's past.
Several archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions across the Southland are home to major recorded sound collections.
One of the largest, the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, is celebrating its 50th anniversary and serves as host this year of the ARSC conference. The archive's more than 100,000 recordings represent cultures from all six of the Earth's inhabited continents and encompass virtually all traditions of music, from art to folk. While many of the archive's collections are global in scope, its Gospel Archiving in Los Angeles (GALA) Collection documents the city's underappreciated role in the gospel music's development.
As the home of the Azusa Street Revival--often credited as the birth of the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movement within Christianity--Los Angeles provided fertile ground for the growth of gospel music. By midcentury, homegrown gospel singers had begun to impact the national gospel scene and the city's large concentration of African-American churches had attracted several renowned gospel artists, including James Cleveland, Bessie Griffin, and Clara Ward. The archive's archived musical recordings by these artists and by hundreds of others document the city's legacy as a center of contemporary gospel music.
Between 1895 and 1912, Southwest Museum founder Charles Fletcher Lummis used the then-new technology of wax phonograph cylinders--the standard audio storage medium before the ascent of vinyl records--to record Mexican-American and American Indian folk songs. These include 1904 recordings (below) Lummis made inside his El Alisal house "Adios Amores" by Luisa and Rosa Villa and "Laura" by Manuela Garcia and Rosendo Uruchurtu. Today, the Braun Research Library at the Autry National Center for the American West holds more than seven hundred of Lummis's recordings. Together, they provide a unique window into the Southwest's indigenous and pre-American cultures, many of which were irretrievably lost or altered with U.S. conquest.
WC.B.36, "Laura" sung by Manuela Garcia accompanied by Rosendo Uruchurtu; recorded by Charles F. Lummis at El Alisal, 22 Oct. 1904 | Courtesy of the Braun Research Library, Autry National Center for the American West
WC.H.10 "Adios Amores" sung by Luisa and Rosa Villa; recorded by Chrarles F. Lummis at El Alisal, 17, Apr. 1904 | Courtesy of the Braun Research Library, Autry National Center for the American West
One project at UC Santa Barbara's Donald C. Davidson Library specializes in such early recordings. The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project has created over 8,000 digital versions of old phonograph cylinders, which even more than vinyl records are especially subject to loss and degradation. Among the project's holdings is a 1913 recording of "I Love You, California," the Golden State's little-known official state song, sung by Elizabeth Spencer and the Knickerbocker Quartet:
"I Love You, California" as sung by the Knickerbocker Quartet and Elizabeth Spencer and released in 1913 by Edison Blue Amberol | Courtesy of the University of California, Santa Barbara Library
Oral history archives also maintain extensive recorded sound collections that preserve individuals' first-hand recollections of the past. The Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton holds more than 5,000 oral histories, with recorded interviews from as early as 1962 and recalled memories from as early as 1880. The center's approximately 250 projects cover a diverse range of topics, from the now-closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County to Carl Karcher, founder of the Carl's Jr. fast-food restaurant chain.
In this audio clip from the center's Black History Collection, taken from an April 29, 1967 interview with Judge Loren Miller of the L.A. County Superior Court. Miller was a prominent civil rights attorney perhaps best known for his role in Shelley v. Kraemer, a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred state courts from enforcing racially restrictive covenants. In that case, Miller argued alongside future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that enforcement of the covenants, which effectively enshrined housing segregation in real estate deeds, was unconstitutional.
In 1964, Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown appointed Miller to the L.A. County Superior Court bench. The following audio clip, in which Miller discusses a time when blacks were largely barred from working for the courts, was recorded less than three months before his death:
Judge Loren Miller recalling racial discrimination in public employment | Courtesy of the Center for Oral and Public History, California State University Fullerton
Several other Los Angeles-area archives maintain extensive recorded sound collections. Many of them, as well as many of the aforementioned institutions, are members of L.A. as Subject. To find recorded sound archives, please select "Audio Recordings" from the "Type of Holdings" dropdown on the L.A. as Subject online directory.
The images in this post from the UCLA Library and by Vlasta Radan (flickr user vlasta2) and the audio recording of "I Love You, California" are used under the following Creative Commons licenses: UCLA, Vlasta Radan, and "I Love You, California"