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updated: Aug 14, 2014, 11:45 AM
When filmmaker Charles Kaufmann was researching his documentary on the
pioneering African-American pianist Frances Walker, she told him about a
particular song she often listened to as a child. "Alice Blue Gown" it was
called, and Kaufmann wanted to include it in the film. Locating the little-known
recording, however, was a challenge.
Kauffman turned to UC Santa Barbara's new Discography of American Historical
Recordings (DAHR), an online database of more than 100,000 master recordings
from pioneering record companies, and he struck musical gold. There he found the
waltz, in all its obscure glory, recorded Oct. 5, 1920, by the Victor Talking
Kaufmann contacted David Seubert, curator of the performing arts collection in
the UCSB Library's Department of Special Collections, which oversees the
discography. After receiving permission from Sony Music Entertainment, the
recording's owner, Seubert provided Kaufmann with a high-quality recording for
It's the sort of happy ending that would have been much more complicated prior
to the DAHR and its predecessor, the UCSB Library's Encyclopedic Discography of
Victor Recordings (EDVR). "That's the kind of thing that's great," Seubert said.
"What might have taken considerable time to track down by canvassing public and
private collections now can happen with a few mouse clicks."
Part of the university's American Discography Project (ADP), the DAHR database
is an expanded replacement of the EDVR. It allows anyone to search early master
recordings from the Victor Talking Machine Co., Columbia Records and the
Berliner Gramophone Co.
Now, with a $500,000 grant from the Packard Humanities Institute, the DAHR will
be adding data on recordings by Okeh and Brunswick, and will be acquiring rights
to the data for Decca Records.
The DAHR has its roots in the work of two discographers, Bill Moran and Ted
Fagan, who started documenting recordings of the Victor Talking Machine Co. in
the 1960s. By the 1980s they had documented tens of thousands of recording
sessions. Their work, which became the EDVR, moved to UCSB in 2005.
"I don't want to say it's taken on a life of its own … but when we took it over
10 years ago, we didn't think, ‘Oh, we're going to make a gigantic discography
that covers everything before 1950,' " said Seubert. "Scholars of early
recordings fantasized that there would be such a thing, but I didn't know it
would be happening here at UCSB, or that it would be as far along as it is now."
In addition to operating independently, the DAHR also partners with the Library
of Congress National Jukebox, providing an online database of more than 10,000
recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Co. from 1901 to 1925. The
digitized recordings are streamed, but cannot be downloaded.
Conceived by Sam Brylawski, DAHR co-director, who worked at the Library of
Congress for three decades, the National Jukebox is licensed by Sony Music
Entertainment to stream recordings from Victor, Columbia, Berliner and others.
It allows visitors to search by song, artist, lyricist, genre, composer, year
and place. It's easy to find a 1911 recording of, say, Al Jolson singing George
M. Cohan's "That Haunting Melody," or early recordings by the great tenor Enrico
Caruso. There are even two songs from 1905 ¾ "The Whistling Girl" and "The
Laughing Song" ¾ by George Washington Johnson, the first African-American
UCSB, the Library of Congress and a private company in Philadelphia are
digitizing recordings for the National Jukebox, and, according to Seubert, more
than 20,000 have been converted. "I think within a couple of years there'll be
40 to 50 thousand pieces you can listen to online. They're all unique titles,"
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