Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Immortality for 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'

Guaraldi fans already know that immortality is assured for his groundbreaking score for A Charlie Brown Christmas, first heard nationally when the CBS-TV special debuted on December 9, 1965. After all, the album hasn't ever been out of print, and it continues to sell impressively well each year. But it's always nice to get official recognition, and in this country, "official" doesn't get better than the Library of Congress.

Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Librarian of Congress, with advice from the Library’s National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB), is tasked every year with selecting 25 recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," and are at least 10 years old.

The recordings are housed in the Library's state-of-the-art Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia. Nominations are gathered through online submissions from the public and from the NRPB, which comprises leaders in the fields of music, recorded sound and preservation.

"America's recorded-sound heritage has in many ways transformed the soundscape of the modern world, resonating and flowing through our cultural memory," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "Audio recordings have documented our lives and allowed us to share artistic expressions and entertainment. Songs, words and the natural sounds of the world that we live in have been captured on one of the most perishable of all of our art media. The salient question is not whether we should preserve these artifacts, but how best collectively to save this indispensable part of our history."

The selections for the 2011 registry — announced today — bring the total number of recordings to 350. This year's choices feature a diverse array of spoken-word and musical recordings, representing almost every musical category and spanning nearly a century, from 1888 to 1984. They cover a wide variety of sounds and music, ranging from CBS Radio newsman Edward R. Murrow's I Can Hear It Now, a curated collection of speech excerpts and news reports from 1933 to 1945; to the only known surviving recording of turn-of-the-20th century musical stage star Lillian Russell; to the 1943 New York Philharmonic debut of Leonard Bernstein and the innovative jazz of Stan Kenton.

And Vince Guaraldi's 1965 score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This is how the Library of Congress describes Guaraldi's album:

A Charlie Brown Christmas introduced jazz to millions of listeners. The television soundtrack album includes expanded themes from the animated “Peanuts” special of the same name, as well as jazz versions of both traditional and popular Christmas music, performed primarily by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The original music is credited to pianist Guaraldi and television producer Lee Mendelson. Best remembered is the “Linus and Lucy” theme, originally composed by Guaraldi for an earlier “Peanuts” project, which remains beloved by fans of the popular television specials, those devoted to the daily newspaper comic strip, and music lovers alike.

Indeed. And how could I argue with that?

(Bonus points to the Library of Congress, as well, for recognizing that "Linus and Lucy" and some of the other themes used in A Charlie Brown Christmas first were composed for the never-aired 30-minute documentary, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.)

The entire list is fascinating, with a spread that jumps from Donna Summer, Prince and the Grateful Dead, to the Dixie Hummingbirds, Patsy Montana and Ruth Etting. By far the most fascinating item (sorry, Vince!) is an 1888 recording made by the short-lived Thomas Edison Company, speficially designed to be inserted into dolls, so that they would sing (!). This recording of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," on a tiny tin cylinder, is the earliest known commercial sound recording in existence. Due to its poor condition, the recording was considered unplayable until 2011, when its surface was scanned in three dimensions using digital mapping tools created at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress.

And it was considered time-consuming, back in the day, to press an LP from a master tape?

I have only one minor nit to pick. Each entry on the list is accompanied by an LP jacket (where appropriate) or some other suitable image. But the image used for A Charlie Brown Christmas comes from a much later CD cover, rather than the original Fantasy Records LP (reproduced above). 

A small detail, one might argue, but hey: It's important to get these things right!


Update on August 26, 2012:

Every wonder precisely what the Library of Congress physically archives, in such cases? Check Thomas G. Dennehy's blog to find out how his original LP copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas came to be selected for this honor.

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