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| It's Time to Dredge Up the Old Licensing Question Again
March 20, 2006
What's The Oldest Song On Your iPod?
This weekend I blew several hours listening -- and downloading -- some of the oldest recorded music in existence. The cause of this was a fascinating piece in The New York Times about a new collection of digitized music files at the University of California at Santa Barbara containing some 6,500 tracks from the early days of commercial sound recording. These recordings come mostly from wax cylinders dating back as far back as 1890 and manufactured until 1929 when discs took over. They’ve been transferred to digital files which you can download for free, and as such add them to your iTunes playlist and iPod.
Listening to one in particular gave me a bit of pause. One recording of “Battle Cry of Freedom” – a pro-Union ditty penned in 1862 by George F. Root is sung by the duo of Byron Harlan and Frank Stanley. Harlan himself was born in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. Another recording of Civil War-era music this “Medley of Southern Patriotic Airs” recorded in 1904.
One warning: Some of the recordings you’ll find among the collection reflect the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. That’s a soft way of saying you’re likely to hear some lyrics that are overtly racist and to the 21st Century listener, disturbingly offensive. Just consider yourself warned.
I once asked Apple Computer what the oldest song in the iTunes library was, and was told it was a collection of recordings made by the tenor Enrico Caruso. I don’t remember exactly what track they told me was the actual oldest. But today I surveyed iTunes offerings of Caruso and find that one in particular appears to contain a track was originally recorded in 1902, “Questia o quella” from “Rigoletto.” At 104 years old, it may be the oldest recording available on iTunes.
If you have iTunes, you can see the album and hear a sample of the track by clicking the button below.
And if you find anything you think is older let me know in the user comments area below. More on this subject after the jump.
One of my consistent criticisms – and its really just a nitpick -- about iTunes concerns dates. The date information given concerning that Caruso album relates to the date when this particular compilation CD was released, which in this case was 2005, but gives very little information about when the particular tracks were recorded, though the album title indicates the tracks were recorded between 1902 and 1917.
I’m a bit of a stickler on this point, especially when it comes to my collection of jazz albums. Whenever I buy a new CD and import it into my iTunes collection, I do my best to find out when the recording sessions took place, or the date of original release. Often I’m buying re-mastered versions of records originally released in the 1950s or 1960s. Once I’ve got it in my iTunes library I go back and meticulously change the track information to reflect the correct date, changing several tracks all at once, when that makes sense, or one at a time as necessary.
As much as I live iTunes, and understand that more often than not it’s geared to the tastes of mass consumers mostly buying new music, I’d like to see more attention paid to this kind of historical detail. One thing Apple has done is compile playlists of Billboard hits going back to 1946 – but oddly enough when you look at the lists, the date given for the number one hit of 1946 – Perry Como’s “Prisoner of Love” is 2003, or the date the CD was released. (click the button to see it in iTunes).
It just seems me that there ought to be a data field in iTunes that reflects the year of the original recording or original release when it comes to compilations of music from other periods, or re-issues. Not that I'm a fan of Perry Como or anything you understand, but you see my point.
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I definitely agree with your last point. It doesn't annoy just you.
Posted by: Michael Collins at March 20, 2006 03:45 PM
Well it is not a song, but a sound clip of President Harrison giving a speech that was recorded back in 1889. I also have some old speeches from other Presidents; Grover Cleveland 1892, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, Coolidge, Hoover, and of course the later ones. Also some stuff from Labor Leader Samuel Gompers, William Jennings Bryant, Ameial Earhart, Winston Churchill, Adlai Stevenson, even Lenin. www.archive.org has some real fun stuff that is copyright free, audio, video, print.
Music I would say that it is some Billie Holiday stuff from the '30s
Posted by: Perry Clease at March 20, 2006 03:57 PM
Excellent topic, and one likely to become more and more interesting. Classical music also suffers this "date" issue. Better labeling of tracks is much needed.
Posted by: KenC at March 20, 2006 07:10 PM
I agree 100% with your last comment, regarding the need for a date field. KenC is also on point - as much as I love iTunes, it needs better integration with the ID3 v2 tag standards. There are hundreds of available data fields,and while having Apple integrate all of them, there should be a setting that allows you to switch between a classical mucis setup and one for pop music. After all, the data's managed through an XML file - it's not like there isn't room or capacity to add additional fields.
Posted by: Lita Kaufman at March 20, 2006 09:04 PM
I have a copy of Thomas Edison reading "Mary Had A Little Lamb" from 1879 -- to my knowledge, the oldest sound recording available.
Posted by: John Mietus at March 21, 2006 08:53 AM
I completely agree about the recording date. In fact, if Apple (or the publishers) spent more time putting useful information -- like producers, sound engineers, musicians, writers, and more -- they could make more sales. My personal example is Jeff Lynne; I would buy what he writes, produces or sings, but it's darn hard to find what he produced or wrote. Apple is simply missing out on sales.
Posted by: David at March 21, 2006 11:01 AM
I think it would be great to track the original date of the music. I have a lot of old ragtime guitar recordings from the 1920s on my iPod, but I have to keep track of what's-from-when manually.
Posted by: Manatee at March 21, 2006 12:32 PM
The oldest song I had prior to this article was:
Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip
My Dad would sing this to me back in 1946.
Posted by: Dick Applebaum at March 21, 2006 02:54 PM
I have a rather large library of over 21,000 songs and I know I have some music from the early 1920s but not sure how old each track or each album is nor if I have any older (which I would assume I probably do and just do not know it).
Posted by: Christopher Powers at March 22, 2006 07:52 AM
I talked with an Apple software project leader at a seminar in San Francisco last week. He said, suggestions for enhancements are prioritized based on the number request for a particular function. So it’s in your hands….
Posted by: john nakata at March 22, 2006 02:15 PM
Nice topic, A! iTunes has some tweaking to do still.
Posted by: KellyK at April 4, 2006 11:04 AM
The oldest recording I have is of a sounding of the bugle by a Trumpeteer Landfrey. Trumpeteer Landfrey was a part of the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854 and in this recordng he emptys his ageing lungs into the same instrument that he blew into during that ill-fated assault. The recording was made in 1890 on a wax cylinder and is far shorter than you would wish but a real treasure and easily accessable on the internet.
Posted by: jamie at June 21, 2006 07:50 PM
I have some classical stuff that's pretty old, does that count? Other then that I have some older Nat King Cole Christmas music, loved those old Christmas songs...
Posted by: Mac vs PC at March 20, 2007 05:21 AM