What's The Oldest Song On Your iPod?

Arik Hesseldahl

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 – 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 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.

Enrico Caruso - Caruso - The Verdi Recordings Pt. 1 (1902-1917) - Rigoletto (1851): 'Questa O Quella' From Act I

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).
Perry Como - Platinum & Gold Collection: Perry Como - Prisoner of Love

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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