Songs to define a nation


It's the absurd question we're asked at least once in our lifetime: If forced to live alone on a desert island, and allowed only one song, what tune would we take along? It's how we're cornered into picking a lone favorite, and it tends to send us into prolonged and pensive musings.

That pressure to choose carefully and thoughtfully must be felt as powerfully, these days, at the United States Library of Congress. Yearly, since the enactment of the National Recording Preservation Act in 2000, the library has been asked to choose 25 recorded sounds as cultural, historic, and artistic treasures to be preserved for future generations. The sounds can span the range of spoken word—from newscasts to Tin Pan Alley, Nashville to Broadway. But only 25 can be picked as emblematic of the American experience.

To make the job more difficult, the selections are not chosen from the recorded sounds of the previous year but from the nation's entire recorded history, going back to the first moment sound was captured electronically.

So far, only 275 unique sounds are in the library's vault—275 sounds representing the immeasurable experience of American life over the last 100-plus years. They include such iconic offerings as John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a spoken-word reading by the poet Dylan Thomas, and the recorded call of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker.

Gang Busters, a popular radio crime drama that ran from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, was just added to the list this year, along with acoustic recordings for Victor Records by violinist Jascha Heifetz, made between 1917 and 1924, and the Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," recorded in 1938.

These will all be preserved, packaged, and offered to our descendants as a window into 20th-century America.

Would you have wanted to offer suggestions? The allure of the desert-island question is that the definitive answer isn't handed down from on high. Each person is allowed to scour his or her own world for memorable sounds that have special meaning or poignancy.

What sounds would you preserve, from the vaults of your own memory, to best recall life in this country? Would they necessarily be the sounds of music? Maybe you'd pick the Armistice Day broadcast by President Woodrow Wilson, also chosen by the library as an American treasure, or game four of the 1941 World Series, another inductee.

I'm sure many sounds I'd have thrown out for consideration weren't ever mentioned by library staff, such as the sound of a 1930s steam engine echoing across the Nebraska prairie, the mournful wailing of a black woman at Bobby Kennedy's funeral, or the infant cries of the first baby boomers in U.S. maternity wards. The evocative American sounds I favor tend to be informal.

I prefer sounds made away from the microphone and the recording studio, far from the electronic media outlets and formal stages. I lean toward the music of experience, the melodic notes found in the details of daily life. I hear the teenage SuperAmerica clerk saying "have a nice day" to the 73rd customer of the afternoon, the minor-league baseball fan insulting the umpire, the weary mother at twilight calling her kids inside for the evening, a farmer telling his wife money's going to be tight again this year, the fat kid doing cannonballs into a municipal swimming pool, a young couple making out in the back seat of a Dodge, a cop telling a drunk to put his hands against the hood, an old cedar chest opening in an attic, men laughing on the curb outside a corner bar, the stern call of a father on an autumn Saturday telling his boys to put the football down and finish the chores.

America is an alluring canvas for the broad brush, but it's experienced on different levels, by people at every strata. We tune in at different frequencies, hear unique sounds, collect disparate treasures, concoct our own mental time capsule of the decades gone by. Mine may not have the same sweep or scope of the Library of Congress. But I'm on my desert island, not theirs.