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Recording Timeline

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A Sampling of Historic Sound Recordings, 1860-1949

Compiled by Tim Brooks from the National Recording Registry and major discographies. Please note: percentages are the percent of historical sound recordings from each period that are available from the current rights holders (source: Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings).

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates that many or all of the recordings by this artist are unavailable from the rights holders.

Pre-1890

1860 Unknown female vocalist: fragment of the French folksong “Au clair de la lune” recorded in France by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on his experimental “phonautograph,” which could record but not play back sound. Not reproduced until 2008.* (Note: according to the 2005 Capitol v. Naxos decision, this is still under common law copyright in the U.S. and will remain so until 2067.)

1888 Thomas A. Edison: exhibition recordings.

1890-94 (1% available)

1890 George W. Johnson*: first recordings by the first successful African American recording artist.

1890 U.S. Marine Band*: first recordings by the “president’s band,” which was led at the time by John Philip Sousa*.

1894 Len Spencer and the Imperial Minstrels*: first series of recorded recreations of a contemporary minstrel show.

1895-1899 (0% available)

1895 Ferruccio Giannini*: first recordings by an operatic artist.

1897 Cal Stewart (as “Uncle Josh”)*: first of a long series of comedy monologues with continuing characters—a kind of recorded rural “situation comedy”—which were extremely popular with Americans for the next 22 years, before radio.

1900-1904 (1% available)

1901 Bert Williams and George Walker*: original cast recordings by the first black Broadway stars.

1904 Enrico Caruso*: first U.S. recordings by the great “golden age” operatic tenor.

1905-1909 (3% available)

1908 William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan*: first recordings of campaign speeches by presidential candidates.

1908 Various foreign-language artists*: Victor and Columbia each launch major series of “ethnic” recordings by foreign-language immigrant artists, preserving the traditions of many cultures.

1909 Fisk Jubilee Singers*: first recordings of African-American spirituals by the world famous group.

1910-1914 (2% available)

1910 Mormon Tabernacle Choir*: first recordings of the 300-member choir, on location in Salt Lake City, Utah.

1912 Lovey’s Trinidad String Band*: pioneering U.S. recordings by popular Trinidad artist.

1915-1919 (6% available)

1916 Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conductor*: first U.S. recordings by a full symphony orchestra.

1916 Wilbur Sweatman*: first recordings by pioneering African American jazz clarinetist, composer and bandleader.

1917 Original Dixieland Jazz Band*: first widely-popular recordings of “jazz”.

1917 Nora Bayes*: “Over There” sparks a wave of patriotic war songs.

1918-1920 Various public figures*: Attorney Guy Golterman records 28 prominent Americans speaking on public issues, released on Nation’s Forum records.

1920-1924 (12% available)

1920 Mamie Smith*: first classic blues recordings by a black artist.

1924 Paul Whiteman Orchestra*, George Gershwin pianist: “Rhapsody in Blue”

1924 Duke Ellington*: first recordings by the great composer/bandleader.

1925-1929 (11% available)

1925 Louis Armstrong*: many early recordings by the great jazz artist are unavailable.

1927 Early country artists*: first recordings by numerous pioneer country artists at the historic Bristol, Tennessee, sessions and thereafter.

1930-1934 (10% available)

1931 Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, conductor*: experimental stereo recordings.

1931 Bing Crosby*: initial wave of enormous popularity, popularizing “crooning”

1935-1939 (15% available)

1935 Glenn Miller & His Orchestra*: first recordings by the highly popular swing band.

1938 Benny Goodman & His Orchestra*: Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.

1939 Billie Holiday*: “Strange Fruit” directly addresses lynchings.

1939 Frank Sinatra: first recordings, with the Harry James Orchestra.

1939 Kate Smith*: “God Bless America” becomes patriotic anthem of World War II.

1940-1944 (25% available)

1940 Woody Guthrie: first recordings by the folk icon.

1945-1949 (25% available)

1946 Hank Williams: first recordings by the country icon.

1947 Wynonie Harris*: “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” considered by some to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

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