One of the earliest recorded Greek song in the United States has been inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Smyrneikos Ballos by Marika Papagika was one of the titles selected this year into the prestigious registry.
Born on the Greek island of Kos in 1890 (disputed), Papagika immigrated to New York City in 1915 with her musician husband, Gus.
She began recording in 1918 and quickly became one of the most popular singers in the Greek-American community, eventually recording more than 200 songs, often accompanied by her husband on the cimbalom.
“Smyrneikos Balos,” a lament for lost love that is also a couples’ dance, was one of her most popular songs that she also performed at her namesake club on 34th Street and 8th Avenue, then the heart of the Greek immigrant community in New York City.
Each year, the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress chooses 25 recordings showcasing the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage in order to increase preservation awareness. The diversity of nominations received highlights the richness of the nation’s audio legacy and underscores the importance of assuring the long-term preservation of that legacy for future generations.
The addition of 25 recordings this year, which includes the Papagika song, brings to 575 the total number of titles in the national registry, which selects recordings worthy of preservation based on their cultural, historical and/or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage.
Here’s a chronological list of this year’s selections (they must be at least 10 years old to be eligible), with descriptions provided by the Library of Congress:
Thomas Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)
This is quite possibly a record of the oldest playable recording of an American voice. It is a survivor — the earliest extant document that captures a musical performance. The recording is on a piece of tinfoil, lasts 78 seconds and was made on a phonograph in St. Louis on June 22, 1878, just months after Edison invented his magic recording machine. For years, the foil endured and went, not surprisingly, unplayed. But in 2013, the Museum of Science and Innovation in Schenectady, New York, announced that physicists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had recovered the sound from the slip of shiny silver. The result was a surprisingly listenable musical and vocal interlude.
“Nikolina,” Hjalmar Peterson (1917)
In this song, a young Swedish husband tells of his comical difficulties with his father-in-law. The tune was brought to America by Peterson (1886-1960), who settled in Minnesota and became a hugely popular entertainer among Swedish-Americans. He recorded “Nikolina” three times in the teens and ’20s, selling more than 100,000 copies. In 1936, Ted Johnson, a former member of Peterson’s troupe, rerecorded it with traditional instruments, and the song became a hit again, the first of many successful revivals.
“Smyrneikos Balos,” Marika Papagika (1928)
“When the Saints Go Marching In,” Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (1938)
In this first jazz version of the famous hymn, Armstrong, in the guise of “Rev. Satchelmouth,” introduces this unusually atmospheric recording. From J.C. Higginbotham’s preaching trombone to Satchelmouth’s respectful vocal (accompanied by some members of the “congregation”) to the soaring and majestic trumpet solo, the performance commands attention. Armstrong fondly remembered “The Saints” from his childhood in New Orleans. His democratic attitude toward music saw little difference between the church and the dance hall, and as a result, he received backlash from clergy and fans for daring to mix the sacred with jazz. While that juxtaposition may seem mild today, the music certainly is not; it stands as a timeless testament to Armstrong’s many gifts. Branford Marsalis noted that “The Saints” was the first song he and his brother, Wynton Marsalis, played together. “I can’t imagine New Orleans’ culture without this,” he said. “It is an indelible part of our history.”
Christmas Eve Broadcast — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (Dec. 24, 1941)
On Dec. 24, 1941, President Roosevelt lighted the White House Community Christmas Tree for the first time as the leader of a nation at war. The attack on Pearl Harbor had occurred 17 days earlier, and though Americans were uneasy, it was a glimmer of hope for the people of Great Britain, who had been fighting the Nazis since 1939 and were staring across the English Channel at a Europe increasingly dominated by Germany. Prime Minister Churchill made the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to visit FDR and address Congress. While staying at the White House, Churchill took part in the lighting of the Christmas tree. He and Roosevelt were heard coast-to-coast on the major radio networks and by short wave to much of the rest of the world. Churchill observed, “Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.”
The Guiding Light (Nov. 22, 1945)
The Guiding Light was the longest-running scripted program in broadcast history, running from 1937 until 2009 on radio and television. The program was notable as an archetype of the highly populated radio “soap opera” genre and as a breakthrough success of the innovative and prolific scriptwriter, Irna Phillips, whom many credit with inventing the genre. Although the later TV series revolved around the Bauer family, the original radio version focused on the Rev. John Ruthledge and his congregation in the fictional community of Five Points. Ruthledge’s reading lamp, visible to all who passed his house, was the program’s namesake. Of the show’s hundreds of episodes, the registry adds this installment aired on the first Thanksgiving after the conclusion of World War II. With Ruthledge still serving overseas as a chaplain, his friend, the Rev. Dr. Frank Tuttle, gives a moving sermon to a packed church.
Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Odetta (1957)
This is the debut album from an important voice in the folk revival — featuring a mix of blues, spirituals and ballads. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta was a major influence to a generation of folk singers, including a young Bob Dylan, who has cited this album as what convinced him to trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic when he heard it as a 15-year-old in Minnesota. This 16-song LP showcases Odetta’s extraordinary vocal power, which she always manages to temper with great emotion. Among the selections: “Muleskinner Blues,” “Jack o’ Diamonds,” “Easy Rider,” “Glory, Glory” and her concluding spiritual trilogy: “Oh, Freedom,” “Come and Go With Me” and “I’m on My Way.”
“Lord, Keep Me Day by Day,” Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959)
Influenced by and spurred on by her mentor, Mahalia Jackson, Walker formed her own — and now legendary — gospel group, Albertina Walker and the Caravans, in 1947. Soon, Walker would be nicknamed “Star Maker” for the incredible talent she fostered through her group. Shirley Caesar, Bessie Griffin, the Rev. James Cleveland and Inez Andrews, among others, all began with the Caravan. Meanwhile, Walker herself would inherit the title “Queen of Gospel Music” after the passing of Jackson in 1972. This recording was one of Walker’s signature songs and performances — a heartfelt, soulful and sometimes bluesy testament to her faith.
Roger Maris hits his 61st home run (Oct. 1, 1961)
On this day, Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s home run record set in 1927, and Phil Rizzuto’s radio play-by-play call of the at-bat remains an iconic moment in sports broadcasting. From the moment when the New York Yankees slugger stepped to the plate, Rizzuto captures the excitement and anticipation of a crowd ready to watch history being made. The fans at Yankee Stadium boo when the first two pitches miss the strike zone, then explode when Maris connects on the third, prompting Rizzuto’s trademark shout of “Holy Cow!” amid the cheers. “I have long felt that the sports moments, which continue to resonate decades later, are largely shaped by the way they were captured on radio and television,” said sportscaster Bob Costas. “While Phil Rizzuto, a beloved former Yankee shortstop, was not a classic announcer in the fashion of Red Barber, Mel Allen or Vin Scully, his radio call on this day was both descriptive and infused with excitement. For baseball fans and historians, it still echoes down the corridors of time.”
Aida, Leontyne Price, et al. (1962)
This superb recording includes Price as Aida, a role she performed more than 40 times. Harold C. Schonberg, critic of The New York Times, wrote “no soprano makes a career of acting. Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has.” PBS viewers voted her singing (in a MET production) of the Act III aria “O patria mia” as the No. 1 “Greatest Moment” in 30 years of Live From the Met telecasts. That performance, which marked her retirement, ended with 25 minutes of sustained applause. The star-studded cast of this recording also includes Rita Gorr (a splendid Amneris), Robert Merrill (Amonasro) and Jon Vickers (Radames).
“Once a Day,” Connie Smith (1964)
Smith has been called one of the most underrated vocalists in country music history. And she’s greatly admired by her peers; Dolly Parton once said, “There’s only three real female singers: Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” Smith’s rise began with her first single, “Once a Day,” written by Bill Anderson after he heard her at a talent contest. He helped her get a recording contract and, for her first session, wrote “Once a Day,” an achingly sad song about a jilted woman who misses her lover only “once a day, every day, all day long.” Recorded at RCA’s famous Studio B in Nashville, Smith was backed by session musicians and members of Anderson’s band, The Po’ Boys, including one new player, steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, who would go on to become a Nashville legend himself. Producer Bob Ferguson wanted the steel guitar to be right up front and Myrick delivered, so much so that Smith credits Myrick with “creating the Connie Smith sound.” “Once a Day” was Smith’s biggest hit and signature song.
Born Under a Bad Sign, Albert King (1967)
King, with his signature Flying V Gibson guitar played in his distinctive left-handed manner, was one of the blues’ greatest guitarists, and this album is considered his best. Its title song became a blues standard and was soon recorded by Eric Clapton and Cream. Other great songs include “Crosscut Saw” and “The Hunter.” After this LP, recorded in Memphis with backing from Booker T and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns, King was performing at the Fillmore East and West and gaining a large, enduring following.
Free to Be … You & Me, Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972)
This album is remarkable both as a snapshot of social change with regard to gender roles and expectations in the early 1970s and for the wide array of talent it assembled. Thomas explained in a 2003 interview that the inspiration for the project came from her niece and a desire for children’s educational materials that did not impose rigid and arbitrary gender roles and expectations. She expected modest sales at best, but the album quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, ultimately achieving gold, platinum and diamond status. Those sales were likely due in part to Thomas’ own celebrity status but also because the album’s message resonated with a large segment of American society, young and old, male and female. Appearances by talent as varied as Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, Dick Cavett and Rosey Grier (in “It’s All Right to Cry”) further ensured appeal to a wide audience. The album and follow-up book led to a 1974 ABC special. When starting the project, Thomas noted, “We said, ‘You know what, let’s just change the world one 5-year-old at a time.’ We thought we were talking to the children in the ’70s. We didn’t realize we were talking to children in 2020.”
The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff (1972)
In 1972, reggae singer Cliff starred in the first Jamaican-produced feature, The Harder They Come. Around the time of the film’s release, the soundtrack made its way to American audiences and has been credited by Rolling Stone magazine as “the album that took reggae worldwide.” Cliff has six songs on the album, including the title track and the seminal “Many Rivers to Cross,” which has since been covered by myriad artists including Cher, John Lennon, UB40, Annie Lennox and Percy Sledge. While only the title track was recorded specifically for the soundtrack, the album collected numerous reggae stars and presented essential works in the genre to a new global audience. Others reggae pioneers and luminaries appearing on the album include Toots and the Maytals (“Pressure Drop,” “Sweet and Dandy”), Desmond Dekker (“Shanty Town”) and The Melodians (“Rivers of Babylon”). The album has appeared on every version of Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 albums of all time.
“Lady Marmalade,” Labelle (1974)
The elemental trio of Labelle — Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash — first formed in 1962 as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. By the early ’70s, they were simply Labelle and would release six albums under that name. Their biggest hit was this French-infused dance track written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan and produced by Allen Toussaint and Vicki Wickham. Inspired by a few choice streets in New Orleans, the song has been covered several times since its release, still unwittingly prompting listeners to sing its famous refrain phonetically: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?,” often unaware of its true meaning.
Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne (1974)
Although Browne had some success with his first two albums, he was still primarily known as a songwriter in 1974, his works having been recorded by Ronstadt, Tom Rush and the Eagles, among others. Late for the Sky changed all that. It was recorded more quickly and for less money than his previous album, and neither of its released singles charted. But none of that mattered. The maturity and depth of Browne’s writing did. Brilliantly supported by his touring band, especially David Lindley on guitar and fiddle, the lyrics deal with apocalypse, uncertainty, death and, especially, love and the loss of it experienced by someone transitioning to manhood. In “Fountain of Sorrow,” Browne wrote, “I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you/In my lessons at love’s pain and heartache school …” Bruce Springsteen called Late for the Sky Browne’s “masterpiece.”
Bright Size Life, Pat Metheny (1976)
Metheny’s debut album signaled a new direction for jazz in the mid-1970s — not only for Metheny but also for bassist Jaco Pastorius, drummer Bob Moses and Gary Burton, who went uncredited as a producer at the time, though he wrote the album’s liner notes. In their only album together, all participants built on the musical traditions that preceded them to create a new expression of jazz distinguished by their own styles and personalities. The album saw modest initial sales, but the passage of time has made its significance clear.
“The Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog (1979)
Written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, who received an Oscar nomination for their work, the song from The Muppet Movie was performed by Kermit (voiced by Jim Henson). Since then, it has been covered dozens of times, from Judy Collins in 1980 to Kacey Musgraves in 2019, but the Kermit/Henson recording remains the iconic version. It has been used as a theme song by many charitable organizations, and its plaintive message about dreams and their fulfillment remains enduring. The song is about “the immense power of faith,” Williams said. “We don’t know how it works, but we believe that it does. “Sometimes the questions are more beautiful than the answers.”
“Celebration,” Kool & the Gang (1980)
Founded in 1964 by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell, Kool and the Gang (formerly the Jazziacs or the Soul Town Band ) had already had hits with “Ladies Night” and “Jungle Boogie” when they released their 1980 album Celebrate! containing the group’s most famous and enduring song. Led by J.T. Taylor’s spirited lead vocal, “Celebration” would be their biggest hit and quickly became a feature of national celebrations at the 1980 World Series, the 1981 Super Bowl and the 1981 NBA Finals. While others, including Kylie Minogue in 1992, have released covers to great success, the original remains a staple of every party DJ’s set list — be it at a high school dance or a 50th anniversary party.