WASHINGTON — As crackly recordings of fox-trot tunes poured from speakers at the Library of Congress on Tuesday, Harry Connick Jr. sat motionless except for a single index finger that pounded out a swinging beat. He was rapt.
"This is all completely new to me," he said. "I'm going to go home and play this stuff for my wife and kids."
The Library of Congress and Sony launched a Web site, LOC.gov/jukebox, on Tuesday that allows listeners to stream a vast archive of more than 10,000 pre-1925 recordings of music, speeches, poetry and comedy. Much of it hasn't been widely available since World War I, a significant chunk of them because of complex laws controlling ownership of sound recordings, which did not become subject to federal copyright laws until 1972. Call it America's iTunes.
Officials billed it as the largest collection of such historical recordings ever made available online. The library hopes to add tens of thousands more songs to the National Jukebox in the coming years.
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Connick helped mark the occasion by playing I'm Just Wild About Harry on a piano during a news conference in a library reception room. The jukebox hosts a version of the song by composer Eubie Blake.
The collection, which is drawn from Sony's back catalogue, is a bewildering assortment of stuff. Listeners can hear the first-ever jazz release, Livery Stable Blues by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, as well as 32 recordings of yodeling. There is a reading of the classic Casey at the Bat and a forgotten speech by President William Howard Taft on U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico.
Most of all, there is loads and loads of music: Famed opera singer Enrico Caruso and composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin are all represented, as is music of the John Philip Sousa Band conducted by its namesake.
Sony, which claims to control more historical recordings than any other of the three existing major label groups — EMI, Warner and Universal — has made available all pre-1925 acoustic recordings originally made for the Victor Talking Machine Co., the vast majority of which are not now in circulation. The next phase of the project will add early discs made for Columbia Records, which also is under the Sony umbrella. The project offers no direct financial gain to Sony, although the company will retain the rights for the commercial release of anything newly coming available.
"The absence of these recordings has created a sort of cultural amnesia. I think the jukebox will lead to a rediscovery of these artists," said Patrick Loughney, who oversees the library's National Audio-Visual Conservation Center campus in Culpeper, Va.
The jukebox allows listeners to create playlists of their favorite tracks and share them via Facebook or other sites. The library is creating a series of playlists curated by historians and well-known artists.
One major component of the project, which has been about two years in the making, is a digital discography of every Sony-owned acoustic 78-rpm recording, organized in a searchable database, prepared at University of California-Santa Barbara. Each entry contains extensive information ranging from personnel on each recording, the date and locations they were made, down to which take from the recording session is on each disc. The library's files also will be the source for thousands of pages of documents and images of original labels, artist biographies and other text and photographic material.
Users also may thumb through a virtual copy of the 1919 version of The Victrola Book of the Opera, which describes more than 110 operas, including plot synopses, illustrations and lists of recordings.
Of the recordings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that are now streamable, "only the Caruso stuff is currently available," said Gene DeAnna, head of the library's recorded sound section.
"The only artist whose work has remained in print since it was recorded is Caruso," added Matthew Barton, the library's curator of recorded sound. "You've always been able to get Caruso, in whatever the current formats were. But he wasn't the only star of the day, he wasn't the only opera singer recording — but he's the only one that has been consistently available from the rights holder."
That speaks to copyright issues that have kept thousands of recordings off the market even when there have been small labels that would be interested in issuing them to the niche audiences.
Because sound recordings didn't get singled out for federal copyright law protection until 1972, ownership of pre-1972 recordings is complicated by an often impossible-to-unravel web of state or common laws governing them. A proposal is making its way through Congress to bring earlier recordings under the 1972 law to enhance public access and ensure that at some point the recordings go into the public domain. As the law stands, many recordings dating as far back as 1890 will not enter the public domain before 2067, 177 years after they were made.
"These recordings are the foundation of the American sound," said James Billington, the librarian of Congress. "They helped transform the musical landscape of the 20th century."