Celebrate Black History Month on a high note

February 24th, 2021

by Tanya Ulmer, Web Archivist for Archive-It

Many Black musicians have earned accolades while others have yet to be discovered or paid their tribute. This Black History Month, I wanted to uncover some hidden gems by finding and sharing their audio tracks in publicly available web archive collections. I primarily sought audio tracks that replayed consistently on their archived web pages, accompanied by images and text that added context to these musicians’ stories. Here are a handful of websites that fit the score for your listening pleasure:

Curtis Institute of Music – Jazz from Philadelphia

This collection has a surprising amount of historical content to explore from Philadelphia’s jazz scene, which featured greats like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. Many of the “Hometown Heroes” featured on the Jazz Philadelphia website have backed these legends, including saxophonist Sam Reed, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Reggie Workman. The All That Philly Jazz website lists the venues and other landmarks where they all played and hung out. Its blog post on Music and Social Justice  even lets you hear the anthems that have called protestors to action from 1936 on, starting with Lead Belly’s “Jim Crow Blues”.

Capture of Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes series, Laurin Talese

Capture of Jazz Philadelphia’s Hometown Heroes series, from the Curtis Institute of Music’s Jazz from Philadelphia collection.

University of Michigan School of Information – Detroit Motown

The Motown Museum website in this collection tells the story of the Motown Records Corporation, established in 1959 by Berry Gordy and one of America’s most successful Black-owned business in the decades that followed. It signed The Supremes, The Temptations, and The Miracles with Smokey Robinson in its first decade alone. You can see gorgeous photo stock of them and many even more famous Motown stars on this site, as well as a handy timeline to track the progression of the “sound that changed America”. To actually hear some of that sound, play samples from the Official Web Site of The Contours, another early group signed to Motown Records and best known for that fourth track down.

Capture of The Contours Official Website

Capture of the Contours’ official website, from the University of Michigan School of Information’s Detroit Motown collection.

East Baton Rouge Parish Library- Arts & Culture

Looking more for the jazz scene in Louisiana here produced some unexpected delight: that of Osa Atoe. She’s a former punk rock musician featured prominently in East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s community-driven collection, more for her success with her recent pottery career. In this 2018 blog post, Digital Archivist Emily Ward discussed her decision to include Osa’s earlier artistic endeavours in the punk scene for context, and we’re glad she did. As a result of these inclusive curatorial decisions, you can now tune into some of Osa’s musical contributions with Negation’s Weak Artifact (2013) or New Bloods’ The Secret Life (2008).

Capture of New Bloods' Bandcamp website.

Capture of the New Bloods’ Bandcamp page, from the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s Arts & Culture collection.

New York University- New York University’s Contemporary Composers

Holding on the note of diverse contributions made by Black female musicians, more enchantment was found in the work of violinist and composer Jesse Montgomery from NYU’s Contemporary Composers collection. Her piece “Banner” was chosen to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner in 2014 by the Sphinx Organization, an organization for Black and Latinx string players. She was also a featured composer for Project 19, an all-female New York Philharmonic project that celebrated the centennial of the 19th amendment’s ratification. Listen in bliss to “Banner”, “Strum” (her 2006 debut), and Jesse’s other divine harmonies here.

Capture of Jesse Montgomery's Official Website

Capture of Jesse Montgomery’s official website, from New York University’s Contemporary Composers collection.

These audio highlights are by no means an exhaustive list of what is publicly available in our collections. Continue exploring to discover your own unsung favorites from Black History. If you can’t find enough the tracks you’re hoping for, consider filling those gaps with your own archiving, keeping in mind the challenges of archiving audio files.

The technical challenges to archiving the dynamic and often transient web-based audio that underpins collections like NYU’s were the driving force behind the Mellon Foundation-funded program to develop Brozzler, a more “high fidelity” collecting tool for web archivists. Since then, we’ve also introduced the A/V archiving utility youtube-dl into all Archive-It web crawls. Still, the web continues to change and improve how we share these new and historical works, so web archiving tech will need to grow along with it.  This way, we can all make sure these soundtracks and other lesser sung heroes’ songs remain accessible for future Black History Month celebrations.