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NPR Arts & Life

The King Of Zydeco, The Supremes, Merle Haggard Among Recordings Joining Library Of Congress

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFTON CHENIER SONG, "BOGALUSA BOOGIE")

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's "Bogalusa Boogie" from 1976 from the late Clifton Chenier. He was often called the king of zydeco music. It's just one of 25 new sound recordings deemed historically and culturally significant enough to join the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Every year, the library sorts through millions of recordings of music, speeches and other items and decides which are important enough to be preserved as a national treasure at the Library of Congress.

We wanted to hear more about this year's selection, so we've called Matthew Barton, curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress. And he's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

MATTHEW BARTON: Thank you. It's so nice to be here.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit about "Bogalusa Boogie." I know that the registry includes a number of cajun albums. But our - some of our resident Louisiana people say that this might be the first piece of zydeco music. Does that sound right?

BARTON: Yes. On the registry, you know, it was Clifton Chenier primarily who we can thank for making zydeco what is today and for taking it around the world, for taking the older music of the Louisiana Bayou, the mix of French and African, African-American, Creole, Caribbean, you know, this incredible mix of music - you know, for bringing it into the public postwar era and embracing all of these other styles.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFTON CHENIER SONG, "BOGALUSA BOOGIE")

BARTON: And this particular band was called The Red Hot Louisiana Band. And I was privileged to see them a couple years after this, 1978. It's just what it says, red-hot. You know...

(LAUGHTER)

BARTON: You know, not only do you get Clifton Chenier's wonderful accordion and singing. Those rhythms that you're hearing from - I'll play it on the revoir by his brother Cleveland and the drummer, Robert St. Julian - it's just this fantastic summation of where the music had been to that point and where it was going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOGALUSA BOOGIE")

: (Singing) Well, the Bogalusa boogie.

MARTIN: How about - here's another one. I confess I was a little surprised to hear that this one just made the cut this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO")

: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby don't leave me. Ooh please don't leave me all by myself.

MARTIN: How could this not already be in?

BARTON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: This is not the...

BARTON: Yes...

MARTIN: ...First...

BARTON: ...Not the first Motown song, but it's the first...

MARTIN: But it's the first Supremes song.

BARTON: ...By The Supremes. I know.

MARTIN: I can't even understand. I just...

BARTON: I know, I know...

MARTIN: Process this for a minute.

BARTON: We had to address that. You know, it's not their first record, obviously. It's not even the first hit, but it's the first big hit for them. And it was very big.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Now that I surrender so helplessly, you now want to leave - ooh, you want to leave me.

BARTON: It really helped define Motown, though it's not the first Motown hit. But it came out, I believe, in December of 1964, in the middle of what we call the British Invasion now. And it really appeared that American music was getting buried at that time. And yet, here are The Supremes with this song that just stands apart from everything else that's going on at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO")

: (Singing) Baby, baby, where did our love go? And only your promises all the love forever more. I've got this...

MARTIN: The registry is also historical speeches, it's programs, it's sound effects. There's a program I wanted to play for you. It's the civil rights radio program...

BARTON: Oh yes.

MARTIN: Destination Freedom. It's a radio show that ran from 1948 to 1950. And it's really considered ahead of its time. And I'm going to play a little bit, and then I want you to tell me why.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "DESTINATION FREEDOM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Destination Freedom, dramatizations of the great democratic traditions of the Negro people is brought to you by station WMAQ as a part of the pageant of history and of America's own destination freedom.

MARTIN: What did this program do?

BARTON: It was the work of a man named Richard Durham. Usually, they would take subjects from African-American history, usually individuals, and tell their stories in a radio drama. These two episodes actually that we put on the registry were rather different. The first one is prejudice is personified as a person and put on trial and made to defend itself. And it's a fascinating bit of radio drama. And then the other is this drama about a lynching, you know, the events leading up to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "DESTINATION FREEDOM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Say Joe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, Mr. Harris, want a cab? I was just getting ready...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The thing is, see, Joe, I just wanted to see if you knew about it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) About what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The lynching.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh - oh, I heard some guys kidding around.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The kidding's over. The lynching's on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) When?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, in a few hours, about nightfall, I reckon.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Gee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're going to join the boys, aren't you?

BARTON: So, you know, that was quite daring for radio at the time. I should emphasize this didn't go out over the network. It was produced locally in Chicago. It did eventually get a broad hearing. The programs were heard in various stations around the U.S. And the program in recent years has become better known.

It really represents a period in radio where some of the best work is being done. Partly because of television, you know, radio is kind of reaching out and trying to do things that are more adult, not just adventure and comedy and soap operas, you know, to do things that are really incisive and relevant.

MARTIN: Interesting. So finally, before we let you go, there's another song that caught our attention in part because its author, country music legend Merle Haggard, died just last month...

BARTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...on April 6, just weeks after the registry was announced. The song is called "Mama Tried." And it's a single from 1968. Let's play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) The first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome some whistle blowing and a young'un's dream of growing up to ride.

MARTIN: Is this Merle Haggard's first time making the registry?

BARTON: Yes. He's really one of the greatest songwriters and one of the greatest artists - not just in country but in American music.

MARTIN: Why this one?

BARTON: Well, it's another signature song for him. But also, I think it's the one that really demonstrates, you know, one of his great strengths as a songwriter, getting to the point, leaving you with something that just stays with you. I mean, Ernest Hemingway once famously won a bet, you know, that could write a novel in one sentence? And he did it. Well, I think Merle Haggard did something like that again in "Mama Tried" with that chorus. I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

: (Singing) I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. No one could steer me right but mama tried, mama tried. Mama tried to raise...

BARTON: The first time I heard that, it just stopped me in my tracks. And I was probably a teenager who didn't think too much of country music at the time. But wow - that really got my attention.

MARTIN: That's Matthew Barton, curator of recorded sound for the Library of Congress and president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. He was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you so much for joining us.

BARTON: My pleasure. Thank You.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

HAGGARD: (Singing) Mama tried to raise me better but her pleading I denied... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.