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American Women: Resources from the Recorded Sound Collections

Music Recordings

Bain News Service. Olive Kline (1887-1976) an American soprano who recorded for Victor Records between 1912 and 1935, seated at a piano. Between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2015 and National Jukebox, 2015). Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Women performers have been recorded since the earliest days of radio broadcasting and sound recording. The breadth of the division's music recordings is so extensive, encompassing a century of radio broadcasting and sound recording and including almost all musical genres, that it is possible to give only a few examples of American women performers represented in the collections. The division's particular strengths are in operatic recordings, chamber music, and American music of all types—classical, popular, jazz, blues, folk, country, and gospel.

Researching Music Recordings

Women and women's issues have long been the subject of musical works. It is possible to unearth specific songs that deal with women, their history, and their culture, but it takes some time and planning. As usual, it is best to start with specific performers, composers, song titles, or record labels, but that is not always necessary. Recordings of the feminist anthem “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy (b. 1941) are easy to find, but it is more difficult to find songs about specific topics, such as domestic violence or divorce. The reference books listed below may help in finding songs of interest include discographies, where starting with a name or song title is helpful.

Song titles are keyword searchable in both the Library's online catalog and in SONIC. In the online catalog, Advanced Search is the easiest way to locate recordings. Include "recording" in the second search box to limit your search results to just sound recordings. 

Several Library of Congress subject headings can be used to find music by or for women. “Feminist music” applies to music about feminism and women's rights. The heading “Women's music” is used for musical works composed, performed, and produced by and for women and often associated with the lesbian feminist movement in the United States. Musical works about women are entered under “Women-Songs and music.” To find collections of musical works composed by women search under “Music by women composers” and “Music by African American women composers.”

In the Collections

Bain News Service. Photograph shows mezzo-soprano opera singer Ada Jones (1873-1922) tapping out morse code. 1915-1920. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The first woman to achieve widespread acclaim as a professional recording star was Ada Jones (1873-1922), who was called “the first lady of the phonograph.” With her clear, strong voice and excellent diction, Jones was one of the first women to successfully record on commercial cylinders and discs. Her repertoire included dialect sketches, conversational duets, and comic songs. She and two other great vaudeville and musical comedy performers, Blanche Ring (1871-1961) and Nora Bayes (1880-1928), though now generally forgotten, can be heard on early commercial sound recordings.

Featured Recording

"Some Boy" -- Dave Stamper: composer / Ada Jones: vocalist, soprano vocal / Gene Buck: lyricist

Trumpet virtuoso Edna White (1892-1992), one of the few female instrumentalists in the early days of recording, is featured in a fascinating audio interview about her recording career with Thomas Edison (available only at the Library of Congress).

Eva Taylor (1896-1977), billed as “queen of the blues,” was another early Edison artist whose recordings are in the collection.

Bain News Service. Opera singer Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) in costume for the opera William Tell. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Opera and classical music have been popular from the very beginning of sound recording. The division has an outstanding collection of opera performances from the acoustic recording era featuring many of the top women opera singers of the day. The John Secrist Collection comprises hundreds of commercial operatic music releases from 1902 to 1925, including many rareties. Private collections belonging to opera divas Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967), Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981), Alma Gluck (1884-1938), and Helen Traubel (1899-1972) have significantly enhanced the division's opera holdings. The Robert Orchard Collection of live opera recordings includes recordings of otherwise unavailable operas such as Mary E. Caldwell's (1909-2003) children's operas A Gift of Song and Night of the Star.

Violinist Maud Powell (1867-1920), dubbed a “Victor immortal,” was chosen by the record company in 1904 to be the first solo instrumentalist to record for its newly inaugurated celebrity artist series. The division has every 78-rpm recording made by this influential artist, a gift of the Maud Powell Foundation.

Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Portrait of Leontyne Price, in Porgy & Bess. 1953. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Since 1925, the Music Division of the Library of Congress has presented a series of chamber-music concerts that have featured some of the best American women performers in the country. Since 1940, most of these concerts have been recorded and the tapes held in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. Performers Leontyne Price (b. 1927), Dawn Upshaw (b. 1960), Phyllis Curtin (1921-2016), and other classical music vocalists and instrumentalists can be heard on these history-making recordings. These concerts and musical events are fully cataloged in the Library's online catalog, where they are searchable by name, program title, title of musical works performed, and some Library of Congress subject headings.

Many of these concerts have been digitized and are available online.

Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Portrait of Bessie Smith holding feathers. 1936. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The division's musical recording collections continue to grow, owing both to record companies' compliance with copyright laws that require commercial sound recording deposits and to acquisition activities that build the collections of historical commercial recordings and expand the unique archival collections.

Altshuler Collection

The acquisition in 1992 of the Altshuler Collection of nearly 250,000 78-rpm discs of American jazz and pre-World War II popular music significantly expanded the division's offerings in jazz and blues. Bessie Smith (1894-1937), Mildred Bailey (1907-1951), Clara Smith (1894-1935), Edna White, and Bertha “Chippie” Hill (1905-1950) are just a few of the women who are heard in this collection. Many women performers are also featured on rare 78-rpm “race records,” a term that companies in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s used to describe recordings made for the African American market. An inventory of the Altshuler Collection, combined with several other more recently acquired collections, is searchable by name, song title, and label name and number in SONIC.

More Collections

Other collections that feature many of the great female jazz, pop, and blues vocalists and instrumentalists are the previously discussed AFRTS Collection, which contains rare, otherwise unissued performances; the NBC Radio Collection, which also contains unpublished musical broadcasts; the Newport Jazz Festival recordings that are part of the Voice of America Collection; and the Wally Heider Collection of big-band and West Coast jazz.