There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when several-minute segments of music were served up on giant black platters. This was the era of the 78s, shellac discs that spun at 78 rotations per minutes. Much of that material has been piled in basements and storerooms for the past many decades. But now the ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC) and Internet Archive is bringing those long-abandoned recordings back to life in an astonishingly ambitious endeavor called the Great 78 Project.
If you visit their website, you’ll find more recordings than you can possibly sort through, all of them available for free streaming. The count is currently at over 35,000, with more added daily. ARC claims its 78s holdings number 200,000, all of which need to be transferred to digital, then uploaded to the site. The physical records have been donated to ARC by libraries and individuals; ARC's partnership with Internet Archives has made the digital transfer project viable.
Rather than reviewing the recordings themselves (a hopeless and frankly pointless task), I want to talk about the public site and the experience of accessing it. Once you’re at the home page, you’ll click “Listen” on the upper right. That takes you to a list of all the thousands of available holdings. Yes, you could just start randomly clicking. That’s fun, believe me: on the day I’m writing this, the top of the list is somebody called Chubby Jackson and his Orchestra, playing a pretty hep swing number called “The Happy Monster.”
But it’s also essential to be able to search and browse in useful ways. I’ll start from the perspective of searching. First question was, what do I search for in a database of 100-year-old rarities?
I tried a famous name: Ellington. I was surprised how many results that yielded, but after a few seconds I realized I’d unintentionally stepped outside the 78s project. I was seeing all the tracks available at Internet Archives, from all periods and source formats. On the left margin I had the option to tick a box next to “78s,” which yielded 295 results. But those were a combination of formats, including some videos (so why were they tagged as 78s?) and some had a “Borrow” or “Wait list” button (the Great 78 Project does not lend out its material, so these must be part of a different collection).
Returning to the Great 78 Project home page, I figured out my error. I’d missed a small box on the left margin labeled with a pale gray font: “Search this collection.” A-ha! I’d done a general search of the whole Internet Archives because that was the most obvious search box. So I tried the Ellington search again, and this time got nothing but 78s. Here’s a great one from 1934, called “The Saddest Tale.”
Of course, you might have no idea which artist you want to hear – discovering hidden gems is part of the point of this collection – so I tried entering other types of search terms. The word “Broadway” yielded over 200 results. Some were songs with the word “Broadway” in the title, like the silly “Broadway Polka” by Ray Henry and His Orchestra. Some were by artists with “Broadway” in their name, such as a fox trot called “Burning Sands,” recorded in 1922 by somebody called the Broadway Syncopaters.
And then there were items tagged as Broadway music when they were uploaded. For example, there’s a rather smarmy crooner version of “Stranger in Paradise” (from the musical Kismet) in an undated recording by Bud Roman and the Lew Raymond Orchestra.
As you’ll know if you use many library catalogs, sometimes searching is not the best way to find information, especially if you're open to the unexpected. The other approach is browsing.
Browsing works through the use of tags attached to individual catalog files. The trick, though, is that every time a particular tag is used, it must be entered into each item in exactly the same way. Otherwise you end up with a mess. The Great 78 Project clearly uses non-librarian volunteers to upload the tracks and build the files, so it’s a mess. Let me explain:
Starting again from the complete uploaded collection of 35,000-plus entries, I hunted for a list of browsing tags to choose from. I found it under the header “Topics & Subjects” on the left margin (that left margin is jam-packed!). The tags were 78rpm, Popular Music, Jazz, Instrumental, Hillbilly, and Country. Beneath those was an arrow and the word “MORE.” So I clicked on that, expecting the list to expand a bit. Instead I got a huge pop-up, four-column list of hundreds of genres -- not in alphabetical order! And capitalized words were distinct from capitalized, so one could choose either the genre “children” or (randomly, two columns away) “Children.”
By clicking a blurry little icon at the top I made the entries alphabetical, but now with capitalized words first, so “Children” and “Children’s” were on page 1 of the list, but “children” and “childrens” (no apostrophe?!) appearing as separate categories on page 3.
This is a big problem. When it comes to serious research, a library is only as good as its catalog.
You can also browse by year, which is interesting. The list of dates is --you guessed it-- in the left margin; it bafflingly spans 1900 to (I kid you not) 2026. There’s also a list of artists as random and maddening to use as the genre list.
Despite these organizational drawbacks that might affect scholars, The Great 78 Project offers an infinite amount of entertainment to lovers of old recordings. Did I mention that, because their copyrights are expired, you can download most of these tracks as well as stream them? The variety is staggering, from opera arias to harmonica solos, from comedy bits to tangos. Here are a few of the more fascinating things I’ve dug up:
As you can see, there’s something here for everyone with a curious musical mind. But be warned: it’s a mesmerizing rabbit hole twice as addicting as YouTube. So clear your schedule before you jump in.
[Sorry: I've got to stick in my two pfennig's worth. The noise-reduction is nonexistent on these cuts, and emphasize every stereotype of 78s as being hissy and crackly. I've heard 78s---especially acoustical recordings played back through big Victrola and Edison credenzas---that sounded more real and alive than multi-million dollar sound systems. I'm glad these records are available, but I'm a little disappointed in the presentation.---Grumpy Ed.]