Just How Much of Musical History Has Been Lost to History?

Valuable original recordings and rare tapes have vanished over the years—a process that Jack White and the National Recording Preservation Foundation are looking to stop.

Katy Winn / AP

Bones Howe ran the tape machines on the first Hollywood sessions for 22-year-old Elvis Presley in 1957. “They drove out west in a stretch Cadillac, all the guys in the band and all their instruments,” recalls Howe, now 80. On breaks from the studio, “they’d drive up Sunset and slow down so Elvis could wave at the girls on the sidewalk to see if they’d walk out into the traffic.”

The sessions went swell, and “All Shook Up” shot to No. 1. One day a few years later, Howe walked in the back door of the studio and noticed a trash can full of tapes. “I recognized a bunch of red and white boxes,” he says, “the original Elvis session tapes I worked on.” He took the trashed outtakes home and stored them in his cool and dark underground garage until after Elvis’ death when RCA came knocking, with a checkbook.

Famous outtake bootlegs like the Beatles' “Back Track” and Dylan’s “Great White Wonder” are thought to have come from studio insiders like Howe. Stories of legendary session tapes tossed, lost, burned, band-sawed, sold for scrap, or left to rot are legion. Since the labels only needed the final mono or stereo mix to make their product—not the piles of tape reels from which it was distilled—why pay for air conditioned warehousing?

In this era where cultural products seem to live forever digitally, the fear of music becoming lost to time may seem distinctly outdated. But efforts to preserve America's audio history have never been more active than they are right now. Jack White has become the public face of these efforts, recently donating $200,000 to the National Recording Preservation Foundation, affiliated with the Library of Congress. He sits on the board with producer T. Bone Burnett, Sub Pop label founder Jonathan Poneman, legendary engineer George Massenburg and other music luminaries. What, exactly, are they trying to save? Turns out, a lot: Their ambitions are nothing smaller than protecting the entirety of America's sonic history.

Concerns about preservation arise whenever the music industry transitions from one audio format to another. Most ears wouldn’t notice the difference between a CD made from original tape kept in pristine condition or a poor copy. But Pink Floyd did. “They caused a huge stink when they heard what the first CDs sounded like,” Massenburg says. “The early analog-to-digital converters were egregiously bad.” Fortunately, Pink Floyd kept their original tapes and they made their own digital transfers to CD.

Not so fortunate were the members of Aerosmith, whose original multitrack tapes from their debut album on Columbia were lost or trashed. They had to re-record their megahits “Dream On” and “Mama Kin.” “It’s like karaoke, except with the original band members," said producer Marti Frederiksen, who has re-recorded tracks for Aerosmith, Foreigner, and others.

Untold tons of original recordings have fallen into the dumpster of history since Thomas Edison perfected the phonograph 125 years ago. “There are stories of early phonograph companies taking apart the masters used to press wax discs so they could be sold as roofing shingles,” White says. “They didn't think a recording was a document of anything cultural. It was just a way to sell phonographs.” Now White owns a Nashville-based record company, Third Man Records, making new recordings using a direct-to-acetate disk technology from the 1930s.

White believes newer digital audio technologies are inferior to older ones when it comes to preservation for the ages. “A lot of the digital formats in the last 20 years have proven to be anything but fail-safe,” White says. “The tapes break or the information can't be retrieved.“

“Natural degradation of recordings is more widespread than willful destruction,” Seligman says. “Time takes its toll as tapes peal and shard, acetates shatter, and old cylinders get moldy.”

The music recording format with the most longevity in history is ink and music paper. “My mother was telling me in the ’30s when she was a little girl you could go to the department store downtown and there was a sheet music section,” says White. “You could pick out a piece of sheet music and the lady running the section would play it for you on a piano.”

As Voyager 1 speeds away from our solar system carrying a gold-plated disc with music of Mozart and Blind Willie Johnson among others, the NRPF goes about its mission back on Earth. “We are charged with looking over the entire nation’s recorded history, and not only music, but interviews, radio news broadcasts, anything that's ever been committed to a recordable media,” says NRPF executive director Gerald Seligman.

That’s a lot of cylinders, discs, tapes and hard drives. For instance, when Michael Jackson recorded his Thriller and Bad albums, “you wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 shelves floor to ceiling full of two-inch tape,” Massenburg says. To house every piece of tape from every important recording session might require renting storage space the size of Rhode Island, “But I wouldn’t trust Rhode Island with the tapes,” Massenburg says.

Boston-based Iron Mountain today maintains underground fortifications around the country where precious recordings from Elvis and the Beach Boys share shelf space with sensitive media from corporations like Boeing. But such expensive digs are only available to a select pack of heritage tracks.

“Less than 18 percent of commercial music archives are currently available” through iTunes, Spotify and other legal portals, Seligman says. “We’re concerned with the other 82 percent languishing out there somewhere, that’s culturally important while maybe not commercially viable.”

Take Maine country music recorded in the 1920s with a regional Down East accent. “Now most people singing country music affect a kind of southern drawl even if they’re from Canada or Australia,” says ethnomusicologist Clifford Murphy. “People forgot about regional country music recorded before Nashville became the power center of the genre.”

The NRPF is hunting down recordings taken off of local radio stations during the 1960’s civil rights protests, which could offer lost glimpses of that era, Seligman says. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Massenburg helped save recordings from heritage radio station WWOZ, some of which were underwater or in the muck. Those that were not beyond recuperation were baked in a “pie oven” at a low temperature and then could be played back only once. But on that one play many were successfully saved to digital media.

Whoever filled a trash can with Elvis tapes over five decades ago doubtless couldn’t imagine the notion of “digital media”—nor compact discs, downloads, re-issues, computer-assisted remasters, or rhythm-based video games. But neither did Howe, and yet luck would have it that he saw fit to save those tapes from destruction. White & co. are hoping that they can take luck out of the equation so that while formats and business concerns change, someone’s always watching to make sure the music survives.