But many of Lead Belly's original recordings no longer exist. The tapes that held his last sessions were beyond saving after the oxide on the top of the record fell off rendering it unplayable. Because conservators couldn't get to them earlier, those songs are lost forever. Let's repeat that — some of these songs, among the most significant in music history, are less than 100 years old but still lost to us for all time.
All sound recordings are equally at risk of disintegrating. Before digital technology, record companies created reels for albums by recording different sections of songs, then splicing those sections together using tape. Some of those original tapes are stored in several collections at the Smithsonian Museum.
"You can only imagine what has happened to these pieces of tapes," Jeff Place, an archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklike and Cultural Heritage told me. "Over time, every one of those tape breaks is going to break, and it's going to take an hour to transfer three minutes of a recording into a digital format where we can store it. So there are albums that take a whole day to save."
Place's job is to save sounds by whatever means necessary, so that recordings from 50 years ago sound as clear as they did when they were made — and sometimes even better. This means preserving the original recordings in the best possible condition, and for many albums, it means transferring the sound of the original recording to a digital format that will be easily accessible in the future.
Without sound archivists, we would not only lose access to early recordings of Elvis and R&B, as albums decayed and technology changed, but we'd also lose radio broadcasts from 50 years ago and oral histories of lost neighborhoods of New York City. Without archivists, we would be losing sound rapidly; instead, we're gaining it.