O J Way Oren Rosenthal Austin,TX

Archiving Part II: What Makes Music Classic?

Posted in Music, The Arts by OJWay on July 17th, 2008 permalink

Note: This entry is the second part of a series of posts inspired by an amazing article called “The Last Verseby Burkhard Bilger from the April 28, 2008 edition of The New Yorker. It tells of two musicologists, Lance Ledbetter and Art Rosenbaum who are scouring the country for the last “old time” folk musicians, uninfluenced by recorded music that began spreading in the early 20th century.

Part 1 is available here.     

When we listen to classic music we often assume this is the greatest music in history and has withstood the test of time. But often the reason that particular music survives is because it was available to the right people at the right time. In every age, works of equal genius to the “classics” have been lost to history.

Johann Sebastian Bach

This almost happened to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. After his death in 1750, Bach’s reputation declined. His work was hardly ever performed, and he was only known to a few devoted music historians. Granted those devotees were the “hip” crowd of the day, including Mozart and Beethoven, but his work was appreciated only by other musicians, and Bach remained unknown to the general public.

 

Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn The one who brought Bach back into the public eye was the composer Felix Mendelssohn. His great aunt Sarah had studied under Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, so she had some old manuscripts. Mendelssohn took it upon himself to champion Bach’s work, and in 1829 he conducted the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin for the first time since Bach’s death. It must have been an incredible performance because it’s credited with restoring Bach’s reputation. We listen to Bach today because his old manuscripts turned up in the right place at the right time.

The Legend of Robert Johnson

Here’s a similar story about the great Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson. When he died in 1938 he had only recorded 35 songs in two sessions in 1936 and 1937, and he sold maybe 5000 records. But one man who had heard of him was John Hammond. He was an impresario who had sought out Johnson in 1938 and eventually booked him for a show at Carnegie Hall in New York City. That might have been Johnson’s big break, but instead Johnson was poisoned in Clarksdale Mississippi by a lover’s jealous husband, and his great talent remained undiscovered.

 

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta BluesBut Hammond never forgot, and in 1961 he persuaded Columbia Records to issue an album cut from old 78s of Robert Johnson called “King of the Delta Blues Singers”. It didn’t sell very well at first, but a few hipsters caught on to the music early. Among those hipsters were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Now Robert Johnson is considered the greatest bluesman of his day, even though he hardly made it out of juke joints in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

 

Tommy Johnson - King of the Delta BluesInseperable from the story of Robert Johnson is the famous legend that Robert Johnson met with Satan at the crossroads and signed over his soul to play the blues and gain mastery of the guitar. Few people know that the same story used to be associated with another Mississippi bluesman named Tommy Johnson, who actually was considered the king of the Delta blues back when the two of them were alive. But once again, we listen to Robert Johnson today because his music turned up in the right place at the right time.

If you want to take a taste test, here are some samples of them both - Tommy Johnson here, Robert Johnson here. I’ll take Robert Johnson, but I’m alright with either of them. 

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