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The Entropy Blues: Contemplating our Artistic Mortality

Artistic Mortality Chris Donald Alan Lomax Blues Sputnik Faith Arts

In the internet age, it’s easy to feel like nothing will ever be truly lost. If we picture our lives decades in the future, it’s easier to imagine ourselves fighting for our old pictures to be deleted, than mourning over lost memories that we’ll never be able to recover.

But you don’t have to look back very far to find an era where the opposite was the case – where the idea of your work ‘lasting’ through time was a far from sure bet, especially if you were an everyday folk artist. And there’s something I find fascinating about near-forgotten music and recordings. I have a feeling there’s something valuable to gain from that sense of fragility and limitation, in a world where you can’t rely on the cloud to back you up forever.

The folly of phonographers

The phonograph was the earliest technology that could record and play back sound. But early phonograph companies didn’t think of recordings as cultural artefacts: allegedly, they sometimes sold off recording masters to be used as roofing shingles.

Those early records had a limited practical shelf life, too: the top oxide layer could peel away over time, rendering them unplayable. In order to save old recordings, Archivists in the Library of Congress developed a laborious technique of holding down the oxide and re-recording the master one rotation at a time. But in other cases, the oxide just got lost, leaving a useless disc.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ heritage radio station WWOZ faced the forces of nature on a much more disastrous scale: the flooded studio was left with shelves of tapes drenched in water and muck. A team from the National Recording Preservation Foundation worked through the reels, drying them out by baking them in a pie oven. Many of them recovered just enough that they could be played once before falling apart: the team captured them to a digital format on that single play.

The privilege of recording

There have been less innocuous reasons your music might not survive through the ages, too. In South Africa, Rodriguez’s The Establishment Blues was reinterpreted as an anti-apartheid anthem – and the government literally scratched out the track from any imported copies of the record. (Luckily, it flourished underground anyway). In the Sixties, local radio stations in the States blacklisted particular records in response to civil rights protests – and some of those records disappeared completely. The National Recording Preservation Foundation is currently trying to track them down again. In fact, they estimate that as much as 82% of all commercial recorded music is unavailable to the general public, sitting unplayed on a dusty shelf somewhere, if copies still exist at all.

That’s before you even take into account the question of access to the recording process – something that has been very, very different in previous eras. The majority of musicians in the 1930s or 40s wouldn’t have made it to a recording booth, whether for practical reasons or social.

There were attempts to counteract the biases of the industry: ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax set about interviewing and recording unknown blues and gospel musicians in the American Delta as early as the 1930s. Lomax could be seen lugging around early recording equipment weighing over 500 pounds as a sign of his reverent obsession. His recordings are still intact, and listening to them now feels raw and otherworldly. Each is a two or three minute window into another time and place, along with a performer’s name, and scant little else. The scrappy recordings feel like a liminal space, a grey area in between ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’.

They feel voyeuristic in a way – I’m viewing these musicians dimly, as a tourist to their experience, separated by time, place, and particularly privilege. They are ‘folk’ musicians in the original sense: not as a genre, but the phenomenon of local artists making work for their time and locality.

That’s why all of this does, after all, relate to us troubadours in the digital age. I doubt we worry much that our recordings might crumble into dust in the next 50 years (though I’ve lost my fair share of files). But even if our art lives on digitally, it has its own mortality.

Firstly, instead of the physical entropy of analogue recordings, we have a gigantic, continental databerg that will swallow us up into anonymity. Secondly, our cultural moment will move on; rapidly, you’d think, given the impending end of our current Western era. Like the Delta musicians, we’ll become an historical artefact. 

Being present in our work

So, what we’re left with is the present. Is that depressing, or is it a helpful spur? Others on this site have posed the question of our work’s ultimate future, beyond broken records and flooded studios. I think Sputnik generally chimes with ‘incarnational’ theology, the worldview that says creation, and bodies, and physical reality, and the things we make, are all important, and sanctified. So, yes, a rebuttal to all this might be that what is lost is not lost forever, but somehow part of the world to come. One might also point to a Van Gogh, whose work was picked up after death and inspires awe decades on. 

But we can’t control any of that. My gut feeling is that a sense of our limitations is useful for something. Like any brush with mortality, hopefully it focuses us more vividly in the here and now, with a childlike (or Christlike) appreciation of the moment. To enjoy our own work for what it is, enjoy the sharing of it, and to pay attention to the work of others that you get to see or hear – that’s a gift in itself. In Lomax’s recordings, perhaps that’s what captures the imagination the most: the sense of place, a present-ness that happened once, and will never be again.

In the life of the world to come, will I really be thinking about the work that was? I hope I’ll be too occupied making mind-bending work in the Eternal Present.