(photo by J. R. Rost)
Until he died a week ago Saturday, the last time I’d thought about Chuck Berry had been a few weeks before and it was, as usual, about his lyrics as my emblem for information efficiency — for conveying a lot with very little.
I was re-watching an episode of Carl Sagan’s 1980 show, Cosmos — specifically episode XII, “The Persistence of Memory.” In it, Carl has a dandelion hidden in his hand and plays a game of 20 Questions:
With 20 skillfully chosen questions we could easily whittle all the cosmos down to a dandelion. In our explorations of the cosmos the first step is to ask the right questions. Then, not with 20 questions, but with billions, we slowly distill from the complexity of the universe its underlying order. This game has a serious purpose. Its name is science.
I remembered what Chuck Berry wrote:
Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens, there stood a log cabin made of earth and wood where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode, who never ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play the guitar just he’s like a ringing a bell.
Almost unconsciously, we learn that Louisiana even has a Piney Woods at all, a bit about cabin construction, the main character’s name and aspirations and degree of literacy, and we hear his guitar style in our heads (to prime us for hearing it in our ears immediately after).
In fact, whether you’re in Calabria, Tasmania, or the French Quarter, Berry even describes your location on the song’s fictional map — Louisiana is “way down” from wherever you are.
Sagan’s “Persistence of Memory” episode ends with “Johnny B. Goode” becoming part of the music anthology included on the Voyager Record (in 1977), which so transfixed me in my teens. At some point, during one of my more recent fixations, I realized Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (from 1952) had come to me out of sequence, like a prequel.
Reviewing the evidence — especially Sagan’s astonishing book, Murmurs of Earth — I see no reason to think his NASA team was familiar with Smith’s Anthology. (Otherwise, they surely would’ve included “Moonshiner’s Dance.” Am I right? I mean, didn’t Sagan call this record “Earth’s Greatest Hits”?). They consulted Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress, but seemingly not Moe Asch of Folkways.
Although another longtime hero of mine, Blind Willie Johnson — I first heard his collected works as an astronomy student in Tucson in 1984 — appears on both the Smith Anthology and the Voyager Record, there’s a more surprising connection between the two anthologies. Appearing on the Voyager Record is a field recording made in Peru by John Cohen.
Cohen’s band, the New Lost City Ramblers, had Harry Smith’s sensibilities all over it — his twisted humor, his expressionist evocations, his taste for anything soulful but arcane, his ambivalent self-image as something that might be called a “new lost city rambler.”
If you found a banjo or autoharp in the back of your parents’ or grandparents’ junk closet, they may never have heard Smith’s Anthology, but they almost definitely knew The Ramblers. The band disseminated Smith’s attitudes about America’s musical identity more broadly than Smith did, by orders of magnitude.
After Smith’s vast collection of 78's was acquired by the NYC Public Library, Cohen’s bandmate Mike Seeger and the Anthology’s key booster, Ralph Rinzler, spirited out the non-circulating disks, taped them, and then secretly returned them to the library. This cache became the core of The Ramblers' repertoire — their mother lode, as Rinzler called it.
Later, in 1969, Cohen interviewed Smith for Sing Out!, and the interview seems to have been the folk revivalist community’s first widespread intro to the kind of minds they’d followed over the cliff.
So, along with Willie Johnson’s, Cohen’s cut on the Voyager Record smuggled a bit of Smith’s spirit aboard that NASA rocket in 1977.
If an extraterrestrial civilization ever retrieves the Voyager spacecraft, the vehicle itself, as an artifact, would yield beautiful information about planet Earth and about human technology circa the 1970s. To that civilization, the Voyager Record — with its technical textbook, ambient sound essay, spoken greetings, photos, and music anthology — would be a bonus, like the prize that used to come in a Cracker Jack box.
The music portion would be easy to play back but challenging to comprehend, perhaps initiating deep debates across hundreds of generations.
In that music, I’m sure they’d recognize strings being stretched and vibrated, gas being made to resonate in tubes. They’d know it was some kind of communication, possibly more for us than for them, maybe communication we valued and thought was somehow good for us, maybe something we were proud of.
But I can’t see that they could ever grasp those fluid details in “Johnny B. Goode” — the young string-vibrator vying for wide-spread awareness in his civilization. No matter how advanced the ET’s technology or philosophy, the context of the recording would be unrecoverable and, as such, its meanings would be lost.
I argued in my recent “Amnesia Theater” essay that meaning without context and content takes on a special intensity. Maybe the gone world that made the Voyager’s music would lend a powerful aura to the recordings — music from outer space, music from other spheres of creation directly from the celestial monochord. I think they might hear those sounds as the very finest music in the universe.