Terri Schiavo and Science in the News
"A Talk on the World" by Clyde Lewis

Pop, Skip, Hiss and Forget the Lyrics

I've been wondering (here and there) why the records of the 1920's have been returned to generation after generation, seeming to never quit revolutionizing the way their listeners see (and hear) the world. I may never fully figure it out, but a few of the reasons are surprisingly simple.

My favorite of the old recordings might still be Charlie Poole's "White House Blues." Its effect on me is always overwhelming, but uncanny, mysterious. Let's just say it's a stunning record.

More strange still is that Charlie Poole screws up the lyrics on a dozen occasions in the short span of the record's 3 minutes. I'm even not sure what a lot of the lyrics are, they're such a mess. But this is the cut that I'd pick as The Best Song Ever.

There's a live recording of the New Lost City Ramblers from 1978, I guess, where Tracy Schwarz introduces the next song saying,

Here's a song that Henry Whitter and G. B. Grayson gave to the world, like delivering a million, million, million dollars worth of GOLD all on one side of a 78 rpm record. "I've Always Been a Rambler." As far as I'm concerned, that's about the best song they ever put out. When I first heard that, I think I'd of DIED if I couldn't have gotten at it. And here it is, "I've Always Been a Rambler."

And with that, they strike up their obsessively precise imitation of the cut on the 78. What's most surprising is that Schwarz intentionally slurs the lyrics, making them hard to understand — sometimes I wonder if even he knows what the lyrics are supposed to be. Mind you, this is the song Schwarz feels is the greatest artifact in the history of mankind.

It's clear to me that those gaps are a big part of why Schwarz and I listen to these old scratched records, which were almost always cut in one single take and then released "warts and all." Maybelle Carter used to insist on doing multiple takes until she got it perfect, and then was usually frustrated to find that record executive Ralph Peer had chosen one of the takes with a mistake on it. Peer felt that mistakes caused the listeners to lean in closer and concentrate on the record. He was right.

The effort invested by the listener counts for something toward the listener's enjoyment, and the "gaps" in the records are spaces through which the listener's imagination can insinuate itself into the aesthetic experience. In this sense, the old records act the way modern poetry, painting, dance, and other arts do — they seek to force collaboration between artist and audience by leaving open evocative gaps in their meaning. A lot of people these days think that Bob Dylan figured out a way to turn pop music into modern art after spending years straining to understand the old 78 rpm records from the 1920's.