There are many projects in Digital Humanities which need active participation from a community of users in order to grow. The most famous and staggering example is Wikipedia, a vast Encyclopedia of human knowledge produced, edited and updated by its own users, generously donating their time and expertise to make it an invaluable resource for millions of people. New technology has enabled the interconnectivity of scattered users throughout the world, based not on geography but on the interests of those people. Clay Shirky spoke of ‘cognitive surplus’, the generosity of these scattered users uniting for a common goal, contributing to a collaborative project of some kind, using their own free time, resources and expertise to build something for the common good.
There are also many projects in Digital Humanities which seek to digitise archived material to give it new value. Once text is digitised and collated in a computer system, it becomes possible to perform text mining and other technologically advanced techniques to obtain new meaning and insights from the material.
Music is a special case among these archived materials. A computer algorithm cannot analyse and extract meaning from a sound recording to the same degree that it can ‘understand’ text. For archived music, human ears and listening is required. Metadata is often attached to a music file. In the case of a wax record from a hundred years ago being transferred to .mp3 or .wav format, the kind of dry information that is typically attached will not answer the kinds of questions a musician, or indeed a casual listener, might want to ask.
I would contend that music itself is alive. Songs are not static and unchanging, good songs are malleable things. A strong melody can be transposed in style from jazz to classical to rock. It can survive and thrive in different time signatures, at different tempos, on different instruments. A good song can be reinterpreted and reimagined to suit the sensibilities and peculiar gifts of the musician or musicians reworking it. A hundred different singers will sing it a hundred different ways. Just listen to these strikingly different versions of the same song. It was recorded by influential R&B outfit The Orioles in 1951, by Bing Crosby and The Paradise Isle Trio in 1954, Buffalo Bills in 1961 and the final version was performed by The Fralinger String Band earlier this year. Across these different versions the song went from soul to soft jazz to barbershop to bluegrass banjo/string band. And the first recording I can find of this song is by Henry Burr in 1914. Interestingly, Henry Burr recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in 1927. You could say he was the Elvis of his day.
Music, more than most literary forms, can have an immediate emotional impact. It is a uniquely personal and emotional form of human expression. I recently read a thought-provoking post entitled ‘Emotion, Archives, Interactive Fiction, and Linked Data’ on Mark A. Motienzo’s blog. In it, he examines the idea that archives can be repositories of emotion, appealing not merely to the academic or the intellectual parts of our minds, but connecting very powerfully with our emotional cores. It occurs to me that music archives have the power to move us like no other archives.
As a musician and songwriter myself, I’m very interested in old songs. What made them different from songs today? What makes a song timeless? The archived music from 1914 is fascinating. In terms of sound quality, it’s sometimes grainy and muffled. The old recordings are scratchy, the bass end is missing, the overall sound fidelity leaves an awful lot to be desired. Apart from the sound quality, I’m struck by how different the vocal stylings are from what’s common today. Most singers then were accustomed to performing without electrical amplification, they projected their voices to fill large rooms in an operatic style. Backing music was typically ornate and orchestral. The modern drum kit barely existed yet, most songs had none, and the rhythm would slow down and speed up in response to the crescendos and mood of the vocal performance. All of these features make these songs very different from most modern songs.
Part of my exploration of music archives has been to find songs that still feel relevant, though they were being performed a hundred years ago. The process of finding these songs has been quite organic. I don’t have specific criteria, I’m just looking for songs that I like. I want to undertake a project that allows me to indulge my passion for music in a hands-on creative way. The idea of methodically cataloguing music archives or some such other typically-academic project was intimidating in its scale and would likely never be completed. There are thousands of archives on the Internet, some in private collections only available to certain academic institutions and/or paid subscribers. I found the idea of reinterpreting one song at a time much more exciting. The idea becomes more exciting still if lots of people decide to do it – it can become a community of curators and creators. When I sat down at my piano and figured out the chords to some of these songs, they came alive again. Immediately, as musicians do, I was thinking about how I would rearrange and rework them to suit my own peculiar gifts and sensibilities. Compositionally, I found the chords interesting, sometimes jazzy, sometimes presciently modern in feel. Some very sophisticated musical ideas were hiding behind those scratchy old recordings. I felt like I learned a lot in the process of reinterpreting them. And I found it so enjoyable, I thought perhaps other musicians would enjoy it too.
Music recording software has allowed many people to have a functional recording studio in their home. There’s a legion of bedroom producers out there who are making incredible music across all kinds of genres. I began thinking how brilliant it would be to harness some of that talent and creativity and direct it to an archive-revival project, taking those old songs and reworking them into something new and unique. Picking a hundred years ago as a starting point will ensure most songs are out of copyright, allowing musicians to experiment with them however they please. In 1914, recorded music was in its infancy. That’s a good place to start. That narrow time-frame will make this a focused cohesive blog. Hundred Years Late will be a forum for musicians to showcase their talents and share the songs they found most interesting. Contributors will be encouraged to write about what they have recorded, why they picked the song, any historical background, links to the archived version (where possible), lyrics, score, chords etc, anything the musician wants to include. Other visitors to the blog can comment, perhaps contributing other historical information or links to further resources on the song.
As the collection grows, the links to various scattered archives will start to amass as contributors and enthusiasts find more archived material. Ultimately this will make the blog a valuable resource about where to find music from this era. If this project aims to mirror the archives a hundred years later, it will be an incomplete picture. Not every archived song will grab the attention of modern listeners and inspire musicians to record a cover version. But it will encourage engagement with music archives and salvage from obscurity some absolutely wonderful songs that have a lot to offer modern audiences and a lot to teach modern songwriters. If it works like I’m hoping it will, it can be a vivid, creative and vibrant community. The more musicians, contributors, followers and enthusiasts we can attract, the better the resource will become.
To get the ball rolling, I’m going to upload a couple of songs I’ve recorded. Each blog entry will include background info contributed by the musician, a link to the source version in an archive (where available), the contributor’s version of the song in some streamable format (YouTube video, Soundcloud widget, anything WordPress-compatible). Hopefully other user comments will provide further metadata. This ‘music-blog’ style arrangement allows the contributors to host the music however they please and retain control of it. It also seems to be a manageable format from my point of view. If musicians email me with their work, I can compose the posts in a consistent format and maintain the focus of the blog as a Digital Humanities project and a resource on archived music. I’ve posted a video on YouTube that introduces the project and outlines its objectives. It would be good of you to share it, especially among Digital Humanities practitioners, lecturers and students and most importantly, musicians who enjoy a challenge.
If you like this idea, please help me run with it. Tell people. Tweet and talk.