By its very nature, music is an elusive art form.
Unrecorded legendary performances abound, where all that remains are the reports from those (often themselves long dead) who heard it, yet the legends live on.
Caruso was recorded unmiked, and Beethoven was not recorded at all. One of the great modern American masterpieces, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was a largely impromptu performance, and the famous opening smear/glissando was reportedly a tired clarinetist’s jab at Gershwin during rehearsal. Gershwin, 24, added it to the score.
We go to concerts not to hear an exact replication of an earlier recording, something written in stone or in ones and zeros, but to hear what the artist is doing with his work now. Bob Dylan stands in the forefront of artists regularly reinventing their own material. Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking up is Hard to Do,” and Eric Clapton’s “Layla” have two vastly different versions, the electric and uptempo originals versus the slow ballads they later became. The Blind Boys of Alabama sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” forever changing each of these musical “standards” into something else.
Even today, with all our technological wizardry, the original music evaporates into nothingness the instant each note is produced. A sound engineer has literally thousands of knobs, pots, faders, switches and buttons to help capture the “true” music. Then the music goes to the final mix, one for each ear. Stand on one side of any room (at home or in concert) or the other, and you’ll hear different nuances—even acoustic, even live. This issue of Elmore focuses on two very elusive elements of music, Little Richard and the harmonica.
Little Richard has influenced literally thousands of artists, but his chimerical self remains ever-changing, hard to get hold of. Our cover story by Dan Guilfoyle proves that even good intentions and persistence don’t always result in finding hard answers.
In a different way, the harmonica is also elusive. As author Charlie Musselwhite points out, it’s the only instrument where you can’t see what the musician is doing (that also holds true for vocals). But more than that, the harp is all about tone. That word, an intangible, comes up again and again when discussing the harmonica. But what is tone, and is the tone we’re hearing on a Muddy Waters’ digitally remastered CD the same as the tone Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Oscher heard, standing next to that particular musical giant? There’s a chance, but it’s slim.
How does a music lover capture the ephemeral? Stand as close as you can, listen, and remember, because you won’t hear this music again, not ever.
With thanks to Howard Burke, patient Little Feat production manager and FOH engineer.