An essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the latest issue of Harper's describes a recently reissued, extremely rare country blues recording called "Last Kind Words Blues" by Geeshie Wiley. At one point Sullivan cites some lines from the song, which he hears as "The Mississippi River, you know it's deep and wide, / I can stand right here, / See my baby from the other side." In the context of the song, whose narrator seems to be speaking with her dead father, the peculiarity of the syntax takes on a spooky literality: the narrator seems half embodied, this side of the river, and half ghost, viewing her "baby" from the other side.
While Sullivan acknowledges the possibility that such a reading pays overly literal attention to the lyrics (Sullivan quotes John Fahey, who - after asserting that the lyrics of these old songs didn't mean much - spends several hours trying to determine what the words are), and while he analyzes obsessive rare-record collecting to some degree, he only hints at one possible reason such collectors might be so compellingly haunted to track down these records. And that is the way that, much like the narrator of the Geeshie Wiley song, sound recordings can open a sort of virtual portal to another time and place.
The art of audio recording, conventionally conceived, tends to stress "fidelity" or "presence," the illusion that the performance you're hearing sounds as if it's taking place right there in your room - but even the highest-fi recordings generally sacrifice sonic literalism for musical purposes. On rock recordings, for example, no one bats an eye when an acoustic rhythm guitar is the same volume as, or louder than, a hugely distorted electric lead guitar, even though that's possible only with differential amplification. (This amplification already departs from the "realism" of the actual loudness of an acoustic guitar, and therefore calls into question whether there's any such thing as the "actual" loudness of an electric guitar. Of course one might argue that rock is the first fully postmodern music, conceived entirely in the era of mechanical reproduction of sound, which therefore never depended upon a hypothetical "real" performance based in real time and space.) I remember reading a fascinating article called "A Bedroom Community" by Franklin Bruno (from the 1997 issue of Badaboom Gramophone: it does not appear to be available online), in which he analyzed the effect of the creation of sonic spaces in recorded music: far too little attention is paid to the way such essentially spatial effects like reverb or echo affect listeners' perception of the imaginary space of the hypothetical performance, or the way even clearly patchwork recordings, dubbed part upon part, sometimes strive to create an aura of performed authenticity through the inclusion of count-ins, stray amp noise, or even mistakes in playing or singing (despite the obvious fact that if the song's made up of multiple overdubs, such "errors" could easily have been removed or eliminated in a subsequent take).
An interesting thing happens when the "fidelity" of a recording is less than ideal. First, there's the question of how that infidelity (secret noises offstage) came to be: through the unavailability of quality recording equipment or technique, through intentionally eschewing such equipment or technique ("low-fi"), or through aging and degradation of the recorded artifact itself (such as an old, scratchy 45). Clearly these things signify differently: the recording that's poor of necessity might convey the artist's persistence, rawness, amateur intensity, etc.; the "low-fi" recording might seek to convey those same things or, more smartly, undercut the assumptions that low fidelity just does mean persistence, rawness, or intensity; and the degradation of the artifact is often thought of as irrelevant to the "real" recording.
This last assumption isn't correct, though. First, although we might try to hear "through" noise and poor signals (and the more experienced we are as listeners, the likelier we'll be capable of pulling off this listening performance), I don't think we can fully escape the crackle of the vinyl or the attenuation of dynamic and frequency range. This is particularly the case with older recordings (whether by "older" we mean scratchy LPs we've owned since our teens, or recordings that are mastered from ancient 78s): I'd argue that the older the recording, the more we tend to hear those sonic accretions as part of the musical experience. It would seem strange indeed if, somehow, a Robert Johnson song were suddenly available in wide-screen, massively compressed, state-of-the-not-necessarily-high-fidelity-art 2008 sound.
One of the peculiarities of recorded sound is the way it can substitute itself for real-time performance even when such a real-time performance was a necessity. (Bruno quotes Stephin Merritt, who refers to the "false realism" of recordings that seek to convey the illusion of a unified sonic space, even though there was never any such space of performance.) My Robert Johnson example is unfair in that way: rather than imagine a Robert Johnson recording that sounds like a modern recording, imagine what being in the room with Robert Johnson playing "Dead Shrimp Blues" might have sounded like. Even though it was 1936, presumably our ears, and the air in the room, would have been every bit as capable of conducting sound waves without the imposition of crackling static as they are now when our friend or roommate belabors an acoustic guitar in the same room with us. Would that 1936 performance sound "right," the unmediated Robert Johnson, with no microphone, no recording equipment's stamp of sonic character, only his voice and guitar in the naked air? I think most people would like to say it would...yet since we know such a thing is impossible outside of science fiction, I wonder if we'd respond the same way to such a recording (if it were possible). I suspect that, just as some people respond to what they perceive as the "warmth" of vinyl, and most respond more positively to the exact same recording if it's louder than another, our history of contact with old, degraded sonic artifacts would mean that ultimately, we'd prefer those over the hypothetical, ultra-cleaned-up recording. No doubt such arguments would be mounted in terms of "authenticity," with claims that our hypothetical sonic clean-up device somehow distorts or cheapens the original sound (as if we'd know what the original sound was). Even though sound behaved in 1936 the same way it does in 2008, the context of a performance's larger sonic world is not the same now as it would be in the world of 1936. (A clichéd citation...but this idea is converging on one reason Borges' verbatim new Quixote differed from the original: though the object is identical, its context is not - and since no object is apprehensible without context, essentially the object is not identical in any real experience.) The removal of the patina of age, which might seem superfluous to the object itself, results in a significant loss.
Specifically, what would be lost is such a recording's ability to open a psychic time-portal in the listener: the sense that while I'm here in 2008, and the Mississippi of time is deep and wide, I can see myself listening there, on the 1936 side. I think this effect is one reason some people are so strongly attached to old recordings: the sound of the time is right there, magnetically arrayed, etched into shellac or vinyl grooves, encoded in cryptic digits of shiny, aluminum-coated plastic that can reflect another world.
The paradox is, that patina wasn't there from the start (except insofar as 1936 recording equipment was less capable of "fidelity" than contemporary equipment). It itself is an artifact of the fact that many such old recordings exist solely on a mere handful of timeworn old 78 RPM records, and it's the patina of such records that we hear. Which is to say, if a record collector or serious fan fetishizes such sound, it's because they hear themselves in the sonic reflection: the years of their and others' collecting, the inevitable wearing down of such records no matter how carefully preserved and packaged, their own obsessions emerging into the air, curatorial and remembered.