Speed Trap At The Crossroads

July 19, 2010

Were Robert Johnson’s original recordings mastered at an increased rate of speed? A recent Soundcheck episode on WNYC dredged up Guardian journalist Jon Wilde who recently dredged up an old rumor about the Johnson recording speeds. Story goes that either through technical inadequacies or through the producer’s decision to make the recording more ‘lively’ and ‘energetic’, Robert Johnson’s 29 extant recordings from two separate periods were all mastered 20% faster than actuality.

The rumor stops short of claiming that William Shakespeare was the producer on all of the recordings (or should that be that there is absolutely no way Shakespeare could have produced all of them), but the content-hungry nature of the internet demands that such attention-grabbing statements receive attention. I’ll leave the rebuttal in the capable hands of a follow-up show that aired the next week:

Both of these shows produced a lot of good discussion on the concept of what constitutes a ‘faithful’ recording. A number of the responses tended towards the ‘you cannot reproduce reality so this argument is meaningless’ vein. Despite my years of PoMo Aversion Therapy (widely known as FRED), I’m sympathetic to such a point of view, but I’d also like to consider it in a slightly different light.

One that assumes that things actually matter.

Because they do.

What I mean here is that, yes, trying to portray reality is like a one-legged man trying to dropkick a greased pig that is constructed of ghostly straws. However, this unreliability or uncertainty about ‘truth’ shouldn’t be a deterrent to decision or action. In the world of audiovisual archiving, there are any number of preservation practices which will never fall under a single resolved answer as to the correct method. Reasonable, empassioned practitioners are bound to disagree because they care deeply about doing what is best.

I’m reminded of a recent New Yorker article about the detection of art forgeries (“The Mark of a Masterpiece”). Parallel to the narrative thrust of the piece is a comparison of methodological approaches. One favors more vague notions of distinction, expertise, and taste. The other favors a more analytical or scientific approach. These sames sides play themselves out in the Robert Johnson debate — those that say the newly slowed down recordings just sound right, and those that consider the difficulty of obtaining consistently modified recordings over time and location given the technology of the period. Both are convincing arguments…depending on one’s own inherent predilections, that is.

As media archivists and preservationists we are at the crossroads of technology and art, of maintaining the object and maintaining the essence. Assessing and achieving a balance there upon is one of the great challenges of the field. And I’m not so sure a resolution is desirable in this case. Robert Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads to achieve that perfect balance of emotion and skill. All that got us was a sliver of recordings that we’ve struggled to preserve and that have engendered unending arguments about their value and authenticity. I’m not sure if we can afford a step down in generational loss from Johnson’s deal to what our own may result in.

— Joshua Ranger