The radiodiaries.org series outdid itself today. Apparently 75 years ago, on November 23, 1936, two men sat down and had their solo performances documented in audio recordings. These men were Robert Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist and singer, and Pablo Casals, the pathbreaking cellist and master interpreter of Bach. They never met in person, but certainly did meet at the crossroads of antiquity and technology.
Their stories are not parallel, but in some ways that lack of a parallel is part of the story. Casals was famous, while Johnson was unknown. Casals was three decades Johnson’s senior. Johnson was recorded on the fly, shoehorned between other quick sessions — he himself reportedly waxed two separate renditions of eight songs in a single hour — while Casals took his seat in one of the premiere recording studios of the day, the Gramophone location in London later made famous by the Beatles’ Abbey Road. (The radio program refers to the studio as Abbey Road, but it wasn’t named that until after the Beatles recording. I am currently reading Geoff Emerick’s memoir of his work with the Beatles, Here, There, and Everywhere, and he confirms the naming chronology.) Casals completed two of the Bach cello suites in his allotted hour. Johnson would be dead in two years, and following a period of fame his recordings would be largely forgotten until the early 1960s, while Casals would almost make it to his 100th birthday — the latter’s recordings would never go out of print, or style, but his versions helped rescue the suites from their previous popular standing as mere exercises.
And both sessions continue to this day to be among the most revered. They seem archaic by today’s standards, so deep is the imprint of recording technology, the hiss and static and other noises that one learns to listen through, but that at their time were nearly invisible (“inaudible” doesn’t do the trick) to their audience. The Radio Diaries episode (MP3) speaks with a variety of informed parties who help us listen back through history, including blues musician Honeyboy Edwards, who knew Johnson, and cellist Bernard Greenhouse, who studied with Casals (both Edwards and Greenhouse died this year). Also heard are Paul Elie, who reportedly introduced the coincidental date to the producers of Radio Diaries, and musicians Scott Ainslie and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. (Elie introduces himself as the author of Sound About: Reinventing Bach, and to my knowledge it has not yet been published.) There are great descriptions of the nature of recording at the time. Greenhouse reflects on the unforgiving nature of wax, which doesn’t allow for splicing and correcting. Also mentioned is how Johnson consciously tailored his songs to the short length of the available technology.
And to tie it all together, Brendan Baker contributed a “mashup,” combining two of the 1936 recordings, imagining the duo as if playing side by side. The term “mashup” suggests a kind of violence, a yoking together, when in fact the result is fittingly lovely and reflective (MP3).
More on the episode at radiodiaries.org.