Yesterday I read a very intriguing article from the Wall Street Journal called “Famous Today, Forgotten Tomorrow,” by Jim Fusilli. With the recent PBS documentary, Bing Crosby Rediscovered, and a new biography of Bob Hope called Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Mr. Fusilli was struck by the ephemeral nature of fame. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were as famous and important in their day as the Beatles were in Mr. Fusilli’s and he wonders “how future generations will think of the musicians of the ’60s who advanced popular music in their time.”
He goes on to remark that “As difficult as it may be for some to consider, it is likely that a day will come when people won’t value highly today’s long-standing rock-and-pop giants.” He mentions the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. “Enamored with their own heroes, it is unlikely that these generations to come will intuit the breadth and importance of the great ’60s songwriting musicians unless prompted by biographies that revive context and do so with an emphasis on the brilliance of their art.”
It is a sad reflection; the entertainers who are so important in our lives, often mean very little to our children and grandchildren. But then, the ’60s generation had very little use for their parent’s music, so it cannot be surprising when their children feel the same way. As Alexander Pope once said in his An Essay on Criticism: “We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow; our wiser sons no doubt will think us so.” We could substitute ‘fools’ with ‘fuddy-duddy’ or ‘out-of-touch,’ except it would mess up the metre.
And sadly, I think Mr. Fusilli’s fears are coming true already. I am in my mid-twenties – though I realize that I am not the most culturally aware person in the world – and Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder are only names to me. I don’t know what they’ve sung or what they look like or what their importance in popular music is. My father knew. I asked him about them after reading the article and he was able to tell me about Dylan, at least, and sing me several of his songs.
Now I have to be honest, here; I’m a little prejudiced. I don’t like ’60s music or ’60s movies or books written after the 1960s (except nonfiction; I truly believe that nonfiction keeps getting better and better written and more engaging). As far as I’m concerned, the ’60s ruined everything, artistically speaking (as my Dad said to me, “tell us how you really feel about it”). I think it’s a form of rebellion. My parents’ generation were so revolutionary that there’s nothing left for my generation to do but become reactionary.
But since I don’t really like contemporary music (too close to the ’60s), there was nothing for me to do but go backwards: Classical Music, Opera, Gregorian Chant, Jazz, Big Band, the Great American Songbook.
The trouble with the 1960s-70s is that it is both too old and too new – too old for me to remember and too new for it too feel like a cool new discovery because I am still living in the world they created. But when I discovered the 1920s-40s, it was like a whole new world opening up before me, and I fell in love.
But this made me realize something else. Often times, people who are huge in their own era are forgotten, discounted in the next generation, and rediscovered in the following one. This happened to Bach. In the Baroque era, Johann Sebastian Bach enjoyed an excellent reputation as one of the premier composers (and organists) of the era. After he died, during the Classical Era when Mozart and Haydn reigned, his work was considered fusty. But many composers still knew and admired him and his works and reputation were revived, especially by Felix Mendelssohn, who was a Romantic Era composer. And now, most everyone has at least heard of Bach; he is so identified with his era that the Baroque Period is considered to have ended with his death. He seems about as established as Shakespeare, Mozart, Homer, and Michelangelo. People may not always understand his significance, but he has become an integral part of our cultural language.
Of course, Bach is really the only Baroque composer we remember today, unless you are a student of Baroque music. But in Bach, his era and the musical and cultural innovations of his era live and he serves as a portal for anyone who is intrigued by him and wishes to learn more.
Perhaps at some point Bing Crosby will become the Bach of his era. Perhaps we will only remember the Beatles from their era, but at least today we still have the recordings and books are being written, which means that anyone who wishes to discover more will have a very easy time of it.
Because as much as I complain about how much I feel like a woman out of time, I live in precisely the right time. There has never been a better time to be a Great American Songbook or Classic movie fan or lover of classic literature. Ebooks and sites like The Gutenberg Project mean I can find almost any book I want in the public domain and download it (any book before 1923) and even books not in the public domain have proved extremely easy to find, whether through buying them (used or new) or getting them through an inter-library loan (the best way ever!). And no longer are we limited to watching those few classical movies that are shown on TV. Now, a whole new set of films are being discovered, partially thanks to TCM. New classic movies are being restored and released every year on DVD and Blue-ray and I have seen many more on YouTube that aren’t out on DVD yet. It’s the same with music. YouTube has truly revolutionized our ability to discover and share culture. There are songs, TV clips, movie clips, full movies, interviews, tributes, documentaries. And I have been very pleased at the number of biographies written about the composers and singers I love.
I was reading a book by Michael Feinstein, a singer who has dedicated his life to preserving and sharing The Great American Songbook, and when he was a boy, not only was it not cool to like that kind of music, but it was also much more difficult to find that kind of music. He had to haunt dusty shops looking for old records. Now, it has been so remarkably easy for me to expose myself to my favorite era and fortunately, even if my generation or the next generation should discount the ’60s, it should be just as easy for subsequent ones to discover them again.