The clip above is from When the Song Dies, a documentary short I learned about from my father-in-law. I wish I could embed the whole thing (you can watch it here), because it’s well worth the 15 minutes. Though music does play a part, the story is much bigger, focusing on cultural mortality and how, when the last person who knows a tradition or song dies, that thing is lost forever. It’s a brutal thought — as true and scary as thinking about your own death. Imagine that you’re the only one in your family who knows the melody to a song that’s been passed down from one generation to the next, only there’s no next generation to teach it to. That’s the situation in which some of the documentary’s Scottish subjects find themselves.
I’m not sure if the director was thinking about this when he was working on the short, but I found myself wondering if this type of cultural death is, itself, dying.
The oral tradition did history’s heavy lifting for ages, but record-keeping is everywhere now. We do it constantly, and not even for the sake of keeping a record of things. We post pictures and stories for a zillion different reasons — to make people laugh, to entertain ourselves, to make money — and in doing so, we’re saving more information than previous generations could have dreamed of leaving behind.
As sad as When the Song Dies is — and make no mistake, it’s a rough 15 minutes — it feels profoundly natural. As individuals, we need to forget things. It’s essential for normal, efficient brain functionality. Is our collective memory so different? How much less efficient are we, together, because we’re burdened with unprecedented amounts of data our brains want and need to kick out? Maybe this is a sophomoric navel-gaze, but I have to think that there’s a downside to being able to look up bits of trivia anywhere, anytime (aside from annoying the people you’re having dinner with). That, as data clouds thicken, a fog could be forming, diminishing visibility in a way we can’t yet understand.
Sometimes forgetting is just plain bad. I left an amazing album off my Top 25 of 2013 list, thinking it came out in 2012, and it’s killing me. There’s a long and uninteresting explanation I won’t saddle you with, but I want to go on the record saying that The Low Branches’ One Hundred Years Old was one of my favorite albums released last year. Here’s one of its standout tracks, “Like A Glove.”