Were I to give you the name John Henry, would images of a “steel-drivin’ man”, beating spikes into the ground, pushing against all odds to prove man over machine come to mind? Furthermore, would a pulsing hammer reverberate through your thoughts, keeping steady tempo along the lines of singing men at work, on top of which dances the playing musings of a guitar and a voice carrying the story of John Henry’s rise and fall along the railroad tracks? If I presented figures like Casey Jones, the devil and his young competitor Johnny, even ancient Greek figures like Achilles or the characters falling from the pages collected by the Brothers Grimm, would a similar spectacle occur? Behind, alongside, and all around these old tales can often be heard the faint echoes of musicians past. Notes carrying the words of times forgotten, of heroes, heroines, and their triumphs, have lasted through the ages.
Along with some of our (humanity’s) earliest experiences with tales and folklore, music has accompanied the plot, driven the story and influenced the action. When poets and bards of the ancient Greek society traversed the Mediterranean, lyre in hand, they sang of the beauty of Helen of Troy, of the tragic death of Achilles and all the temptations of Odysseus. As it has been found, the poets of this grand civilization, carrying the label of Aoidi, often sang epic poems like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. Perhaps this could be for the poems to be more easily remembered, or to add an extra flair of entertainment to the performance. Thus the tradition of oration and aural performance continued in harmony throughout the world and throughout the course of history.
When the composers of the Romantic era, like Richard Wagner and Franz Schubert, cried for a story’s influence, they found refuge in the old songs and folklore of their nation’s past. At the time of the 19th century’s first steps, the western world had emerged from an era of enlightenment. Science, reason, and logic ruled the 18th century and planted the seeds of progress within the tides of civilization which forwarded the industrial revolution (as well as many other political revolutions). However, the artists and people felt a new push against such a philosophy and fought to get back to nature, longing for the subjective experience and mystics. Here, with a wind of nationalism, the artists turned back to their roots and delved into the expansive culture that was the varied assortment of European tradition, stories, and song.
Practices of this sort didn’t end with the 1800s or even with the establishment of the industrial revolution. America had its own tale to tell and to sing. All across the country, new styles of music have formed in the swirling concoction of the American experience. Some most prominent were the blues, country, and folk, of which there was no shortage of storytelling. The greats of these genres sang of outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, or of tall tales like Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Aaron Copland, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Johnny Cash are just a few of the names of musicians who reached into the pool of American lore and wrapped up the hearts of the American people with ballads of these characters. Now, at the start of the 21st century we have seen the ebb and flow of stories in song and for all, that’s been made the tradition goes on. I for one am excited to see the future of this art.