I was listening to a podcast yesterday on the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song I think is about ten years away from being voted America’s favorite folk song, but which lingered in relative obscurity for almost fifteen years until a series of random events launched it into the cultural stratosphere. (Side note: Did you know Cohen wrote over fifty potential verses for “Hallelujah,” only a few of which we hear today?)
As a little-known novelist, I’m always confounded by which works do and do not manage to crawl their way toward appreciation. It’s both exciting and infuriating to know that there’s no formula for art that gets noticed. But for the most part, I think that most works that make it onto a larger stage deserve to be there for some reason. It’s usually not the case that these are the greatest pieces ever written/sung/drawn – though some are truly extraordinary – but for the most part, they capture our collective attention because they perk us up or make us think or startle us into delight. There isn’t always a high correlation between quality of work and the intensity of attention we pay to it, but there’s always a reason, nonetheless.
Which brings me to wonder: What about those works that seem as marvelous to us as anything else out there, but linger nonetheless in obscurity? And if great works do eventually reach great audiences, how does that happen, and why does it take so much longer for certain pieces to come into the light?
One thing that worries me about works getting out there in our contemporary world is that because there is a such a glut of information available to us, it’s easier to tune most of it and just return to the same trusted sources. This is fine, but it prevents accidental and incidental discoveries. When I was younger, I discovered songs because people I literally overheard them – on a radio, on the subway, on the street, anywhere and everywhere music was being played. (Though I owe my out-of-fashion adoration for folk music to my mother, who blasted Bob Dylan and Joan Baez almost constantly during my formative years.) Anyway, while I’m sure unintentional discoveries still happen, you almost have to work for them. I’m just one of millions who find it so much easier to just pull up iTunes and see what’s trending in any given musical category. I’m usually not disappointed, and it’s a quick way to satisfy whatever musical hunger has driven me to look for new fuel.
But just as convenience foods can be satisfying and, at least in Northern California, quite healthy, there’s something far more magical about, say, stumbling across a bed and breakfast in a strange town and waking to homemade sausage being cooked in a kind stranger’s kitchen. I’m not exactly sure what the artistic equivalent of that might be, but at the very least just makes me wish we would remember how worthwhile it is to talk to each other, one-on-one, about what moves us. That’s still my favorite way of discovery. I love that electrifying feeling you get when you see the passion in another person’s eyes for a song or book or poet that you’ve never heard of, that itch to get home as quickly as possible to look it up and somehow hold on to that delightful conversation indefinitely by diving into its subject yourself.
So if you’re reading this, perhaps you might just take a moment to share the song that got away, that one recording that’s always at the top of your list and seems to be nowhere on anyone else’s. For me, it’s Damien Jurado’s “Ohio.” I love it as much as I love Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – a song I could probably listen to on an indefinite loop – and for the same reasons. It’s also simple and profoundly soulful, an alchemical mix of open-heartedness and indescribable depth. I just love it so much, I can’t even really tel you. It makes me want to just lie down and call it a day, musically speaking, to throw up my hands in defeated satisfaction. And for some reason, no one I know has heard of it. Maybe this is just because I’m running in the wrong circles. (That would be kind of awesome; to discover a whole new musical community that’s been listening to songs that would turn my world around.) But I think it’s just one of those marvelous, hidden songs that have yet to come to the surface. So tell me: What do you feel only you have heard? What stirs you beyond measure, hidden behind some strange fog? Please share!