Lost And Found
by Erin Sheehy
illustrator Rosie Roberts
The dead speak to me nearly every day. Pleading, moaning, and wailing, these harrowed shades shriek until their voices distort and crackle, drowning in a current of pops and hisses. Sometimes one comes to me alone, other times a piercing chorus of female phantasms trails him, keening, and I am gutted, moved to the point of tears. Not out of pity, but because these shadowy voices speak to my own living sorrows, and the knowledge that I too will be lost someday, my ghostly laments slinking through the darkness, searching for an ear. I’ve never cared much for ghost stories. I listen to soul music instead.
Since the invention of sound recording devices in the late 1800s, the ability to hear a person’s voice after they’ve died—once a ghastly and mystifying prospect—has, for most, lost its eeriness. We listen to dead people’s songs all the time without thinking twice. But is it not still an unearthly experience? When I listen to a stirring piece of music, my skin prickles and my insides shudder; sometimes I cry. I find it fascinating that I can have such an immediate visceral and emotional response to the trace of a human voice, the voice of someone long dead and out of reach. And yet, I don’t think my reaction is all that unusual; from La Llorona, the apparition in white who wanders the streets in Mexico, wailing for her drowned children, to Dickens’ Ghost of Marley, clanking his chains on Christmas Eve, society’s tormented souls and their audible laments grip people to this day. I’ve begun to understand my intense connection to old sad soul songs as somehow related to this lure of the spectral: I’ve always liked these songs precisely because they seem ghostly, nearly lost to history.
One of the early critiques of recorded music, that today we accept as a given, was that it didn’t sound the same as a live performance. Now we have separate aesthetic standards for studio recordings, which, though they’ll never sound “live,” are often expected to sound crisp and full and have their own semblance of realism. But in many old soul and R&B records, with all that fuzz and all those crackles, the singer only reaches us through a palpable haze of noise. I like to translate it visually as seeing someone through the sizzling waves that rise from hot asphalt. And the sound always seems to clip the most at a song’s trembling emotional peak: when Eddie Bo wails to the girl who did him wrong, “Don’t you know baby, you’re going to be somebody’s fool too,” or when, in “Lost Someone,” James Brown really loses it, pleading, “Help me, I’m so weak.” Or in any number of singers’ “oohs” and “yeahs”—not the ones that act as punctuation, but the searing, pain-filled “oohs” and “yeahs” that stand in for a whole chorus. I like the idea of someone singing with such force that they cannot be captured by machine, but also, I like knowing that I never even heard the note that was actually sung. Behind a curtain of static, the voice becomes that of a phantom. But its intensity hits me immediately and lingers.
Plenty of older recordings across all genres sound grainy and time-buried, but I find the disquieting vocals of soul make it especially alluring. Certainly I love the music itself, too. The major chord progressions, smattered with blue notes that tug the song into a state of unease. The way phrases still tend to resolve themselves, satisfying like a gospel song. And the instrumentation: I grew up on the sounds of electric guitar and bass, and I always like the scream of audacious horns when a track has them.
But the voices are what really pull me in. I love them less for their virtuosity than their expressiveness—in fact, I prefer slightly flawed singing voices. I’ll always take Otis Redding’s sandpaper warbles over buttery Sam Cooke, and sometimes I’d even rather hear Gladys Horton—a little flat and a little behind the beat—than listen to Aretha at her finest. The grating tension of overbearing strings, shrill backup singers and that flagging, hoarse voice makes something like a Marvelettes ballad—and many lesser-known, lower-budget ballads—seem sadder, sometimes even ghastly.
What makes these old soul and R&B tracks all the more haunting to me is that the origins of many of the disembodied voices are such mysteries. During the postwar popular music boom, countless young musicians laid down a track or two and then vanished. Their songs may be unearthed in some basement, attic, or barn, but their story often remains buried.
In New York City, on any given night of the week, you can find a reeling crowd at some bar or warehouse party, dancing, drinking, or moping to the tune of these lost and found records. I’ve often caught myself, while in the midst of one of these crowds, smiling loosely and staring off somewhere, at nothing in particular, mesmerized by this phantom music. Once I snap out of this trance, I sometimes approach the DJ to ask what he’s just played. He’ll know the name of the song and the artist and the record label—it’s all right there in front of him—but you might be surprised at how often even a true connoisseur will know little else. I’ll go home and search online for the artist, look them up in the archives of magazines or even academic journals in case some historian or journalist has scrounged up a biography. If I’m lucky I’ll find information on the song, but at least in print, the life of the artist is usually long forgotten.
With the advent of the internet, there’s been increased interest in solving the mysteries of what happened to these forgotten artists; the information age has brought out the investigative reporter in each of us. Record lovers have tracked down some of their favorite long-lost artists roofing in Philadelphia, preaching in Chicago, tending bar in Oakland. Sir Lattimore Brown, reported to have died in the 1980s, was found in a Mississippi hospital after Hurricane Katrina and, upon recovery, he returned to the stage after nearly thirty years. The cross-dressing Canadian soul singer Jackie Shane, long thought to have been murdered in Los Angeles, recently turned up in Nashville, living as a woman. From a basic human standpoint, I’m glad that these artists have received some overdue recognition, and I’m excited that lost art, lost stories, even lost people can be found. But there’s also this morbid and fantastical side to me, one I’ve only recently become aware of, that wishes they were never found. It’s the part of me that doesn’t want to hear a real person, wrinkled and smiling, sing, “If I could be with you forever, my restless heart would never roam,” because it means much more to me when I pretend these words are the longings of a lost soul.
Though I was never one for traditional ghost stories, as a child I was mesmerized by society’s undead. The kidnapped, the vanished, the lost, Anastasia Romanov, the Lindbergh baby, the little girls on the evening news. I remember studying the world map in my Amelia Earhart picture book, tracing the dotted line that tracked Amelia’s flight path and lingering on the point where it abruptly stopped—the last place we were sure she had existed. At that point, somewhere near New Guinea, Amelia became something like a ghost to me, for there was a chance, especially to the child’s mind, that she was still out there, wandering the earth.
When I came home from school I would study the “Have You Seen Me?” postcards that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent to my house, fascinated by the age progression photo on the right-hand side of the card that showed what this child, who sometimes hadn’t been seen for over a decade, might look like now. The digitized faces didn’t belong to real people—these children were most likely dead, and even if they weren’t, they certainly didn’t look like these empty approximations. But I still liked to imagine these phantoms, wandering the city unnoticed, full of sorrow and secrets. I felt, staring at these cards, like I was looking at ghosts.
Once, when I was very young, my parents found a woman in our backyard, crying. It was nighttime, and she was sitting on an old redwood stump, weeping and talking quietly to herself. They didn’t tell me about the incident until years later, but when they did, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I can still imagine her: tall and frail, glowing in the blue moonlight, swollen lidded and tangle haired, weeping outside my window, alone in the world.
Sometimes, when I listen to old songs, I try to picture where the artist recorded and performed: in rundown studios and honky-tonks, at King Records, the Royal Peacock, or the Club Alabam. I try to see the girls in the front row, the red stage lights, the steam rising from a packed house. But when I hear a truly piercing ballad, I envision the singer in an immense darkness, glowing blue as if under a spotlight, or the moon of my childhood fantasies. The great songs transcend their contexts. They lurk outside your window at night, wailing, asking unanswerable questions.