Old Time Music, Sign Painters & Getting Your Inspiration Thirdhand

At some point in my post-college semi-career as a musician I had an epiphany: the people I had the opportunity to open for weren’t listening to their peers’ songs. They were devouring Bill Withers melodies, Motown arrangements, and any number of decidedly non-current sources of inspiration.

Guys like me were listening to whatever was in fashion. We were getting our inspiration thirdhand, riffing off the riffers, skimming the top. And it was evident in our output because we could only dispense what we knew, and what we knew was a shadow of what was.

These folks weren’t looking for what was hot and now. They weren’t listening to us. They were archeologists, digging up the past. And then they were alchemists, creating something from all that dust and bones.

Everybody ought to listen to Benny [Carter]. He’s a whole musical education.
Miles Davis, interview with Down Beat (May 25, 1961)

Benny — “King” to many jazz musicians — had been a professional sideman, bandleader, and composer for 20 years before a young Miles Davis moved to New York and began his ascent to household notoriety. But for all of Miles’ innovation (and there was plenty) he still looked back for inspiration.

The good ones always do.

This revelation started to have ripple effects for me in all kinds of creative endeavors. It followed me into graphic and web design where I saw world-class designers drawing inspiration from the pioneers of the field — Bauhaus typographers, Swiss grid masters, iconic 1960s corporate identities. They used what they excavated from the vaults, secondhand, to build something new and innovative. Exhumed, resurrected, remixed, remade.

How It Plays Out

I could spend a day browsing the web for modern takes on vintage lettering and type treatments, or even Googling modern designers who have done the same. I’d end up with hundreds of browser tabs full of clever letterforms, oddly-endearing ligatures, interesting logo lockups, font pairings and pixel perfection. A pinteresting wealth of inspiration.

Or I could go outside and find the real thing:

Photo credit: Arik’s Foxy Lady from perennial favorite Naz Hamid

Secondhand inspiration can do wonders in the hands of committed craftsmen. But thirdhand inspiration, when we borrow from the borrowers and never look elsewhere, is always slightly blurry around the edges. It lacks focus. The universe favors entropy. Energy gets lost in every creative exchange, like a game of Telephone.

As poet Saul Williams says about modern hiphop MCs:

Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency.

Go back, further, to the source(s). Then go forward.