Online Immortality

Living Digitally Beyond the Before

I never had a chance to see Homer and Jethro perform live and in concert.

It could have something to do with the fact that Henry Haynes, aka Homer, the rhythm guitarist half of the duo, died five yeas before I was born. Kenneth Burns, better known as Jethro, lived until 1989, but you really can’t have Homer and Jethro without Homer. It was vinyl that gave me my first exposure to these two funny guys who played silly tunes decades before Weird Al Yankovic appeared on the scene. Grooves cut in plastic, read by a diamond needle that rustled along the peaks and valleys of the record. You can’t get more analogue than the physical nature of what makes a record work.

…but you really can’t have Homer and Jethro without Homer.

But maybe I should back up a second and explain who and what I’m talking about. Homer and Jethro were two musicians who parodied popular country tunes from the 1940s on into the 60s when their popularity started to wane. In that time they entertained audiences on radio, television, and through records with their “educated hillbilly” nature which was borne of the fact that they were both jazz musicians, not country singers. Jethro played mandolin better than some of the greatest people in bluegrass and Homer has a style with rhythm guitar that I rarely see anymore. They’re a classic duo and, since they were a part of my growing up, I feel a certain nostalgia for them.

Even though half of the group died years before I was born.

We live in an era unlike any other before. For the most part, you can call up a video-on-demand of most anything you want. You can listen to a song, any song, with just a couple of clicks. Want to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones? You can do that. Want to watch the first episode of CSI: Miami? It’s available somewhere. Want to read a book on your eReader, and fold that into the archive of hundreds of books on that eReader? No problem. You missed an episode of your favourite television programme? Actually you didn’t. You remembered to set the DVR to record it a few days ago. You can watch it this weekend along with all the other shows you digitally recorded during the week.

But there was a time before this, and it wasn’t all that long ago, that if you missed an episode of your show, you missed it. It was gone. Maybe you caught it in reruns later that year, but that was a matter of luck. You could go to the cinema and catch a movie, and maybe you enjoyed that movie. Maybe it became your favourite movie. You could go see it again, but when it left the cinema it too was gone. Unless they screened it later, it wasn’t unusual to never see a given movie again. Videocassettes, DVDs, Blu-rays — they didn’t exist.

The human race has a nasty habit of not taking care of our culture…

What’s worse is that so many things from this not-so-bygone era are gone. They’ve disappeared. They may have been destroyed, erased, overwritten, or just thrown away. The human race has a nasty habit of not taking care of our culture because, in many ways, we don’t know that we’re making culture when we’re making it. The original episodes of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, gone. The earliest episodes of Doctor Who — so many have been lost. London After Midnight, a horror movie starring the great Lon Chaney, disappeared. Hell, NASA and the United States lost the original recordings of the moon landings. Turns out they regularly erased the tapes for reuse later and no one thought that one of the greatest events in the history of civilization might be worth hanging on to.

A while back, some of the lost Doctor Who episodes surfaced in Nigeria. Some of the lost moon landing tapes were found, at least in copied form. The original tapes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were saved at the last minute when Terry Gilliam, a former member of the legendary comedy team, bought the master tapes just before the BBC wiped them. There’s hope, and miracles occasionally happen.

What’s worse is when something is lost, then found, but then we discover that the content is stored upon unreadable media. The technology needed to read the media has also been lost, or there’s not a single working version of it anywhere in the world.

I had to wait until I was in my thirties before I ever saw one of my favourite musical comedy acts perform live. By that point, both of them were gone and with them my ability to ever see them perform. Thankfully, because someone thought to save some of those television performances, I was able to watch them, and it was amazing. See, any music fan will attest that you get so much more when you watch the musician do their thing. I knew that Henry played a mean rhythm guitar, but watching him, man…. There’s more to it than playing rhythm guitar, it’s how he did it so effortlessly.

Did you know that he chewed gum most of the time he was on stage? Henry would put it to the side of his mouth while singing but when Kenneth picked up a solo on the mandolin, Henry provided backing rhythm and chewed gum. There’s an old joke out there, “I have come to chew bubble gum and to kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Henry came to chew bubble gum and to play guitar, and he brought extra gum just in case. I didn’t know that, because you can’t see that when you’re listening to a record.

We achieved a kind of immortality when the human race learned how to write. Writing passes down thoughts, ideas, and knowledge through the eons and on to today. We have clay tablets from Mesopotamia that are over 5,000 years old. Yet we can read them and, because of that, we can summon a part of the author through the centuries and bring their thoughts with them. We did it again when we discovered how to record audio and video. Bela Legosi is dead, Bauhaus has assured me of this for years now. Yet I can see him right now if I want to. All I need to do is find him, and he’s not hard to find. I can even find Lon Chaney, because someone recorded him.

But I can’t find all of him. London After Midnight seems to be utterly lost to the mists of a semi-recent time — an artistic expression of our culture gone to apathy, misadventure, or plain old-fashioned stupidity. What survives today does so through an rather new process of achieving immortality.

Digital conversion.

When you have a digital file, you can manipulate it far more easily than you ever could anything else. Dubbing a vinyl record to tape takes time and special equipment. Converting old record to CD is a pain in the ass. Converting a WMV (Windows Media Video) file into a more open source MP4 format? That takes seconds and requires little in the way of special equipment. Chances are if you have the equipment to watch the WMV file, namely a computer, you have all you need to convert it. Programmes like VLC will save it in another format. You can convert files in bulk. You can strip the audio off and make a separate file from that because you want to listen to it on your personal media device. All you need is software.

From there, we turn to a final method of immortality, which could actually be the first way we discovered to live forever — we share.

All you need is software.

We live in a world where, as long as we can play the thing back or read the thing at all, we can digitize it and it never need disappear again. It can be copied out to thousands of sites. It can be backed up. It can be converted and ported to different things. Floppy discs went out of fashion so we put things on CD. CDs faded out, so we put things on flash drives. Now we can store it online in a cloud drive and make it accessible more widely than ever before.

So, long ago, many years before Henry Haynes died, someone pointed a camera and microphone at him and his partner Kenneth and pressed a red button. Performances were recorded on the media of the time, just like we do today. Today I shoot video on a camera with a solid state drive. Back then, it was magnetic tape. Those recordings of Homer and Jethro survived and someone with a computer finally got their hands on them, decades later. They fed the recording to the computer, converted analogue content into digital, and then they did what millions of people do everyday with digital video.

They uploaded it to YouTube.

All of the knowledge on the planet is worthless until it’s shared. That’s one of the many reasons I found myself working in a library, because knowledge is power and, while it may sound idealistic; power to the people, man. In the end, Homer and Jethro didn’t live for years beyond their death because someone recorded a performance. I wasn’t able to watch them because someone converted that recording into a digital format. I was able to finally, after over 30 years of fandom, watch them play live because someone shared that file. Homer and Jethro, Bela, Lon… they all died before the Internet, but we can experience them today through the various methods used by humanity to keep people alive even after they’re gone. All of them are important, but not as important as that last one.

All of the knowledge on the planet is worthless until it’s shared.

Remember someone or something today, someone or something that’s gone. Then remember that it’s not completely gone because you know about it. Then, finally, keep it alive.

Share it.

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