The treasure of perfectly preserved music

Contributing WriterApril 5, 2014 

I was out for my stroll one recent morning when a greatly gifted man started singing for me. And he had been dead for 25 years.

His heart had quit on him, but that didn’t mean there was no heart left in his music. Roy Orbison sang ballads directly from the heart, and many of them were as sad as his untimely death.

He was a genius with a lyrical voice who gave the world songs like “Only the Lonely,” “Crying” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

I was glad to hear him as I walked along the spring streets of a city bursting into bulb bloom. I was in a velvety mood created by the combination of natural oxygen and a brisk walk. I am usually listening to smartphone podcasts when I walk. But on that day I spotted the music loaded into my phone and there was Roy Orbison crooning “Only the Lonely,” a ballad that is sad, profound and beautiful at the same time.

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect a sad song to be so beautiful. What’s beautiful about sadness? Maybe it’s the knowledge that a person can recover from sorrow and go on from there — especially if the regret involves a lost love.

The combination of moods on that spring day made sorrow sound tolerable and even enjoyable as the sun was shining and winter lawns turned green before your eyes.

So I was happy to hear Roy Orbison sing for me once again. And it dawned on me how the song I listened to seemed exactly like Orbison, alive and well. Modern recordings are not rough approximations of a singer’s voice. They are electronic twins of the real person, dead or not.

Orbison was totally tuneful singing his songs the way he would sing them if he were walking at my side, keeping pace, taking his rhythm from a strong, healthy heart.

Of course, that wasn’t possible. He died years ago at age 52 of a heart attack. But not only was he still alive in virtual song the other day, but it was almost like he joined me on my daily walk because my own heart had stopped nearly four years ago. The medics restarted my ticker and a clogged artery was quickly cleared, no damage done.

The extraordinary thing about my spring Orbison concert was that no such thing had been possible for my grandfather who also enjoyed walking. If my grandfather had been out for a walk and a man he could not see seemed to be singing inside his head, he probably would have freaked out.

Such a thing was impossible when he was a young man. His generation was the first in history to experience the mechanized voices of dead people, especially when the dead people were singing. When he was young, there was no such thing as the phrase “a live concert.” All concerts were live then or they didn’t exist.

Recorded sound did develop a few years after my grandfather’s life began, but any chance of reproducing canned music while strolling along a street at the same time was impossible then.

For most of his life, my grandfather couldn’t have gone for a walk with music unless he was willing to hold an 80-pound waist-high vintage radio to one ear. None of the endless generations of humans prior to that ever experienced a Roy Orbison moment.

And most of them didn’t have to go for a stroll to get any exercise. Their exercise was called backbreaking work.

Their only portable music was the music they made themselves, singing with their workmates and whistling away their cares.

Bill Hall can be contacted at or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501

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