Friday, May 2, 2014

A rose by any other name ... is mis-identified

The Internet giveth, and it also taketh away.

I've previous ranted about Wikipedia's pernicious role in the publication and subsequent spread of misinformation, and the sad fact that such bogus data becomes, well, permanent. All those countless little Internet spiders race about the Web, scraping up and distributing facts and figures, with no means of separating the well-researched thesis of an Einstein from the rants of a Flat-Earther.

But I'm not here to grouse anew about Wikipedia; that topic has been covered.

No, this post concerns a highly disturbing incident that points to yet another means by which bad information is becoming eternal.

The story starts with the 2011 CD An Afternoon with the Vince Guaraldi Quartet, which cherry-picked some of the best tracks from numerous live recordings Guaraldi made himself, during a two-week gig in October 1967, at the Old Town Mall in Los Gatos, California. I was consulted briefly about the various options, which included a "mystery track" that I've never been able to identify; it sounds familiar, like a pop tune from the day, but that nagging sense of possible recognition could simply point to Guaraldi's facility for accessible original compositions: You think you've heard them before, even when you haven't.

Anyway, I advised against using that track, for obvious reasons; it would look a bit silly to label a song "We don't know what this cue is, but we included it anyway, because we really like it." No matter how good the track is.

Well, due to a production slip-up, the mystery track was mixed up with a dynamite cover of "Autumn Leaves," and the former wound up on the CD ... mis-identified as the latter.

Okay, so I initially rolled my eyes, but then realized that this error had an upside: Now it's easy to share this mystery track with avid Guaraldi fans and mainstream music buffs, in the hopes of one day identifying the silly thing.

Well, that was three years ago ... and I'm still sharing. Most recently, I gave the disc to journalist, music scholar and local radio host Bill Buchanan, who has interviewed me several times on KDRT; you can check out his weekly shows here. I supplied the usual explanation, and he promised to listen carefully and do his best.

I saw him again just last week, and he related what initially seemed an amusing little anecdote ... until its implications sank in. He had faithfully played the mystery track, repeatedly, with much the reaction I've had; the tune sounded familiar to him, but not familiar enough that he could place it. During this process, his daughter wandered into the room; she asked what he was doing, and he explained. She whipped out her smart phone and, before he could stop her, found and activated the Shazam song ID app.

"That's easy," she told him, after just a few seconds. "It's 'Autumn Leaves.' "

Bill paused, awaiting my reaction. I must confess, I initially smiled and shook my head ... but then the smile evaporated.

"Oh, no," I said. 

Bill nodded, and he wasn't smiling either.

I came home, snatched up my wife's iPod Touch and repeated the experiment, also with Shazam. Same result. I switched over to Soundhound, another song ID app. After less than 15 seconds, I again had the same result: "Autumn Leaves."

Which isn't true, of course.

But how are the Shazam and Soundhound services to know? Or any other, similar, apps that spring up? Their aggregate data is supplied by CD producers and distributors, who are responsible for such mistakes in the first place. And even if we assume that such tasks fall to interns or other lower-echelon employees, such citizens can't be blamed for passing along bad data; in many cases, they likely wouldn't know the music well enough to perceive the error in the first place.

But you can see the result: Every new generation, moving forward from this early 21st century moment, will have access to "authoritative" sources that claim "Autumn Leaves" is something that it isn't. At best, their numbers will equal the music buffs who know darn well what the actual jazz standard sounds like.

It gets worse, because this situation isn't confined to this one CD. Liner notes errors aren't common, thank goodness, but they do occur. Indeed, other examples can be found in Guaraldi's own discography. The 1998 Fantasy release, Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits, opens with a track that is identified as "Joe Cool" ... but it isn't. Peanuts fans and the Guaraldi faithful are very familiar with Dr. Funk's growling vocal on the song written for Snoopy's sunglass-wearing alter ego, and it absolutely ain't the first track on this album.

But both Shazam and Soundhound immediately identify it as "Joe Cool." Ye gods...

(For the record, the track in question is something else I've yet to identify; my latest working theory is that it may not even be Guaraldi's work, but instead an underscore track from an episode of The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, produced several years after he died. I've yet to test that possibility by carefully listening to all 18 episodes.)

Even if subsequent re-issues of these two CDs correct the liner notes info, it's highly unlikely that the updated information will make it to these Internet-based song ID apps. No, these errors are forever, along with similar errors resulting from incorrect liner note information on who knows how many other albums Out There, and the misinformation will continue to spread. Long after I'm gone, and no longer able to make these woefully inadequate attempts to set the record straight, people will wonder why Guaraldi quite oddly assigned the same song title to two entirely different tunes.

And jazz fans will find themselves in frustrating arguments with less-informed friends and colleagues, who'll hold up their gadget of the moment, saying, "But of course this is 'Autumn Leaves' ... I just identified it as such!"

Good grief!


Doug said...

This is very amusing, and even more vexing.

But I suppose that if people are arguing decades from now over what a Guaraldi track should be titled, that at least means that people are still listening attentively to Guaraldi tracks decades from now, which isn't exactly the worst problem to have. (And it wont take *too* many decades from now to make some of his performances a century old!)

One might even argue (with tongue slightly in cheek) that such confusions are themselves true to Vince's own career -- think Jimbo's/Cashasa/Casaba/Jambo's or Like a Mighty Rose/Room at the Bottom. (Though sharp-minded fans will be quick to point out the basic difference between assigning multiple names to the same song, and misidentifying completely different songs with the same title.) :-)

Chris Sobieniak said...

Yeah, that "Joe Cool" track is a background cue from either Desiree Goytte or Ed Bogas on The Charlie Brown & Snoopy Show. The last half of the track on the CD can be heard in this clip....

Derrick Bang said...

Good catch, Christopher, and you motivated me to finally, totally put this issue to rest. Check out the newest post in this blog. And hey, send me your email address; I'd like to pass something else along.