Taking the music back from the wilderness
April 28, 2009 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for truly undiscovered musicians- ones who had little or no success in their lifetime- and what led to the re-emergence of their work.

I recently discovered the music of Connie Converse (thank you, NPR!). As much as I love her music, her story (see link) got me wondering about other artists who were only really discovered after their deaths, and how they were 'rehabilitated', so to speak.

I've looked through other questions about obscure artists but they're not quite what I'm looking for. So it's over to you, hivemind- can you provide some examples of other musicians, overlooked in their lifetime, and how they came to prominence later on? I would also like to hear about artists who are still hidden away.
posted by psychostorm to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say Nick Drake is the canonical example of a musician who only achieved success after dying.
posted by telegraph at 12:54 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Terry Callier might not be exactly what you're looking for, as he is still alive and was 'rediscovered' decades after retiring from music.
posted by greta simone at 1:00 PM on April 28, 2009

Response by poster: greta, duly noted- ack, now I wish I could edit this question! For 'lifetime', read 'period during which they were actively making music'.
posted by psychostorm at 1:06 PM on April 28, 2009

Had Connie Converse not disappeared in such a strange way, I don't think she would have obtained such recent interest - I like her, but she's not that great. Unlike, say, Karen Dalton, who led an utterly tragic and fucked up life and was forgotten, until after she died. Since then, her two original albums have been reissued, along with some early demo-ish stuff that had never originally come out. Her obvious counterpart was Fred Neil, who had some big success (writing "Everybody's Talkin'") and then utterly turned his back on any chance of fame, through bad behavior, drug abuse, choice and mysterious reasons as yet not understood. His death ramped up interest in his music - now everything he ever released is on CD. In my opinion, the reason that their work re-emerged was simply because it was so great - simply a matter of time. Both Dalton and Neil were media-shy and horrific at maintaining professional relationships, which would explain their lack of household name status back in the day. Once this became the distant past, their music was seen purely on its own terms.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:08 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Similarly, Nina Simone's best work - the stuff she did for RCA in the late 60s / early 70s - seems to have become better understood since her death, and is increasingly acknowledged as her most important material. I think the strident political undertones (and overtones) in much of it defied recognition at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it's obvious how powerful and beautiful it all was.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:10 PM on April 28, 2009

Vashti Bunyan put out her first album in the 1970s, then released her followup 35 years later after it finally became popular.
posted by Gortuk at 1:17 PM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Shuggie Otis's albums never really gained commercial success. Around 2001-2002 David Byrne re-released Inspiration Information on his Luka Bop label.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:19 PM on April 28, 2009

Eva Cassidy
Here singing Over the Rainbow, the song mentioned in the article.
posted by BoscosMom at 1:22 PM on April 28, 2009

The classical composer Charles Ives.
posted by sully75 at 1:23 PM on April 28, 2009

Yeah, you could add the composer Conlon Nancarrow to this.
posted by ob at 1:34 PM on April 28, 2009

posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:36 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dammit, I came here to tell you about Eva Cassidy but BoscosMom beat me to it. She's wonderful.
posted by widdershins at 1:39 PM on April 28, 2009

Another classical one - Cecil Coles
posted by fearnothing at 1:43 PM on April 28, 2009

John Henry Timmis IV
posted by wcfields at 1:53 PM on April 28, 2009

Jackson C. Frank!

He's so unbelievably good, and his life story is pretty much unbelievable as well. The links above detail it somewhat. Spend that 20 dollars, you won't regret it. I've got it for myself and two copies for some friends. It's worth it.
posted by papayaninja at 2:09 PM on April 28, 2009

I've always loved this album by Judee Sill called Heart Food but I rarely meet anyone who has heard of her. Here's one of the songs on youtube called The Kiss.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:23 PM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Bill Fox is experiencing a comeback currently and I pray he sees some success as soon as possible.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:04 PM on April 28, 2009

Chris Bell was a crucial member of Big Star and was in the process of producing his first solo record when he died in 1978, but it really wasn't till the '80s and '90s that his work became widely recognized (not to mention massively influential). Thinking of Chris Bell always breaks my heart a little.
posted by scody at 3:15 PM on April 28, 2009

Seconding Eva Cassidy.
posted by Ostara at 3:46 PM on April 28, 2009

If Kanye West were talented and dead, he would be J Dilla. He's also posthumously releasing music, a la Tupac.
posted by ashabanapal at 4:05 PM on April 28, 2009

John Fahey only gained wide fame after his albums and tributes to him were re-released in the mid 2000s after his death. It's not exactly a complete wilderness find, but he released many albums that went out of print very quickly and had a dramatic effect on modern music.
posted by rabbitsnake at 4:39 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I third the suggestion of Eva Cassidy! A voice rich with heart and soul. Don't miss her rendition of Sting's "Fields of Gold", or the standard "Autumn Leaves", and absolutely, ''Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

Wish I could think of other artists... Provocative question...! Glad you asked, so we can all get turned on to new old music...buried treasure...
posted by sparrowdance at 6:18 PM on April 28, 2009

"Mississippi" John Hurt recorded an album for Okeh Records in 1928. The record was a commercial failure; Okeh folded; John Hurt dropped off the face of the earth and went back to Avalon, Mississippi, to sharecropping and playing locally. In 1963 a musicologist looked him up after hearing the Okeh record and convinced him to come north and start a (sadly short-lived) career.
posted by felix grundy at 6:54 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stack O' Lee (early)
Spike Driver Blues (sixties)
Also, I felt sure that y2karl must have posted about him at least once, which was true: not just once but twice, and he's included in many others.
posted by felix grundy at 7:12 PM on April 28, 2009

Also, Death on MeFi: one, two. feeling rather like I have to make up for MJH being so obvious.
posted by felix grundy at 7:23 PM on April 28, 2009

There are a lot of these from the 1920s. They had small regional successes then went back to their coal mines or preaching. Dock Boggs, Skip James, Buell Kazee, Eck Robertson, even (especially?) Robert Johnson, who was a ghost at best until the early-60s LPs. Very, very few musicians who were regionally popular before about 1936 were heard from for decades afterwards — the record industry just crashed, and wiped out a bunch of music with it.

The folk revival brought back many of the ones who weren't dead in the '60s, giving them a few slots at the Newport Folk Festival. Some you can still revive some ghosts by digging around a bit — a great feeling. Try the Weems String Band, for instance.
posted by argybarg at 7:25 PM on April 28, 2009

Bettye LaVette
Andre Williams
Candi Staton
Vashti Bunyan
Karen Dalton
Judee Sill
Daniel Johnston

Some are still alive and recording. Some had hits in their day and then vanished but are now truly being appreciated.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:11 PM on April 28, 2009

Oh, and Shooby Taylor.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:19 PM on April 28, 2009

Not exactly what you asked for but compare these two reviews, both from Rolling Stone, and both of Van Morrison's masterpiece, Veedon Fleece. One is from 1974 ("pompous tripe... [an] aberration in a fitfully inspired career") and the other from 2008 ("the grand culmination of Morrison's work over the past decade... he's never again hit the majestic heights of this one").
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:33 PM on April 28, 2009

Sibylle Baier might not quite count, but her album got rediscovered recently and she is now critically acclaimed. Here is a beautiful song by her: Tonight. J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr got a copy of her album like 30 years after she first recorded it and passed it onto a record label.
posted by vas deference at 10:13 PM on April 28, 2009

I wonder if you'd include Kevin Gilbert?

He had SOME success during his lifetime - his Toy Matinee album got some airplay, especially in the Southwest, and his work with Sheryl Crow won a Grammy ... but it seems most people have never heard of him.

I haven't checked out the sound files at the official Kevin Gilbert site, but I would hope there are some live snippets there.

Brilliant, shimmering stuff - 1990s prog rock with some simply stunning lyrics.
posted by kristi at 10:32 PM on April 28, 2009

Antonio Vivaldi?
Vivaldi remained unknown for his published concerti, and largely ignored, even after the resurgence of interest in Bach, pioneered by Mendelssohn. Even his most famous work, The Four Seasons, was unknown in its original edition. (...) As one biography describes it:

“The fate of the Italian composer's legacy is unique. After the Napoleonic wars, it was thought that a large part of Vivaldi's work had been irrevocably lost. However, in the autumn of 1926, after a detectivelike search by researchers, 14 folios of Vivaldi's previously unknown religious and secular works were found in the library of a monastery in Piedmont. Some even- and odd-numbered volumes were missing, and so the search continued. Finally, in October 1930, the missing volumes were found to be with the descendants of the Grand Duke Durazzo, who had acquired the property as early as the eighteenth century.
To its amazement, the world of music was presented with 300 concerts for various instruments and 18 operas, not counting a number of arias and more than 100 vocal-instrumental pieces. Such an impressive list of newly unearthed opuses warranted a re-evaluation of Vivaldi's creativity."

posted by iviken at 2:27 AM on April 29, 2009

Been mentioned once, but I think Robert Johnson may be one of the best examples. Dead by the age of 27, but the stuff of legend. The story of Johnson's supposedly selling his soul at the crossroads for musical skill has been folded into movies like "Crossroads". His songs have been covered by blues, rock and country musicians for years.

A collection of his recordings was released again in 1990.
posted by skypieces at 5:16 AM on April 29, 2009

Man, most of the people in this thread were pretty famous or well-known in their fields long before they were dead. Robert Johnson was THE hero of the Delta blues circuits. John Fahey was enough of a star in the folk field to headline some big festivals and run a record label, and he made his "comeback" several years before he keeled over (I went to a bunch of his shows around 99-2002, so I know this). R.L. Burnside had a HUGE run of indie-darlingness, touring around with John Spencer (remember when he was "cool"?).

Conlon Nancarrow's a good one, as is Chris Bell (man, is "I am the cosmos" amazing? Oh my). How about Harry Partch?

(Tempted to say Tupac...)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:13 AM on April 29, 2009

Blasphemy, but I think Robert Johnson is somewhat over rated.

I forgot maybe the biggest one: Johann Sebastian Bach. Maybe the greatest musician of all time, relatively unknown in his lifetime. Despite having some famous composer sons, he was mostly forgotten. I think Mendelssohn did the most for reviving his name. Some of his major works (The Cello Suites) were not performed regularly until the 20th century.

posted by sully75 at 5:02 AM on April 30, 2009

See here also.
posted by y2karl at 11:43 AM on May 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all for contributing!

I feel a bit skeevy marking every answer as best, but they are. Thanks again for all the new names, and the reminders that many artists we now consider well-known endured some serious obscurity.
posted by psychostorm at 3:24 AM on August 14, 2009

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