5 Songs the World Totally Lost Until Someone Discovered Them Years Later

5 Songs the World Totally Lost Until Someone Discovered Them Years Later

Those of us in the business of researching stuff on the web saw a major triumph late last year. It happened when someone went online to complain about being unable to identify one song from the background of The X-Files.

Normally, when you hear a song in a show, identifying it is simple. You type the first lyrics you can recall in a search bar. Google completes the line, because you are not the first person to search for it. The top result is a YouTube video, and the top comment is someone saying, “Who else came here thanks to American Dad?” With The X-Files song, detectives had no such luck. Everyone concluded the song had to have been written specifically for the show, so no one would ever be able to track it down now.

Everyone was half-right. The song had been written specifically for the show, but the composer caught word of this investigation. He put the song on YouTube, Spotify and more, and after 25 years, everyone gained access to the lost song “Staring at the Stars”:

That’s not the only time something like this has happened. Songs go missing — sometimes for much longer than 25 years — before we find them again and make them famous. 

Pachelbel’s Canon

“Canon in D Major” by Johann Pachelbel feels like approximately the most famous classical piece of music ever. Today, you might know it best as a wedding march. It’s influenced tons of pop songs — “Memories” by Maroon 5 awkwardly used the exact melody, while countless others have used variations or the same chord progression. You also might have heard it mashed up with unconnected songs, or maybe you’ve heard artists play the piece on an electric guitar or do some other extra elaborate interpretation. 

But unlike some well-known pieces by, say, Beethoven or Mozart, “Canon in D” hasn’t been some huge part of culture ever since it was written. In fact, we don’t even know when or where it was written. We know all about Pachelbel — we’ve got his whole biography, and we have dozens of other works by him nailed down — but as for “Canon,” the closest we can say is it was written somewhere in the late 17th century or early 18th century.

It was never popular back then. For all we know, it was never performed even once. When Pachelbel died in 1706, only a single copy of the song remained, a piece of paper that was stored in the Berlin State Library. It stayed there for more than two centuries before someone finally found that manuscript and published it in a book of baroque music.

oldest surviving copy of Pachelbel's "Canon and Gigue in D major"

Johann Pachelbel

Music fans were readers back then, not listeners.

That was the first twist of fate that resurrected the piece. The second came 40 years later, when a French conductor named Jean-François Paillard put out a record with the piece. Now, it spread wide. That July, the Greek band Aphrodite’s Child put out what’s been called a “baroque-rock adaptation” of the piece. That’s right — the first rock “Canon” wasn’t some subversive take on a long-established classical piece but rather came out the same year everyone first heard the original. 

As for how it became associated with weddings, for that, you can thank the widely watched royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which would be unsurprising, if the pair walked down the aisle to the song, but they didn’t. Some other baroque piece played. That was enough to get everyone associating baroque music with weddings again, and they now reached for that “Canon” piece, which had been floating around and had recently been featured in a Mary Tyler Moore movie. Today, it’s the default wedding choice, unless you choose to be creative and walk to the theme from Top Gun

One Weird 1970s Record

Look at an old copy of Billboard listing the songs that charted in 1979, and you’ll see some songs that would go on to be known by everyone (“Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer). You’ll see some songs you don’t quite know, by artists you do (“Do You Wanna Go Party” by KC and the Sunshine Band). The further down you go, the weirder the songs may get. And then, Billboard may list a selection called “Bubbling Under,” songs that didn’t quite crack the Hot 100 that week. 

In 1979, a song called “Ready ’N’ Steady” appeared at 102 on this Bubbling Under section. It appeared there for four consecutive weeks. A decade and a half later, when a music writer named Joel Whitburn spotted this listing, he didn’t recognize the title. When he poked around, he found no one else recognized it either. No copies appeared to exist anywhere, nor did any other record of the band, named D.A. allegedly. Whitburn tracked down a band by that name, a girl group who did punk, but they denied having anything to do with the song. 

He researched the record label, Rascal Records, and he found that it was attached to an abandoned building in Detroit — a building that had possibly been abandoned even in 1979. He now came to a sad but fascinating conclusion: The song had never existed. It was a fake song, or you might call it a hoax song. Billboard found they did not have enough underground songs to fill out their Bubbling Under section, so they’d made one up. Incautiously, they’d left the song in the same position for four weeks, which gave the game away. 

That at least was the conclusion he made in 1995. But another couple decades later, in 2016, a Minneapolis radio show succeeded where Whitburn had fallen short. The song was real. The singer was a mortgage broker named Dennis Armand Lucchesi, who’d called himself “D.A.” for the purpose of this song. As Whitburn had concluded, Rascal Records was fake — Rascal was really the name of Lucchesi’s dog. And the song had never been played on the radio, and had never been carved into vinyl. But in 1979, D.A. had sung it into a tape player, and Billboard chose to feature it, despite no sales or airplay data behind it.

As The A.V. Club notes, the instrumentals sound similar to “You’re Sixteen,” a song Ringo Starr recorded in 1973. We’re sure Ringo will soon be suing for a piece of the song’s profits, which currently total zero dollars. 

The Appalachian Mummers

We don’t know where the song “Nottamun Town” came from. Judging by the lyrics, we think it’s something about a town being hit by the Black Plague, and we think it originated centuries ago in England. Actors put on shows called mummers’ plays, and long after the associated festivals died out, people continued singing the old songs.

That’s a fine enough explanation. And yet, no copy or record of “Nottamun Town” exists in England. Instead, it was discovered in Kentucky in 1917. A British writer visited Kentucky and heard people there singing it, and he wrote it down for a book called Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians.

You might recognize that tune even if you have zero knowledge of mummers’ songs or the folk songs of southern Appalachia. You might have heard it in Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Tunes get reused like that. That’s how folk music works. 

Crossing the River

Up next, we have another song passed orally across generations. The weird thing here is not only did no one know the origin of the song. They also didn’t know what words they were singing. They didn’t know what language it was — for all they knew, they were just nonsense words, like the “mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey” song. 

In the 1930s, a linguist named Lorenzo Dow Turner was exploring Georgia, talking to people and hearing their inherited memories of old African texts. One woman he met, Amelia Dawley, was able to recite five lines of a song. What the words were, she had no idea. Turner had no idea either. But he wrote them down, and his book found its way to a student from Sierra Leone. This guy did recognize the words. They were Mende words, from a Sierra Leonean language. 

Nothing happened with this song for the next half a century. Then, in the 1980s, a crack team of linguists in Sierra Leone picked up the trail and decided to see if any traces of the song remained in the country itself. Their search took them to the remote village of Senehum Ngola. They found a woman, Baindu Jabati, who knew the song. It was an old funeral song, for a ceremony called “crossing the river.” It had been passed down from mother to daughter, and her grandmother had told her that one day, “there would be a return of lost kinsman,” and they’d use this song to recognize each other. 

That actually came true. We now know there was a girl from Senehum Ngola who was taken as a slave in the 18th century, who had a daughter Catherine, who had a son Mustafa, whose daughter was Amelia Dawley. Amelia had died by the 1980s, but her daughter Mary, born in 1921, was still alive, and she traveled to Senehum Ngola in 1997. She and the people there both knew the song. 

The blind 90-year-old chief put on a crossing-the-river ceremony for Mary. This was even though no one there normally still followed that practice anymore, and Mary wasn’t dead yet. When you meet someone who’s into the same music as you, you find an excuse to jam.

‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin

We’re guessing you’ve heard of Scott Joplin. If you haven’t, that’s fine, but if you have, think about how weird that is, because we’re guessing you’re unable to name any other 1890s musicians. On one hand, he was extremely famous at the turn of the 20th century. On the other, he was totally forgotten a couple decades later. By 1917, he had such a bad case of syphilis that he was committed to a state mental hospital. He died there, paralyzed and insane, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. 

This piece of his remained occasionally covered and recorded:

This other song of his, which you might know even better, fell into deeper obscurity:

Then came the 1960s, and a book called They All Played Ragtime brought the genre back to public attention. In 1971, a conductor released an album of Joplin music called Piano Rags, which contained both “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” Finally came 1973 and The Sting.

The Paul Newman movie used “The Entertainer” as its theme. It’s why you know the song today — some of you might even know the piece simply by the name “The Sting.” The film chose to go with ragtime because it was set in 1936, and ragtime sounds like old-timey music. And yet, “The Entertainer” was written in 1902, and ragtime wasn’t at all popular in 1936. Ragtime was having a revival in the 1970s, and had had another in the 1940s, but it had nothing in 1936.

This is all like if next year, a new season of Stranger Things comes out, and though the show is set in the 1980s, it sparks a sudden revival in the 1954 song “Hernando's Hideaway.” Actually, that seems totally plausible. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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