Old Time Music, Sign Painters & Getting Your Inspiration Thirdhand

At some point in my erstwhile post-college semi-career as a musician I had an epiphany: the people I was opening for, the good ones, weren’t filling their headphones with the songs of their peers. They weren’t listening to us. They were devouring Bill Withers melodies, Motown arrangements, Lindsey Buckingham guitar wizardry and any number of decidedly non-current sources of inspiration. They were archeologists. Alchemists. 

Guys like me were listening to whatever was in fashion. We were getting our inspiration thirdhand, riffing off the riffers, skimming the top. And it was evident in our output because we could only dispense what we knew, and what we knew was a shadow of what was.

Everybody ought to listen to Benny [Carter]. He’s a whole musical education.

Miles Davis, interview with Down Beat (May 25, 1961)

Benny, “King” to many jazz musicians, had been a professional sideman, bandleader, and composer for 20 years before Miles moved to New York, beginning his ascent to household notoriety. For all of Miles’ innovation (and there was plenty) he still looked back for inspiration. The good ones always do.

The revelation continued to have ripple effects for me in all manner of creative endeavors. It followed me into graphic and web design where I saw world-class designers drawing inspiration from the pioneers of the field—Bauhaus typographers, Swiss grid masters, iconic 1960s corporate identities—and using what they excavated from the vaults, using secondhand inspiration, to build something new and innovative.

Take typography: I could spend a day browsing the web for modern takes on vintage lettering and type treatments. I’d end up with hundreds of browser tabs full of clever letterforms, oddly-endearing ligatures, interesting logo lockups, font pairings and pixel perfection. A wealth of inspiration. 

Or I could go outside and find the real thing.

Originality is occasional. Secondhand inspiration can do wonders in the hands of craftsmen. But thirdhand inspiration is always slightly blurry around the edges. It lacks focus. Young muses rarely deliver what they promise. Energy gets lost in every creative exchange, like a game of Telephone. The universe favors entropy.

As poet Saul Williams says about modern hiphop MCs:

Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency.

Go back, further, to the source. Then go forward.