When Death Precedes the Applause

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On Sunday evening, Americans celebrated the Sabbath by watching the Academy Awards. I went to bed. When I awoke, I was pleased to learn that T-Bone Burnett had won an Oscar for the theme song of Crazy Heart, a low-budget sleeper of a movie that also won the Oscar for Jeff Bridges for best actor.

That is only part of the story. Burnett co-produced the movie. If people head off to see it in order to find out why Bridges won, Burnett will get even richer.

Bridges actually turned down the part of Bad Blake until he heard that T-Bone was going to do the music.

Burnett is a genius in his field, which is country music. He became a legend after three decades of hard work when he produced the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? back in 2000. Without any advertising and with only one song remotely resembling a hit single in the country music charts, that CD sold seven million copies. Incredible!

He has won Grammies. He has won other awards. He is not only well-respected as a back-up guitarist, he is truly legendary as a producer. It took decades of hard work, but fame and fortune finally caught up with him. He deserves both.

In his acceptance speech, Bridges thanked lots of people. He said: “Thank you guys for keeping us all together and for making it all happen. T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton for bringing all of that great music and those wonderful musicians to the party, man.”

He did not say two things. First, his character Bad Blake was based on Bruton, which it was, musically. He was a fine song writer, a good performer, and on the road for years. Second, Bruton died just after the movie was shot. Cancer got him.

Bruton and Burnett grew up in Ft. Worth. They moved to California together in 1970. Their careers overlapped, but they went different ways. He toured with Kris Kristofferson for 40 years, when Kristofferson toured. He did the country music in “A Star Is Born” for both Kristofferson and Streisand. He had bit parts in a few movies. He never became rich or famous. Then, at the end, Burnett brought him in to do the music for “Crazy Heart.” He never lived to see the movie.

He died before the applause.

If you go to his website, it does not indicate that he is dead. It says that no road shows are scheduled.

Burnett made it bigger than most men ever make anything. Bruton got a thank you in Bridges’ acceptance speech. Yet he was an enormously talented man. Bridges months ago posted a link on his site to a memorial video on Bruton. It is a well-done, low-budget video. Insiders will remember him, but the public won’t.

This is the second time this has happened to a Burnett-related musician. John Hartford was a banjo player and old-time fiddler. If he is famous for anything, it is for writing “Gentle on My Mind,” which became a hit for Glenn Campbell. He devoted his life to bluegrass and old-timey music. He performed several songs in O Brother. He toured with the O Brother live musical show after the CD became a hit. In April 2001 he had to quit because he was losing the battle to lymphoma. He died on June 4, 2001. On June 15, a documentary of the group’s pre-tour performance in 2000 at the Ryman Auditorium opened at the Nashville Film Festival. It was scheduled for one showing. It stayed in the theater for weeks. Then a DVD was released. I wrote about this in late 2001.

Hartford had his share of applause, but he did not live to see the opening of the film on the performance he had hosted. He spent his years doing fine work, but fame and fortune eluded him.

In every field, there are stories like these.

Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, was a mainstay of the folk music scene in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He worked in obscurity. He wrote songs. In 1933, he wrote one that he always believed would be a hit: “Goodnight, Irene.” He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949. In 1950, The Weavers, a previously unknown folk group, turned “Goodnight, Irene” into a smash hit. It was their first hit, and they became a sensation. They made it on the pop music circuit for a while. The song was later recorded by Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and others, who made mini-hits out of it.

Otis Redding was a soul singer who had a following, but was never a major star. He died in a plane crash at age 26 in late 1967. Three days before, his record was released, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” It became his only #1 hit, the first posthumous #1 in Billboard history. He had recorded dozens of songs in 1967, just before his death. They were released as albums over the next three years. They sold well. He saw none of this.

An entertainer knows that few people ever make it to the top. He knows that the applause will probably not be there, except in small clubs or as character actors. But what of those people who labor in obscurity, knowing there will never be any applause?


One of the most important documents in the history of Western civilization was Justinian’s Code. The Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century A.D. had his bureaucrats and lawyers compile the code of Roman law. This was the Corpus Juris Civilis. It became the foundation on Medieval civil law and church or canon law.

It was not translated from Latin into English until 1932. The translator died before it was published. His executor published it in 17 volumes. It is a rare item. Only major research libraries have a set.

He never saw it in print. He finished the manuscript in 1922. It stayed unused for a decade until his death. It turned out that it was not a good translation. It is rarely cited.

In 1920, an immigrant lawyer from Germany named Blume was living in Wyoming. He began his translation of the Code. That task took him the rest of his life: half a century. In the meantime, he served on the Wyoming State Supreme Court. He died in 1971 at the age of 96.

Night after night, decade after decade, he labored on a project that only one man had ever attempted, and that man had failed. There was no audience for the set, assuming that he ever completed the task. No university press was likely to publish it: no market.

He was a self-taught scholar. His manuscript was annotated and cross-referenced. It was 4,500 pages long. He willed it to the University of Wyoming, which filed it away.

In 2005, a Wyoming professor began typing it into a digital format. In 2008, it was published on-line. For the first time in history, English-speaking scholars have access to the Justinian Code in English. The amazing story is here.

The translation is here.

My son-in-law located this less than a week ago. I had suggested to him that possibly an English translation might be available. With Google, he found it in a few clicks.

Whenever I think of a thankless yet important task, I shall think of this project. The translator knew there would be no applause. There probably would be no publisher. Yet he toiled on and on, because this was his calling: the most important thing he could do in which he would be most difficult to replace.

He died before there was digital typing, typesetting, or Web publishing. He did his work for half a century, despite the fact that he could see no market for the final product.

This is what it takes to get some major projects completed. Some dedicated, near maniacal visionary decides to do something that no one else has ever done. He thinks it is worth doing. As his unpaid life’s work, he does it.

We hear of a few cases like this one. Like this one, cases that are brought to completion. In this case, someone the translator never met used technology that he could not imagine to complete the task. He, too, is a visionary. He did not want the treasure to remain buried. He dug it up.


Ludwig von Mises was a great economist. He lived in a century that regarded free market economists as eccentrics. He labored in obscurity after 1922, when his book against socialism was published: Socialism. He fled Europe in 1940, escaping to the United States just ahead of the Nazis, as he and his wife fled from Switzerland across not-quite Nazi-occupied France to Spain, and from there to the USA. He never received a paid academic post. He was allowed to teach as a visiting professor at New York University, which did not pay his salary. He died in October 1973 in obscurity.

In the spring of 1974, a conference of older and younger scholars was held at South Royalton, Vermont. They were mostly followers of Mises. The older men had known him. The younger men had not. I had met him only once.

That fall, his disciple F. A. Hayek unexpectedly won the Nobel Price in economics. From that time on, Mises’s reputation has increased. He never saw it coming.

In 1982, Lew Rockwell founded the Mises Institute. It slowly began to develop a mailing list. It promoted Mises’s ideas.

Mises’s disciple Murray Rothbard labored in obscurity from the time he received his Ph.D. in 1956 until the mid-1980’s. He wrote voluminously and brilliantly. Only because of the Mises Institute did Rothbard finally write his way out of the shadows. He died in 1995. The digital revolution of the Web was about to begin, made possible by the graphic browser. It arrived in 1995, just as Rothbard departed. In that year, Rockwell set up www.Mises.org. In 1999, Rockwell set up www.LewRockwell.com.

Today, Rothbard is better known than he was in his lifetime. He received more catcalls than applause from the economics profession. Mostly, he received silence. He did not seek applause. He did not need it. If he had, no one would know of him today. He would have quit.


I hope you have found your unique project that no one else will do, and which someone had better do.

I have been working on mine for 50 years. I am getting closer. I completed my first draft of “An Economic Commentary on the Bible,” which I began in 1973. Now technology is on my side. It wasn’t in 1973 or 1960, when I got the overall idea.

I started long before the technology existed. Technology will get better. We can see this now. It is best to start when you can and not wait for the technology to deliver the final product. Content is king, not technology.

Is there anything in your life comparable to the Justinian Code translation project? Probably not. Be thankful.

Is there anything that you think ought to be done that no one else is likely to do? If there is, you should consider mapping out a long-term plan to bring that project to fruition.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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