Weeds: Music’s charms come in many formats

I have noticed listening to music and praying occupy the same space in my head. Use of either is a good sign, meaning my life has balance and harmony to it. Less time in prayer and music means I am caught up in the world and it’s immediate concerns, of which there are many.

I thought about music when I noticed our box of record albums in the basement. These are the 33rpm records that Pam and I collected in the Sixties and Seventies, our teen to young adult years. Mine go from pop, Beatles and Beach Boys, to dorm-room, Queen and Zappa, to folk/country, Prine and Kristofferson. I can relive 30 years of my life flipping through those.

My records have joined a group of things with no obvious future purpose. When we married and set up house, a stereo with a turntable was essential and had a prominent spot in the living room. Eventually, the record player was something we got out a few times a year. Now, it’s been a while since we had one that worked. Our last one would lengthen notes to resemble a moan every few turns.

Further back in the basement is a box of 45 rpms. These are smaller diameter, a hit song on one side and something forgotten on the other. If Pam hasn’t thrown them away, there are also some 78 rpms down there that belonged to my parents: Six Fat Dutchman and Fezz Fritsche. When I was a kid, we had a phonograph that still turned at 78 rotations per minute.

I have written about my father and the changes he saw in farming. Sylvester’s career began when all power came from animals and himself. When my dad quit, machines ran across the fields and technology was integral. That arc of history is impressive. It occurred to me that listening to music has undergone quite an arc, too.

Since the beginning of time, music was what you sang or played. It was here and now, in the moment, and then gone. Early last century, records became available. When music didn’t have to come from here and now, but rather from a spinning disc, that had to be an amazing thing. That sound in the parlor room on your farm could have been recorded in a studio in a big city far away.

About 100 years ago, radios also appeared in homes. Music came from these, too. There wasn’t even something you watched go around and set a needle on. Sound came from the radio was as if magically taken from the air. It was taken from the air, but it wasn’t magic. It was airwaves, although it might as well be magic to simple folk like me.

The radio of my youth was AM. We had a barn radio and a kitchen radio. both set to KNUJ. KNUJ was the Polka Station of the Nation and had an absolute monopoly on our farm.

Eventually I learned there were choices on the dial. But “choice” did not extend to the barn. Whenever I changed the radio to WCCO for a Twins game or WDGY for music-that-was-not-polka, I would find it put back to 860. The barn was not a democracy; my vote mattered none.

Up in the house, there was the record player. My mom and dad had too much to do to put on a record, so brother Dean and I controlled that. My earliest dancing was to a 45rpm record of the Hokey Pokey. It stands out in my memory because it was blue. Thanks to Google, I found that was recorded by Ray Anthony and his Orchestra in 1953. {By coincidence, Ray turns 99 today, January 20. He’s the last living member of the Glen Miller Orchestra.}

As I got older, the car became the primary place for music. In our teen years we didn’t have to be going anywhere. Driving around was an end in itself. That also was AM radio at first. After dark, booming clear channel stations could be heard literally across America. WLS from Chicago was favored. If you were of a certain age out past a certain hour, you tuned in Beaker Street from Little Rock, Arkansas, of all places.

Music eventually moved from AM to FM on the car radio. But around that time, came a great leap forward. We could choose what we wanted to listen to while we drove around aimlessly. 8-track tape players were a great revelation and cutting-edge technology. Looking back on how clunky they were, it’s difficult to remember that having one in your car was the height of cool.

I remember installing an eight-track player in a 1970 Chevy Impala with the aid of buddy Bill Moran. Neither of us was mechanical, so getting that to work was a grand accomplishment for our 16-year-old selves. One problem. After paying for that and necessities like French fries at the Tastee Freeze, we didn’t have money for tapes. We had Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and played that poor tape to a premature death.

Eight-tracks weren’t around long. By the time I went to college, cassette tapes had displaced them. Cassette players were not only meant for the dashboard. They also came in the house, where they co-existed with record players for a while. The stereo I bought in college, the big purchase of my life at the time, had turntable and cassette deck.

In time, the records ended up in the box in the basement, and cassettes were king. You could sort of play the song you wanted, after rewinding and forwarding and rewinding some more. They also had a lifespan. After so many plays, problems could be expected. The little tape would crinkle or even tear. I became proficient at repairing family favorites, using a pencil to turn the tiny spindles.

Cassettes, too, became yesterday’s technology. Compact discs, CDs, were the new sheriff in town by the Nineties. Finally, you could play the song you wanted, over and over and over if you had kids.

Alas, now the CDs are in the basement. Music comes through my phone or computer. It plays on a tiny speaker, probably a hundredth of the size of the speakers I bought in college. Now I can choose from any song ever recorded. I’m probably as amazed by that as my ancestors were first hearing sound come from a record player.

From phonograph to radio to 8-track to cassette to CD to internet-download, music has taken quite a journey. It makes me want to do the Hokey Pokey and turn myself around.


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