Happy Vinyl Record Day weekend to all. Many music blogs around the web are participating in a blogswarm dedicated to the celebration and preservation of vinyl as a recording medium. (Links to the other participating blogs are here.) Also, my radio station, 93.1 The Lake in Madison, is playing classic album sides straight off the vinyl at the top of every hour through the weekend. (Modesty forbids me to mention that it was my idea.) I’ll be on the air there from 8-11am Saturday and 10a-2p Sunday, US Central, so tune in for the snap, crackle, and pop. We now return to the blogswarm, already in progress.
The 45s I play in my earliest memories of vinyl belonged to my father. Like record buyers everywhere, he bought what he liked the most, so his collection featured a lot of polka bands famed throughout the Upper Midwest circa 1950. (His collection also contained the first Spike Jones records I ever heard.) But 15 years removed from when they’d been purchased, he passed them on to his kids. I suppose Dad considered his records childish things he had put aside to raise his family, so what did it matter if we enjoyed them?
Some of Dad’s records were on green, blue, or red vinyl, as much fun to hold up to the light as they were to play. I got down close to them as they spun on Dad’s old portable, watching the grooves flow under the needle, all the way to the end. I put my ear close to the speaker to hear the fade go down to nothing, and it wasn’t long before I figured out that you could tell whether the music was loud or soft by the look of the grooves.
Dad’s portable seemed like the ultimate smart machine. Imagine knowing when a record was done and it was time to drop the next one to play, without my having to do a thing! And the audio experience provided by the changer was more than merely musical. There was the click of the mechanism and the instant silence that followed as the tonearm lifted off the record, a whap as it swung smartly out of the way, the ka-chunk of the next record dropping, and another whap as the tonearm moved back into place. Then the needle touched the vinyl again, yielding not sound, not yet, but not quite silence either, until it bit the first groove and the next three minutes of music began. I soon realized that the big console stereo in the living room moved in a much different way than the portable did. The console, with its slimmer, more delicate, slower-moving tonearm, was like an artist, a ballerina maybe, or someone who was slowly and deliberately bringing forth things of beauty, anyhow. The portable loaded and unloaded records one after the other like a burly driver running a delivery route—which, it occurs to me, is not a bad metaphor for the perceived aesthetic differences between albums and 45s at the time I was noticing the difference.
When I was 10, I started buying my own 45s, and they reflected the famous bands of my time. I preferred the Partridge Family to Lawrence Duchow’s Red Raven Orchestra (in the Midwest, considered second only to Lawrence Welk for dance-band pre-eminence in the late 40s), but I never stopped listening to my father’s music, either. Our local radio station, WEKZ, programmed a lot of it—had I gotten the first radio job I ever wanted, I would likely have hosted the polka show at WEKZ from time to time. I probably heard a polka or two nearly every day the entire time I lived at home, until I left for good at age 20.
And when I left home, I took a few of Dad’s 45s with me. Mostly the Spike Jones records.
Since I am guessing you aren’t dying to hear a polka by Whoopee John, Frankie Yankovic, or Louie Bashell and His Silk Umbrella Orchestra, I’ll post something else from Dad’s collection. It’s catchy (and scratchy off the vinyl), but it’s extremely uncharacteristic of the rest of his collection. Former big-band singer Ella Mae Morse scored a few modest hits on her own between 1943 and 1946, and a few more in 1952 and 1953. Since Dad is the son of a dairy farmer who grew up to be a dairy farmer himself, I could have understood it had he bought the other record for which Morse is remembered, the one she sang with Freddie Slack and His Orchestra in 1942—“Cow Cow Boogie.” But this ain’t that. It’s the biggest hit of her career, “The Blacksmith Blues” (which is not really a blues at all, and on which she is backed by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra), from 1953. The first second is clipped from the mp3, but it occurs to me that it probably doesn’t matter. It’s vinyl, after all.