Friday, December 19, 2008

Golden Angels in Little Boxes

A note: I’m getting some interesting Top Tens from my 2008 blog songs for the Great Vinyl Countdown, which will involve a reposting of the ten reader favorites. Don’t let others vote out your preferences! Here's what you need to do about it.

Christmas was taken seriously at my house, and at those of my cousins. I have video (Super 8mm transferred to DVD) that shows all of us gathering together, and there were a lot of us. My mom was the youngest of ten children, and while none of my uncles and aunts reproduced to that degree, there were plenty of cousins.

We all gathered at my grandparents’ house in Gary, at 340 Adams, half a block from the South Shore electric railway. At night, you could see sparks from the electrical contacts that reached up from the engines to the overhead wires. Across the street was a row of apartment houses, dark-brown brick, and all around us were two-story frame houses. My grandmother sold the house in 1969, and in 1971, the City of Gary demolished it, because the new owners had left the doors and windows open to the elements, and it had become uninhabitable. Soon, so many houses would reach that state that the city simply stopped tearing them down; some sat as wrecks for twenty years, which you know if you have ever driven past Gary on the Indiana Tollway.

But in the mid-1960s, everyone in Gary was working in the steel mills, drugs had not taken hold as the primary local commodity, and Christmas was a superb time to go downtown.

At some point, my parents received from my cousin Manetta an LP of Christmas recordings played on music boxes. A Music Box Christmas (Columbia 8498) used music boxes from the collection of Rita Ford, a Manhattan purveyor of antique music boxes, to bring extraordinarily high-fidelity recordings of music as people would have heard it just before the dawn of the Recording Era.

Nowadays, when you open up a jewelry box or anything that has a little mechanical device, you get a tinkly sound that reminds me of water dripping. Not so with the Ford music boxes. They existed to produce the full dynamic range of sound, a substitute for the not-yet-existent technology for recording musicians. While today’s little boxes play one song, these machines played cylinders or platters that could be swapped out, with new songs available at music stores. The larger music boxes undoubtedly served as the engineering prototype for the first cabinet-style record players of the 1890s.

Every year, the Christmas LPs came out after Thanksgiving, and this was my favorite. For the first several years, I managed not to destroy the cover, so I was able to recall its design. What stuck most in my memory was a golden, trumpet-playing, winged cherub, which hung in the upper right-hand corner of the photo. You can see the cover, and bid on a sealed copy of the LP, here.

After the LP lost the valiant battle to survive in the Great Vinyl Meltdown of 1972, every Christmas involved nostalgia for the family gatherings, for the wreath covered in Brach’s butterscotch candies that one of my cousins always made up for us, for my mom, and for that album. The song selection, which included tunes I have never heard elsewhere, the idea of very old technology creating new Christmas traditions in an era that gave us a lot of the traditions we now follow blindly, and the simple beauty of the song arrangements, all worked to make this a great album and a great memory.

And so, I met with a staggering surprise one day in the mid-1980s when I was walking through College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana. There, in the Christmas-music bin, sat the LP. As soon as I caught my breath, I grabbed the album and bought it. I went straight home and played it. My then-spouse probably had not seen anything like caithiseach transfixed, staring at the stereo. The rush to reissue music had not started, or perhaps I could say it started with this LP.

The following year, probably 1987, I found the album again on CD, with the cover smaller but intact. Had I seen the CD first, then the LP, I have no doubt that this would have been one of the few times that I would have bought the LP anyway. The whole package deserves the full-sized treatment.

After I got the CD, it seems that someone else in Bloomington got it, too: one of the radio stations used one of the songs in a number of commercials for a couple of Christmas seasons. Whatever. I was able to hear the music and smile at the memories, rather than be annoyed at the commercialization of the recording.

I am bringing you two recordings, one a song I’ve not heard elsewhere, “Monastery Bells,” the song I had most strongly associated with the album in the 14 years I did not have a copy. The other, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” displays the dynamic range of the 19th-century Regina music box to its best advantage.

I was pleased to learn a couple of years ago that someone is putting out tabletop music boxes similar to the old ones. They use flexible but durable plastic platters, interchangeable so you can hear a variety of songs. I think the sound is electronic rather than mechanical, but I won’t be able to confirm that until I visit my dad in a few days. A search is not showing me a model similar to the one his wife has. I won’t bother to bring up the subject again, but you can ask what I learned, sometime around the end of the year.

Next time, I’ll wrap up Christmas with a tale of the year I played DJ for the entire neighborhood. Then, post-Christmas, I’ll bring in a couple of odds and ends, and on the 31st is the Great Vinyl Countdown. The results are getting weird, so you need to vote!

Monastery Bells

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing


whiteray said...

This is so cool . . . loved both, especially "Monastery Bells"! But an entire LP? I'm not sure. One at a time, though, incredibly good!

whiteray said...

I should add: Give us a call!