Aeons ago, I would watch the Admiral radio-phonograph go through its paces while playing a gray labeled Columbia LP that my parents had received when joining a record club. Mozart’s 40th.
The tone arm would lift, retreat to the right ever so slightly, there’d be an audible “click,” and the record would drop onto the musty turntable, much smaller than the record itself, and the tone arm would hover over the start of the record, and only when it landed onto the turning disk, would the sound happen. It was magic.
I stared at the record as the needle tracked through the first movement, watching it move closer and closer to the center. It was all in a single groove. The needle was pulling sound out of a plastic disk, and while leaning over the phonograph, I could feel the vibrations of the sound making a literal, visceral connection with my stomach.
I later leaned my face into the side of my metal lunch box, painted to look like a school bus, only packed with Disney characters, and when humming, I felt the vibration through the lunch box.
At recess, we took turns humming near the pipe that served to support the teeter-totter and tried to find how far away we could move and still feel the vibration.
My grandfather had a mechanical phonograph, run by a spring, along with very old records that his father had owned - and when I looked at the grooves, they were there, larger, rather dusty, but I figured grandfather could be a bit dusty, too, so that was a natural thing.
Then I went back and looked at the gray labeled LP, really looked into it, got out a tiny plastic magnifier from my mom’s sewing kit, and saw the waves in the grooves.
Sound was a wave.
The grooves held the sound.
The needle brought the sound back.
He played the record on his machine, and the muffled, distant voice came through the wooden horn, as if it were attached back, far, far, back behind the machine, reaching into the past - and that voice was calling ahead to now, like a ghost.
That night I dreamt I was a sound.
A groove on a record. A long line, wrapped counter-clockwise moving to the center. My entire being existed as that groove. The needle fell upon me, and I came to life, just as that voice came to life at my grandfather’s house. I could be heard! I could be experienced! I was alive!
The needle wore me away every time it played the record. I thought in the dream, I cannot let myself get played too often, unless I would be worn away.
I woke and read what I could understand - a lot of it was based on electronic theory, and my seven year-old brain wasn’t quite wired at that point - but I found that people, alive in the 1890s, made recordings of themselves, one-of-a-kind, and that, somewhere in museums, they could still be able to talk to us now.
And later, museums and libraries were getting rid of these recordings, just as casually as someone discarding a gum wrapper, and I was horrified.
But, being seven, with a ten cent weekly allowance, I couldn’t do a thing about it.
But I always remembered that ghostly sounding voice singing to me from nearly another century.
And so, whenever I could, starting at ten, when my weekly allowance was increased to a pair of quarters from the fireplace mantle, I would buy some of these cast-offs.
And I helped keep those grooves alive for just a bit more.
Each move since has resulted in some of these records being broken, and I mourn not the material loss, but the loss of an artifact of someone’s being.
So, whenever I can, I share, send, remaster, and perpetuate these voices, sounds, and music - if the music was intended to be a working experience, I try to keep its mission going, in a way to straddle the past to the present.
If the voices have a soft, distant, spooky sound to them, well, that’s the past talking to us.
that’s why I do this.
It keeps the Admiral happy.
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