There was a tiny green and gold metal box with a hinged lid, less than half the size of a box of matches. It contained many brass gramophone needles, each of which could only be used once, held in place by a screw adjustment. The turntable was housed inside a polished mahogany box with beveled lid, and a handle protruded from the side with which to wind it. Every record required winding in advance, and if it was a little long, the speed dropped and the notes with it, so one had to wind it again, before it ground to a halt, to finish the song.
I was a willing handle-winder. The box stood on a low table, just the right height for me to read the label “His Master’s Voice.” I must have been six to read the words myself with a sense of triumph. In the picture a dog sat beside the trumpet of a gramophone, on a green background. I asked my Father what he was doing and he explained. I imagined the dog listening.
The records were made before vinyl was invented. Perhaps they were made of bakelite. We were repeatedly told “Be careful, they are valuable.” We used them with reverence.
There were about twenty records, at most, mainly songs. My Father’s taste included Gilbert and Sullivan, “Three Little Maids from School are we” from the Mikado. “The Floral Dance” was on one side of a record and “A Wandering Minstrel, I” on the other. There were arias by Caruso, and airs from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. There was one record for me and I sang along: “Polly Put the Kettle On”, and “Hey Diddle Diddle” on the reverse. Daddy always smiled when I sang.
I can still sing some of those songs. There were not many to learn. As I got older I listened repeatedly, wrote down the words and learned them by heart. Every time we heard Caruso’s rich tenor voice singing in Italian my parents revered its quality.
In my early teens my older brother listened to classical music on the radio and taught me to distinguish between Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Haydn. ‘Who composed this, Eileen?’ He could not tolerate, and tried to suppress, my taste for popular music, which of course made me keener.
For my twenty-first birthday my parents bought me an electric record player with a bright red case and automatic arm to lower a small number of records in sequence onto the turntable. I bought “Mr. Wonderful” on a 45 rpm disk, “Rock Around the Clock”, “Domani” and Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera.” I bought Nat King Cole’s long player, “Get your kicks on Route 66.” (I didn’t know where Route 66 was, or that I would one day drive on it, living in Virginia.) I sat with my boyfriend on my parents’ living room sofa in London, listening to West Side Story night after night. I can still sing every word. “Hey, Officer Krupsky, you’re really a square….” And “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria…” One day I accidentally dropped a pair of scissors on the record while it was playing, and forever after the needle stuck at that point, “I feel pretty.”
Years later I came naturally to appreciate classical music. My early resistance fostered by my brother, dissipated. Now I heard the shape of movements, the orchestration, musicality, invention and wit of the composer. I still do not appreciate dissonant chords in modern music or jazz. I’m seduced by melody, “and how strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye…”
My father died in 1965 and his records remained unplayed. The player and the record box collected dust under the stairs for thirty years, in later years under my own stairs, moving many times. My Mother died in 1995 and my brother said he wanted the records. When I opened the box the valuable records were beginning to crumble, no doubt unplayable.
Today my grandchildren have iPods (one each) onto which they can download thousands of songs from the internet and enjoy them on ear-buds. I don’t know how they choose from thousands. I bet they don’t know all the words. If they want to share the music they play it on the computer or email it to their friends with a forward click. I wonder how they will experience music sixty years from now. Humming “A Wandering Minstrel, I” today, I realize I’m straight out of the Ark.