Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The role of music in our informal education - touching our parents in the afterlife

The last few months I've spent significant time digitizing - mainly family photos, also some historical family documents.  It started out as pure joy, though occasionally tearful.  There was a larger purpose - to preserve this record for my kids, my brother's kid, the larger family, and future generations.  And I was pleasantly surprised at how good the scans turned out.  The relatively inexpensive Epson Printer I bought recently, to replace a different printer that had run its course, produces high resolution scans and seems to make the colors more vibrant.

But after a fashion pleasure reduces to obligation.  There are so many photos, many of my own family.  The burden of what is still left to be done became more daunting.  Physical activity that has to be done - I will mow the lawn later this morning - can justify itself.  Once there is little for me to learn by the scanning, the activity becomes less appealing as it provides no immediate reward.  And a couple of days ago I started to error messages on the printer that it wasn't communicating with my computer.  I need to troubleshoot that but it seemed a headache at the time so I put it off. 

I turned to something else instead.  I had collected up all the audio cassettes I could find in my parent's condo and brought them back to Champaign along with some pictures.  The rest of the pictures, all in photo albums,  I shipped by UPS.  That was at the beginning of March.  The photo albums are still in the UPS boxes.  The audio cassettes sat on the dining table, untouched, until a couple of weeks ago.  (We don't entertain too much these days.  The dining room became a temporary storage place.)  Then by happenstance I realized we had a boombox in the garage that plays cassettes.  It was quite dusty, having sat in that same position in the garage for a few years, but it proved functional.  I had guessed that many of the cassettes would be ruined, with the tape too stuck to play.   The one I tried, however, played reasonably well and I became more optimistic that the rest of the collection would do likewise.  But listening on the boombox wasn't quite doing it for me.

So I got the yen to digitize these cassettes, which is where my path to discovery about the music began.  Here's a bit on the digitizing before getting to the music itself.  If you do a Google search on something like "audio cassette to MP3" you will find tutorials for how to do this and links to a bunch of different possible hardware for the purpose.   I had actually done a fair amount of digitizing audio many years ago - converting my old records from my college days to MP3 using an ION USB-turntable and bringing in the audio into Audacity.  The weak link in the chain for that was keeping the tone-arm on the record with the right weight.  That was an analog, not digital, process.  It worked well on some records, less well on others.  Where it worked the quality was pretty good by my listening standards (not particularly high).  Where it didn't work is because there would be skipping frequently.

That prior experience disposed me positively toward ION and I ended up buying their Tape 2 Go, a rather Spartan but functional device.  It's pretty inexpensive and I'm a cheapskate at heart.  Further, it matched the type of music I was recording - mainly folk songs with the singer's voice and a simple guitar line as accompaniment.  If it was mostly orchestral music, perhaps a higher end machine would be preferred.

It took me a while to figure out how the thing works and at the outset I feared it didn't.  There is no on-off button and no LED to indicate that the thing is on.  Also none of the buttons open the slot to the unit where the cassette goes.  You have to do that manually.   And I thought the instructions not clear about what to do when the tape comes to an end.  It seems to play only in the direction the play button is pointed.  You have to take the tape out and turn it over when it has come to the end.  Having figured this out, the things does what it is supposed to do.  It has a headphone jack so you can listen to the music while it records.  Alternatively, you can listen through the speakers on your computer.

For the first cassette I recorded I used the software that ION provides.  They say it is easier than Audacity.  It puts the recording into iTunes.  That part is okay but I found it unsatisfactory because it wants to make a track for each song.  I wanted to record the entire side of the tape as one track.  But further, it was making a lot of false positives - creating splits within a song where there is a momentary pause.  That was a pain.  So I started to use Audacity after that initial experience.   It worked well for me.  After the recording was done I would use the noise reduction tool under the Effect menu, but make no other processing changes, which is consistent with my one-two-three-zing approach.  Then I'd save it as an Audacity project and in doing so give it a name.  Finally, I'd export it as MP3, which asks for some metadata so I'd put in the singers' names at that point. 

I started to listen to the music just to see if it was audible enough to be worth recording.  I soon got drawn in by what I was hearing.  I've now done 10 cassettes, each more than 45 minutes per side.  So this is about 15 hours of listening.  It was fascinating both because much of it I had never heard before or had no memory of hearing and because how beautiful much of it is.  Then there was familiarity with some of the songs but not the artists performing them.  And with Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and Burl Ives there was familiarity with both.

Two unique performers, at least to this collection, are Édith Piaf and Theodore Bikel. Piaf's songs are all in French and reminiscent of Caberet.  They are beautiful to listen to even though my French is so limited that at best I can pick out a few words, not a complete lyric.  Bikel performs in multiple languages - English, French, but mainly Hebrew.

There is something different in listening to the music when able to access the Internet at the same time.  The names of the artists that were new to me would not have been memorable without being able to make some other sort of connection to them.  In the case of Bob Ross and Andrew Rowan Summers I was able to find the exact album I was listening to on the Smithsonian Folkways Web site. This is music my father listened to, though I don't know when.  But it clearly was part of his inner being.  I found it mildly disturbing that this stuff is still copyrighted so can't be streamed online from the Smithsonian site.  (Spotify is the answer, more about that below.)  I did take that as a warning not to make my recordings publicly available.

There is a lot of Richard Dyer-Bennet.  When you listen to him at first it sounds almost like a woman's voice and I'm not sure whether it's falsetto or not.  His phrasing is very interesting and to my untutored ears he adopts a Brogue in many of his songs.

Much of the what I heard are "Standards" so there are many different artists who perform the same song.  The most hauntingly beautiful of these is VenezuelaThis video is interesting, not for the performance but for the notes that are included which gives some of the history of the song. Some of the other standards are The Fox - ...,many a mile head to go that night before he reached the town-o, The Riddle Song - I gave my love a cherry..., and The Foggy Foggy Dew - When I was a bachelor I lived all alone, I worked at the weaver's trade....  In retrospect, Spotify seems an excellent source of this music and the fidelity is probably much better fidelity than I'm getting with the recording.  For example, this version of Venezuela by Bob Ross is really quite wonderful.  I like it better than the John Jacob Niles version.  At some point I'll build my own collection in Spotify, but for now I'll keep up with the recording of my dad's music, because in that there is discovery of what he listened to.  For reasons I can't fully put my finger on, I feel a need for that music to become part of me.

Much of this is remarkably simple music, just the singer's voice with a very straightforward guitar accompaniment.  The rhythms are not complex at all and the songs are similar in that respect.  With that they are melodious and deeply moving, both the familiar ones and those entirely new to me.  I don't know whether it will draw in the next generation like it has for me.  It is part of our history.  It would be good not to lose it. 

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