The River's Badge

Friday, July 20, 2018

Music's Worth

If I'd been a rich little kid, I would have owned the world's greatest collection of 45 RPM singles.

As it was, ninety-nine cents was damn hard to come by. My mom refused to pay me for housework, of which I actually did none, but nevertheless. I had to depend on the generosity of my Uncle Arnold, who would flip me a nickel or dime once in a while when he was helping my dad repair machinery on the farm. It was hard to save these coins, however, because the creamery truck showed up once a week to deliver milk and butter, and those fudgsicles the deliveryman carried in the back were almost impossible to resist.

By age ten I begrudgingly agreed to "help out" around the house in exchange for a weekly salary of twenty-five cents. Thus I whipped some dust around with a rag and possibly dried dishes, although my memory is unreliable on this. (In my defense, I don't recall my older sisters helping out, either. They probably remember it differently, but I am correct on this. Mom never enforced chores; I think because if you want something done right, well, you know...)

Eventually I managed to save up a dollar and promptly traipsed off to Poppler's Music to choose one lone single. My decision was not easy. I really liked The Lovin' Spoonful and The Dave Clark Five, but I almost always came home with a Beatles single. Like this:


There were, of course, other ways to consume music; most often my way was by borrowing my big brother's singles and albums when he was away. I needn't actually purchase music, because my brother had everything; but there is something about owning, holding, admiring one's own personal records. 

Then there were birthdays. I always asked for singles. I knew about albums, of course, but I really wanted the hits. My brother did buy me albums for my birthdays. He bought me The Mamas and Papas and The Yardbirds. Those two albums were the sum total of my LP collection for years to come.

This was a single I asked my best friend for, for my eleventh birthday:



When we moved in late 1966, I got myself a real job (albeit still working for my parents) and my wages increased to seventy-five cents per hour. Since my dad was constantly getting sloshed and embarking on rambling road trips, and since Mom felt an obligation to follow and track him down, I was regularly left in charge of their motel. I was eleven-going-on-twelve, but hey, the money was good!

If Mom forgot to pay me, I dinged open the cash register and withdrew the wages I was due. Dahmer's Music was my new local record store. A couple of records I purchased with my hard-fought money:



I did buy albums, too, once a year, every September, for my brother's birthday. I owed him, after all. I only purchased Beatles albums for him. In my mind, I wanted him to continue his collection. He was married by then and didn't actually care that much.  I bought Sgt. Peppers and asked him later how he liked it. He said, "It's okay", which kind of hurt my feelings. Shoot, I wasn't rich and I'd only tried to pad his repertoire. But people, and life, move on.

Once my new best friend, Alice, introduced me to country music, I dove into it headlong. Dahmer's wasn't flush with country singles (or albums) and our local country station was firmly ensconced in the Top Forty. I did buy albums, but I was limited to the offerings racked in JC Penney's basement. Thus I made some unfortunate purchases. I bought a duet album by Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn that I listened to approximately two times. Penneys was into "old fashioned", which was not my taste, but they hardly cared. Who but a couple of thirteen-year-old geeks was browsing their bins anyway? Their basement was flush with matrons queuing up at the catalog counter to order damask draperies. Country albums were essentially worthless unless one zeroed in on greatest hits compilations, which I definitely did buy, when available.

Soon I took to listening to far-away country stations, WHO in Des Moines (which came in crystal-clearly after midnight) and sometimes WSM in Nashville on a cloudless night and WBAP in Fort Worth. Ralph Emery and Mike Hoyer and Bill Mack understood country music -- real country music -- and I heard wondrous songs that were never once spun on my local station. But I had nowhere to buy them.

The internet was still a woozy science fiction fantasy, and computers? You mean those gargantuan whirring, beeping cyclops they showed on Lost In Space? I had a manual typewriter.

In the wee hours of Saturday nights, when I was able to tune in to WSM, right after the Opry, there was a program broadcast from Ernest Tubb's Record Shop. I figured, well hell, that store surely must have every country record known to man. I found the address in an issue of Country Music Roundup magazine, and found my way to the post office to purchase a money order*.

*the way kids who had no checking account could buy things through the mail.

I wrote long letters to the shop, specifying exactly which singles I wanted -- "not the fifties version, but the current recording by Mel Tillis". I tucked my money order inside and crossed my fingers.

That's how I eventually and joyfully received this:



And this:



Also this:


When music was hard to get, it meant more. 

Today I have tons and tons of songs on my hard drive, plus racks of CD's; not to mention my cache of fifty-year-old albums. And I never listen to any of them. But I would still get an ache in my heart if I could drop the needle on those obscure singles I strived so hard to procure. 

It's a truism that the more hard-fought a victory, the more it matters. When I click my mouse on an Amazon mp3, okay, now I've got it. I've downloaded songs that I've never once listened to. On the other hand, I played "We Can Work It Out" on my monaural record player approximately five hundred and twenty-three times, until the phonograph needle dug trenches in the vinyl. 

There is really no discovery now. No "you've got to hear this". Everybody knows everything and music doesn't matter because it's easy.

I cherish the times when I was forced to seek out music. When it was a victory to secure it. 

Now? Ehh. It doesn't really matter.








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