This is the first father’s day I’ve ever known without my father. I don’t much like it, but although Dad has been gone for months, I still feel his presence and find reminders of him at all kinds of the right moments.
Recently, I was talking with Mom about what to do with a box of Dad’s old 78 records. I love music; I love records, and these old 78s are from a special era in the 1940s when music was not as easy to come by as it is today. Songs were pressed one to a side on weighty shellac record discs which played through to a deep groovy sound we don’t hear in digital renderings today. Clearly my dad prized and loved this collection, caring for and moving the box of volumes of 78s as my family moved several times over seven decades, keeping the discs in good shape even when the instruments for playback were no longer available at home. Knowing how special these were to him (and some of these discs were also hers), Mom was having a hard time letting go of or knowing what otherwise to do with these.
I took the box with me and mulled over it for awhile. Among the professional volumes, two particular discs were out of place, set apart in a tattered old paper cover with a pencil scrawl. (“Look,” Mom said, “This one says ‘Richard’ on it.”) We had no idea what they were. The labels on these discs were plain (branded “Recordio” and “Capitol”), and a scribble on each of them in an area where contents should have been listed gave no indication what they could possibly be — except, apparently, self-recorded.
The Wilcox-Gay Recordio: 1940 Home Recording – via http://onetuberadio.com/2015/01/28/the-wilcox-gay-recordio-1940-home-recording/
I didn’t know home-recorded records were ever a thing, but I did some research and I found out that was indeed a possibility in the 1940s. Given that my grandfather was an audio technology wizard of sorts for his time, he no doubt would have had a home recorder like the Wilcox-Gay Recordio in their home in San Mateo. Especially if these could have voices from our family’s past on them, I realized I had to find a way to listen to them.
Unlike most of the other quality shellac 78s in the box – songs from the likes of Al Jolson, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and others – these two discs were pretty banged up. I wasn’t sure they’d be playable at all, and even so, with over 70 years of grime and scratches on them, I was not optimistic anything would be audible if they were playable. One of them, the disc with the Capitol label on it, looked like it was even fading away to some kind of strange metal underneath. And never mind that I long ago got rid of my own last phonograph. But I found a potential solution to this puzzle with Nick at a friendly and professional service across the Bay, Analog-to-Digital.net, who would give digitizing these things a try for a reasonable cost.
The digitizations came out better than I expected. Noise, unavoidable, is reduced, and skips are all over, but the recordings are audible. I’m not sure what’s going on for a great deal of these recordings, but it is clear somewhere in all the noises, skips, pops, and hiss that here are voices from the past of my dad, his brother, maybe some friends, and even my grandparents, having a blast using a home recorder.
Nick sent me two mp3 files, one per disc. There isn’t much more than 5 minutes of recording per disc. I separated the audio files into ‘tracks’ of sorts and gave them titles reflecting my best guesses as to what’s going on in each segment. I tossed some completely unintelligible parts but liberally kept most of the action, in the order it was pressed onto each disc, and uploaded it all to two separate playlists on SoundCloud. Voila: Today’s Recordio: Voices from the Watson home in the 1940s.
I can’t help but wonder if this iteration will stand the test of time as well as heavy old 78 records to last another 70 years, until the next time this format becomes antiquated and needs to be transferred to something playable.
For now on the first Father’s Day without you Dad, I’m happy we get to join you long ago at home.