After Grandmother Wallace died, my Aunt Sallie and Uncle George kept the old home place as best they could. It was a rambling farmhouse with nine unheated rooms. There, in the living room with the overstuffed furniture and a beautiful chest of drawers was a Victrola. For those unfamiliar with that device, it was a record player that worked by winding up a spring motor, placing a needle on the spinning record and setting a speed lever. Out of the opened doors came music. The sounds which came forth were often faint. The hissing sound of the needle in the record grooves was distinct. When the spring began to lose its tension, the music and the voices became lower and lower in pitch.
For the day, it was a marvel. As one opened the lid, there was the image of the dog Nipper, and the slogan, "His Master's Voice," the theme of the Victor phonograph. With his ear close to the source of the sound, Nipper could indeed hear his master's voice.
There were thick old records stored in the cabinet, and they were of interest to me. As I write, I can almost smell the scent of the old records, which had been played often. Together, let us look at some of the titles.
Sir Harry Lauder, a Scottish comedian and singer rendered "We're off to Baltimore" in his brogue, complete with laughter. Violinist Fritz Kreisler offered his own "Caprice Viennois," on the violin. Some great tenor sang an aria from Aida, "Celeste Aida," which to my 8-year-old mind was inexpressively beautiful.
Then, there were comic songs, one of which was entitled, "The Little Old Ford," which extolled the Model T Ford that revolutionized life for Americans in the early part of the last century. "Auntie Skinner's Chicken Dinner" never failed to amuse.
Hymns and sacred songs occupied several disks. There were some Christmas carols I tried without success to get my parents and relatives to sing along with. A quaint old number "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad," sang of a bold engineer with hand upon the throttle and eye upon the rail. By analogy, it was a proclamation of the religious life, and the conclusion led me into a final Union Station, which stood for heaven.
I must mention the spirituals. One sung by a quartette of black men proclaimed that "everyone who talks about heaven ain't goin' there." I was a Christian boy, and while I did not talk about heaven much, I knew already that vain repetition of spiritual themes was an example of lively faith.
Each time I would visit my Aunt and Uncle, I would stand in front of the opened doors of the Victrola and listen carefully to the music. It was in the old farmhouse, though, that my musical education began. Despite my already present hearing loss, I could revel in the sounds made by people who stood in front of huge recording horns, almost shouting so that their selections could be engraved on a wax disk, and then transferred to the shellac records which were so familiar, especially to rural people who did not have electricity.
In some ways, also, my spiritual life was shaped by some of those primitive recordings. There were words that challenged me to make a sincere profession of my faith. There was music from the Grand Opera stage that was far above that undertaken by the best tenor in our church choir. Even the comic songs, some sadly tied to the prejudices of the day showed me that humor has its own power to excite, to cause laughter to prosper in this vale of tears.
That old phonograph was probably sold to an antique hunter one day. Today, though, even with my severely limited hearing, I can use the powers of the computer to hear renditions of the great artists of the past, who gave their all so that boys like me could learn of music through their heartfelt performances.Posey is a retired Presbyterian U.S.A. minister who writes from Charleston.