Soundtrack in my head: The Roches “Unto Us A Child Is Born”
I have found a way to digitize Christmas memories. When I was growing up, we had a tradition of playing certain music when decorating the Christmas tree. There was a reel-to-reel tape that we always listened to and it became the soundtrack to our tree decorating efforts. The tape started with four songs that my parents recorded in 1969 off “The Midnight Special,” a folk music show on WFMT, the classical music station in Chicago. These four songs are very much etched in my memory and inseparable from the experience of Christmas itself.
The tape would open with the deep sound of an electric bass followed by a subdued strum of an electric guitar and a voice of uncertain gender singing in German. I’d learn years later that this was Marlene Dietrich’s version of the “The Little Drummer Boy.” A song by an artist unknown followed this–I think the song is called “Three Little Drummers.” The remaining songs were “Come Let Us Sing,” by the Armstrong Family, and Odetta’s soulful rendition of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Listening to them now is an interesting retro journey—not only because they take me back to my childhood, but also because a lot of music of my early, early childhood (that is, the late 60’s) used the same musical styles and recording techniques.
The four initial songs on the tape were followed by chorale music from several LP’s my parents had. While that music was enjoyable, that music didn’t make quite the impression on me like those first songs did. When my parents were on the verge of getting rid of their reel-to-reel tape recorder, I made a copy of those four songs onto a cassette tape.
I learned years later that these songs were recorded from In 1999, I decided to listen to The Midnight Special’s Christmas special with the tape recorder running. I filled about three cassettes with music. Then I transferred the songs from 1969 onto a newer tape and added to it selections from my 1999 recordings. Under “Date Recorded” on the cassette label, I wrote down “1969 and 1999.”
The “Midnight Special” started in 1953 and continues today. I was surprised to discover that the music I was recording in 1999 didn’t sound all that much different from what had been recorded in 1969. Yet it didn’t sound dated. The sound quality of the older stuff I’d saved had been diminished due to being transferred from an older tape, but beyond that, those songs—those same first songs etched into my memory from that reel-to-reel tape—blended seamlessly with the other music.
In 2004, I got a computer program that could convert the analog signal on a cassette or a vinyl record into a digital copy. Yes, dear readers, I was able to digitize Christmas. So I set about transferring this music onto a CD and for the first time, I could hear the music I’d heard on my parents’ reel-to-reel tape record on my CD player. Then I gave a copies of the CD to family members as a gift.
I now play the CDs I made every Christmas. To what extent they will become a family tradition is hard to say—it’ll depend on what kind of family or community I ultimately settle in. But I find it neat that I was able to use technology—which didn’t exist when the reel-to-reel tape was first recorded—to transport a special facet of my childhood from the past into the present.