One song at a time

Here is a little something I rediscovered while listening to 78s yesterday: There’s really only one thing you can do while playing old records — listen.

The song is anywhere from two minutes to (if it’s a 12-inch record) maybe four minutes, so you can’t really do much more than listen to the song. Before you get settled, pick up a book or much of anything else, the song will end and you’ll have to change records, so you may as well just listen.

Longer-playing records and their successors have allowed the music to fade into the background, but when you can only play one song at a time, each song becomes the focus of your attention.

Obviously, that’s a good thing. The composer and the performer intended to be heard. They meant to move you one way or another. When we push their work to the back of our minds, we lose that.

And so I have a better appreciation of “La Vie En Rose” by Tony Martin or “Before It’s Too Late” by Sunny Gale than I would have if the recordings were playing at random on a CD or stream, because I needed to sit or stand next to the speakers during the entire song.

This phenomenon is most fun when there’s a lot happening in the song, which is probably why “Frenesi” by Artie Shaw or “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott are among my favorite 78 rpm records, and why “Good Vibrations” is my absolute favorite from the 45 rpm era. Each of those tunes twists and shifts in surprising ways and rewards a careful listen.

In our multitasking world, we consign music so far into the background that we can forget that listening to the music can be an awesome task in itself. I’m glad the clunkiness of the old technology forced me to rediscover this essential fact.


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