I will never forget the day my Dad showed up with a new stereo. This particular model was housed in a nice wooden cabinet with separate speakers and bore a gold embossed logo - Silvertone. Just the name alone conjured up mystery and stirred my imagination. This meant two things - that our family would now be able to enjoy listening in stereo with a much higher fidelity then we had previously and that my brother and I would be the recipients of the old mono suitcase phonograph player.
Dad proudly set up the new stereo in front of the big picture window in the living room of our little house. He placed the unit on a large wooden stand with room for storage of LP's down below and spaced the two speakers out on either side. Our new stereo system had a stacking mechanism allowing for the placement of a half dozen or so LP's on it. One record would finish and another would drop and they would play in sequence. This feature made the player almost like a small home jukebox. I'm pretty sure the scratches inflicted on these vinyl records falling on top of each other was quite damaging, but nobody thought of that at the time. Dad was very careful with his record collection, making sure that he held them with his thumb on the edge and a finger in the middle, so as not to get any fingerprints on the vinyl itself. He had a small cleaning kit which he used to remove dust with the velvet roller. Each and every record promptly went back in its proper sleeve and dust jacket. When Dad placed a record on the machine the glorious sounds of stereo filled the room. It might not have been heaven, but maybe it was a little taste?
Outside of books, Dad loved his records and collecting music. He would frequently come home from the Prairie Bookroom with the latest titles by Rudy Atwood, The Sixteen Singing Men, Tennessee Ernie Ford and a host of others. Christmas music was also important in our home and every Christmas a few more albums were added to the collection. Classics like Bing Crosby and Perry Como were brought home for us to enjoy. The Bookroom's strict music policies seemed to be more relaxed with Christmas music and a lot of "worldly" holiday music managed to sneak its way in the door. One of my Aunts, I'll call her Rachel, because that is her name, kept several of her records at our house so as not to incur any displeasure from Grandpa and Grandma. What better place to store them than at the house of her older sister who was married to a preacher! The original Sound Of Music soundtrack, featuring the clear voice of Julie Andrews and a sampler record that included Patti Page singing How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?, were a couple of the titles I recall.
Dave and I placed the little mono record player in our room and would listen for hours to the various story and song LP's that Dad would buy for us. We enjoyed Black Beauty, Seven at One Blow, Dick Whittington's Cat and a variety of Bible stories. Many nights we would fall asleep while the records played and Mom or Dad would come into our room, lift the needle off the player and shut off the machine. I remember Dad buying the soundtrack to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang long before we had ever seen the movie. As we would listen, our imaginations would fill in the scenes and action and in effect, create our own movie.
Dad, being the loyal Scot that he was, loved the bagpipes and had a few LP's of various pipe bands. Our family had experienced and enjoyed one of the largest drum and pipe festivals in the world when we visited Edinburgh in 1970. Each band, dressed in their kilts with tartans representing the various clans, cut a colorful swath across the vast lawns of Princess Street Gardens at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. Yelling out terse commands, the drum major led the group, holding a highly polished mace in his hands. One of the other highlights of that summer was being able to attend the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This is an annual series of military tattoos performed by British Armed Forces, Commonwealth and international military bands and display teams. The event takes place annually throughout August, as part of the wider Edinburgh Festival.
A recent article in the Edinburgh Castle paper describes the event this way:
"In the glowing twilight, the floodlit Edinburgh Castle draws all eyes, a hush falls and darkness deepens. Then the great oak gates of Edinburgh Castle sweep open, and the swelling sound of hundreds of pipes and drums cracks through the night sky. Emotions run high: the Edinburgh Military Tattoo unfailingly enthrals, symbolising the Scotland that everyone holds dear in their heart.
Now a dazzling show is spread out on the Castle Esplanade, a whirling and colourful kaleidoscope of music, dance and display. It may be exciting - daredevil motorcycles at speed and the breathtaking re-enactment of battles, or exotic - Turkish music and Chinese dancers, or simply the best of Scottish - Highland dancers wheeling and swirling to a fiddle orchestra.
Then the audience gather themselves together for the finale of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. All 1000 or so performers on the Castle Esplanade, column after column of marchers, dancers and bandsmen. The Tattoo audience joins in a great chorus of singing, cheering, and applause; cries of 'Bravo!' before a hush falls for the singing of the Evening Hymn, the sounding of the Last Post and the lowering of the flags on the Castle.
Finally, all faces turn to the Edinburgh Castle ramparts, where a single spotlight cues the Lone Piper of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo to play his haunting lament, the high notes echoing across the still night sky and over the dark Edinburgh skyline, as the flames of the Castle torch lights and the piper's warming brazier flicker and slowly die.
At the Edinburgh Military Tattoo fireworks burst out from the Castle against the black sky, but the spell is not broken, for when the crowd sing Auld Lang Syne and shake their neighbour's hand, the emotions linger, and the heart is full. Goers to The Edinburgh Military Tattoo all united in international friendship, the shared love of Scotland, its music and its traditions."
As the fog rolled in from the sea and the sound of the pipes echoed throughout the castle and across the city, it became an unforgettable experience for our family.
I'm not sure which is more maligned - the bagpipes, the banjo or the violin, but the bagpipes certainly receive their fair share of jesting. It is said that the Irish sent the bagpipes over to Scotland as a joke . . . and the Scots still haven't caught on! Alfred Hitchcock once said, "I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made object never equaled the purity of sound achieved by the pig". A friend of mine once asked me what the definition of a gentleman was. The answer, he claimed, was a person who knows how to play the bagpipes but doesn't.
A friend of Dad's knew he was a big bagpipe fan and presented him with a small gift. It was a 45 record with a bright orange label in the center housed in a plain white paper sleeve. The 45, was another musical reproduction device in a line of many, starting with wire recordings, wax cylinders, 78's and 33 1/3 LP's, to name a few. The 45 had a large hole in the center necessitating the use of a little plastic adapter to enable it to be played on standard phonograph machines. For many years this became the medium of choice for the record companies to service radio stations, hence the name "single", as only one song appeared on either side. Record stores would also sell them and I collected many throughout my high school years.
The title of Dad's gift was the classic recording of "Amazing Grace" by the combined bands of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. This recording had reached number one status in the charts in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada and South Africa. The recording was originally released in 1971 to mark the amalgamation of the Royal Scots Greys and the 3rd Carabiniers, to become the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Scotland's only cavalry regiment. The album first appeared on the RCA label and it was this recording which gained the band's world renowned fame, selling over 6 million copies of the tune when it was released as a 45.
Being the curious kid that I was, I decided to check out the B side of the little black vinyl 45. On this particular edition, the distributor of the single, had decided to put an unrelated group on the opposite side of Amazing Grace. What met my ears were the heavy sounds of a rock band a la Deep Purple or T. Rex . This was a brand new sound to me. The punchy drums and powerful guitars were something I thought I could get used to! As the song says, "It's Only Rock 'n Roll, But I Like It".
Occasionally, when we arrived home from school, Mom would have left a note on the table or door letting us know that she would be right home. Sometimes she would be called out on church business or be off on a project or committee meeting. We were pretty independent and would make ourselves a sandwich, grab an apple or some cookies and go outside to play or listen to the stereo.
Every Saturday morning the Institute held a weekly staff meeting. Attendance was mandatory for both staff men and women. To aid in this endeavor, the school provided a babysitting service. Bible school girls were assigned to different homes as part of their student work. The girl would arrive just before 8 o'clock and leave right at 9. Many times Mom and Dad would visit with other staff and wouldn't arrive home until 9:30 or so.
After the discovery of this new musical art form, I decided that a scientific experiment was in order - one along the lines of acoustic research. Taking advantage of the small time window when the babysitter left and my parents weren't yet home, I hauled both of the speakers from Dad's stereo into the front doorway and stacked them up one on top of each other. Pointing them in the direction of the elementary school, I enlisted my brother as my research assistant. I cranked up the B side of that little 45 and then dispatched Dave to walk down towards the school and see just how far he could hear the music. I kept an eye out for Mom and Dad or an annoyed neighbor or two. Evidently the stereo put out quite a healthy decibel level, because on Dave's return, he reported that he could hear the music all the way down at the elementary school. I'm sure that the noise emitting at that level was completely distorted, but it brought me a great deal of satisfaction that I had effectively "covered" the neighborhood with my gift. Working quickly, we had the whole thing put back in its place, playing the sweet sounds of the Sixteen Singing Men upon Mom and Dad's return. I don't think any neighbor ever reported us to our parents nor did any of them call the cops. They were probably all at Staff Meeting as well.
Every time I hear the haunting strains of the bagpipes, I smile to myself and think of the day I found Amazing Grace and discovered Rock 'n' Roll.
© 2011 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.