Of C's and D's

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by Lorin Stein

For Christmas this year my parents gave me a record player, the kind that lets you (some of the time) record your old vinyl onto CDs. I'm no audiophile. I never had a record collection. I am the least musical person I know.

That's why this machine has been a revelation.

I started by burning a few of my parents' records. My father's are the ones I remembered best. He's an old folkie—he chauffered Joan Baez to the '64 Newport festival in his hearse and sometimes claims to have taught her "The Long Black Veil." His tastes followed what was, I think, a typical arc of the day (a sort of Ann Beattie soundtrack) from folk blues, to Baez, Dylan & Co, to the McGarrigles and Muldaurs, to Nashville. By the time I came along, the radio dial was permanently set to the local country station. I was intimately acquainted with Merle Haggard's catalogue by the time I learned to talk. (There are words I remember learning from his songs.) I suspect George Jones may have done me permanent developmental damage.

My mother's tastes included all that stuff but also ran to classical music and rock and roll (Buddy Holly, the Everleys). Plus reggae. After she and Dad split up, The Harder They Come went into eight years of heavy rotation. In recent years my mother has become an outspoken devotee of Van Morrison—Van Morrison of any era. My stepfather, when he came into our lives, was mainly a jazz and R&B guy. From his cache I burned Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, some Lou Rawls, Gil Scott Heron, Roberta Flack, The Blackbyrds' "Rock Creek Park" (I had my first kiss in Rock Creek Park—alas, it was nothing like the song), Mandrill, Bobbi Humphrey, Aretha, Stevie, Earth, Wind and Fire, Ramsey Lewis. ("Muzak," Mom sniffs. But I like it.)

My parents also own a bunch of hippie rock. They never played it when I was a kid—they had, I suspect, outgrown it, as people used to outgrow the music of their youth. I found much of it unlistenable. (What is Canned Heat for? Don't say getting stoned. I know about getting stoned. I do not want to get stoned and listen to Canned Heat.) There is some very stupid hippie rock.

That was the first thing I learned.

Actually, no. The first thing I learned is that even stupid music really does sound much better if you play it on a record. It sounds—I don't know quite how else to put this—like actual music. At least it sounds that way to me. The way a supermarket in a run-down neighborhood, where the retail strategy hasn't substantially changed since 1976, will always look to me like an actual supermarket. (As if someday the Whole Foods veil of illusion will fall away and I will find myself wheeled backward, by an affectionate giantess, down the aisle of a Giant Food ... )

The third thing I learned—after I brought the record player up to New York and installed it at the offices of The Paris Review—is that we've got a music archive two doors down the street. The Archive of Contemporary Music. And that every so often this Borgesian archive throws open its double doors and sells off its overstock. This summer they were culling the 45s, specifically letters C and D. Five 45s for a dollar.

I got some Drifters, some Creedence, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Tommy Dorsey, The Chantays, The Cadillacs, The Casinos, Jessi Colter, Joe Douglas ("The Devil Brought You In Here (But I'm Gonna Take You Home)"), David Allan Coe, the Cate Brothers Band, Vicki Carr, Claudine Clark, Bonnie Dove, Diahanna Carroll, a suspiciously Neil Diamond-y sounding person named Paul Davis, a transcendent two-side instrumental twelve-bar blues by Bill Doggett, a strikingly romantic male duet featuring the Scottish doo-whop artist Johnny Cymbal, a lifetime supply of Glen Campbell, and a couple of cuts by one Dr. Hook—only because, when I asked the archivist taking the money what kind of music Dr. Hook made, he said "Really shitty 70s music." My curiosity was piqued.

As previously mentioned, I am the least musical person I know. I grew up around musicians. I am good friends with several music historians. All my life, people have been trying, and failing, to get me to listen to new songs. (When I was nine my father actually forbade me to play "Heartbreak Hotel" one more single time.) And in the last two weeks, thanks to the random constraints of a rummage sale, I think I have learned more about popular music than I ever did from the witty, erudite bloggers at moistworks.com or anyplace else on the Web.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. We talk, nowadays, a lot about the importance of "curatorship" as a way of shaping what people listen to, read, or watch. For an editor, curation's the name of the game. A literary magazine, after all, is like a playlist. It's supposed to help readers find stuff that they will love but don't yet know they'll love.

If you are a person of natural curiosity, the Web is a paradise of curation—whether human or computer-enhanced. You can listen in on Alex Ross's iPod or stream from Pandora, or use Amazon to find the closest possible match to Henry Green.

But if you are a slug—and I suspect many of us contain a higher admixture of slug than is generally admitted—that paradise goes to waste. You long for someone to curate the curators. Someone or something.

Even scholars know this feeling. A medievalist once told me that very little was known about the Carolingian Dynasty until after 1945—simply because the Carolingians kept such good records, nobody knew where to start. You could spend your whole career describing fluctuations in Franconian grain production in the middle eleventh century (or whatever) and never get any closer to the big picture. Then, during World War Two, the Allies bombed all the archives to smithereens. Hundreds of years of source material disappeared overnight. Only a few bundles of singed parchment were left behind, under the letters C and D—and a field of study was born.

Such, at any rate, is my memory. I think of the Carolingians while I play the flipside to "Pipeline" (the groovy, groovy "Move It")—and when I remember how I first became a reader of The Paris Review. Because it was exactly the way these things used to happen. There was a bookstore down the street from my father's office. They carried literary magazines—it was a cool bookstore—and I wanted to subscribe to a literary magazine. (I was twelve; I wanted to be cool.) But I didn't know which magazine to choose. The names of the writers meant nothing to me. So for Christmas, 25 years before the record player Christmas, my father gave me four journals, and let me subscribe to the one I liked best. I liked The Paris Review best because I liked the look of it the best. It looked cool. It looked artistic.

It was the start of an education.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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