IF YOU'RE an audio freak who's also a history freak -- maybe an anthropology freak, too -- you know it's a good thing when you're at an estate sale, and you find a bunch of old reel-to-reel tapes.
And you know you've stumbled across a very good thing, and maybe an astounding thing, when you find what looks like brown film canisters.
Brush Sound-Mirror tape. Brown metal reels. From the late 1940s, used with some of the very first consumer tape recorders. EUREKA!
I walked away from that estate sale last weekend with several cans of tape. They came from the Sparrow Advertising Agency, 700 Farley Building, Birmingham, 3, Ala. And they ended up here in Omaha, in this old house. Lord only knows how.
The label on the tape-can lid said to "return immediately." I guess not even an ad agency could afford to throw around such a precious commodity, which audio tape certainly was in the 1940s.
After all, Americans knew next to nothing about tape recording until the Army "liberated" a number of the magical machines from captured German radio stations in 1945. Back then, if you wanted to make a recording, you cut a phonograph record or got a newfangled wire recorder.
But neither of those 1940s options sounded half as good as this marvel of German engineering.
For whatever reason -- Sloth? Forgetfulness? A telegram that said "Never mind"? -- no one bothered to return these tapes to Birmingham "immediately." Or at all.
I am so grateful.
THE TAPE LABELS identified the tapes mostly as being 1949 recordings -- "airchecks" in radio parlance -- of Joe Rumore, a popular host on station WVOK in Birmingham. There was Joe Rumore and Jean Foster, who did WVOK's cooking show. There was Joe Rumore doing the morning "Musical Roundup." There was Joe Rumore with "Hi, Neighbor Time," and there was Joe Rumore broadcasting live from the Alabama State Fair.
All sponsored by Mother's Best flour and corn meal.
I was more than a little stunned that these tapes played . . . and didn't break or shed copious amounts of oxide. Just two spices came undone after six decades, which I repaired using about four times the usual length of . . . get this . . . 50-year-old splicing tape I came across a few years back.
Voices from almost 58 years ago suddenly filled my home studio. Voices of people long dead. Ghosts of a way of life -- of a country -- long lost to "progress" and our Cult of the Autonomous Self.
I LISTENED to these ghosts' whispers. Whispers -- that's what they were. Today, we shout; we scream. We mock and we laugh -- at people, not with people.
I listened, and I found myself acutely aware of what we've lost in broadcasting . . . and as a society. WVOK in Birmingham, "The Voice of Dixie," was about public service, homespun humility, professionalism and good cheer. Listening to the late Mr. Rumore is to experience what only can be described as a certain "sweetness," one I almost had forgotten existed on the airwaves once upon a time.
It was so bittersweet -- given what radio, and we, have come to in these times -- to go back 58 years and listen to Joe Rumore, a good man being kind to people over the radio. Back then, listeners were "friends and neighbors." And that's what Mr. Joe was always saying, "friends and neighbors."
Joe Rumore's interjection, "friends and neighbors," was almost punctuation. Maybe an exclamation point.
Radio (not to mention television) does not deal in "friends and neighbors" today. Yesteryear's "friends and neighbors" are today's targets. And that's tragic.
THESE ESTATE-SALE GHOSTS, rising from between the magnetic particles on rolls of mylar tape -- and even paper tape -- also reminded me of the deep, deep contradictions of the South in which I grew up. I was born in 1961, so the Deep South of 1949 wasn't all that removed from the one I remember -- a place of deep humanity and Christ-haunted culture co-existing, somehow, with its demons of racial hatred, violence and intolerance.
Fortunately, Joe Rumore and his studio full of visitors singing along -- on air -- with a gospel record brought back, for me, memories (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) of the better angels of the South's nature.
Which, of course, are the better angels of our American nature.
IS IT TOO LATE? Or can these better angels be coaxed to come back and sit with us a spell?
Maybe they could sing along with us to some old gospel records, then retire with us to the porch swing for a cold glass of sweet tea.
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Have I piqued your interest? Here are some websites you can go to: