Susurrthump. That’s the sound of the holidays.
I’m sure my parents listened to music at other times. But my sharpest memories are of them putting a selection on the turntable on Christmas or Thanksgiving morning and playing their old favorites all day.
So it’s not carols that say Noel to me. Dinah Washington declaring “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes!” is Christmas. And Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and Johnny Mathis’s “Chances Are” and Brook Benton’s “Fools Rush In” and Nancy Wilson’s "Guess Who I Saw Today?" and on and on until time to turn all the albums over and stack them up again.
I can still see the look of amused irritation on the face of my late mom as my dad sang along to “If I didn’t care,” complete with his Ink Spottiest hand choreography. She had written her name as “Bettye” on the older covers. Her handwriting remained beautiful, but she dropped the e-at-the-end affectation as she got older.
My favorite of their favorites featured Harry Belafonte with Miriam Makeba, Odetta, the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Belafonte Singers. When we were little my sister and I would act out “A Hole in the Bucket” with a broom and a bucket as props. To avoid argument, we alternated who would sing Miriam’s part and who Harry’s.
My first exposure to Langston Hughes was probably the version of “A Little Lyric of Great Importance” that Harry set to music and sang on this album, so I was ready to read the poet as an old friend when I got older. I suspect my desire to see -- and hear -- the world was sparked by listening to Miriam’s click song and to Harry on “Hene ma Tov” and “La Bamba.” My dad says Miriam performed at his school when he was in college and that he and his classmates thought she was the most sophisticated person they had ever seen. I interviewed her in 1991 when “Eyes on Tomorrow” came out and found her both sophisticated and gracious.
One of my first grown-up purchases was a nice sound system. I was guided by an audiophile colleague in Kansas City, where I got a job right out of university at The Associated Press bureau. My colleague abhorred CDs, saying cuts should be buffered by the whispering of the needle over the groove, not a digital silence he found unnatural. He was probably right about that. But he also said, “Who needs to play more than one record at a time?” Apparently my parents’ stacking was bad for vinyl. I got a CD changer and started collecting old records in durable digital form along with my own newer favorites as my tastes evolved – but never strayed far from my parents’.
I always thought the beloved Belafonte album was called “Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall.” But when I finally got my own copy it was titled “Folk Songs from the World” and lacked the sexy photo of Harry on the cover in a buttonless shirt. But the songs were the same. When my daughter was little she and I acted out “Hole in the Bucket.” I’d matured enough to let her do the Harry part every time, even though he has all the best lines.
I have to imagine the needle hitting vinyl to set off the festivities. Luckily, it’s a sound I’ll never forget.