Today I was scrolling through the thousands of songs on my little MP3 player and then playing some of them while admiring the album art. After that I listened to the built-in FM radio for a while, and during all this the thought once again occurred to me that it would be easy to take this technology for granted. I think I can honestly say that I never do that, but it’s probably common for some people to overlook how special this all is. I’m not talking about the music itself (which is another whole subject) but the way we listen to it. It’s always been about getting the sound to our ears, but the gadgets we use to do that have been transformed through the years, and sometimes it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come.
Not counting hearing lullabies as a toddler, I think I first became aware of music when I was a young boy and heard it on the radio. And even though this was an era where radios were a fixture in most homes, they were expensive to buy and maintain, and even a table model was a costly addition to the household. My parents were a struggling young couple who wouldn’t have been able to fit something like that into their budget, so the odds are pretty good that I first heard music at my grandparents’ house.
I remember that they had a large console Philco that was taller than me, and it was common practice for everyone to gather around it after supper and listen to music. (That’s right — just like the Waltons.) In the Winter, the pot-bellied stove would be glowing red right along with the radio dial as my grand-dad tuned it to the kind of music they liked, and having spent their whole lives in the country, you can probably guess what that was.
They’d listen to shows like the Grand Ol’ Opry, and singers like Hank Williams and Hank Snow, whose big hit, “I’m Movin’ On”, probably came through that radio a few times. He had the perfect radio voice — strong, a little reedy, and backed by the driving guitar. (Hank was a pretty big star at that time, but also has another claim to fame — a few years after that, he helped a young singer named Elvis appear on the Opry. Unfortunately, after the show Elvis was told to go back to truck driving.)
Whenever my mom and I visited (because dad was on the road with his job), the radio was usually on every evening — limited only by my grand-dad’s patience and my mom’s persistence. However, I had a great aunt who had much stricter rules about radio usage at her house. She lived way in the backwoods and didn’t have electricity, so if we visited her and night fell we’d end up sitting and talking by the light of a kerosene lamp — and sometimes listening to the radio! It worked on batteries and was the first I’d ever seen.
Battery radios were pretty common in pre-war rural America, but as electrification spread after the war they were no longer needed except in isolated locations. They were often called “farm radios” which kind of gives you an idea of where they were most often used. Batteries were expensive, but sometimes the radios were rigged so that they could run off a lead-acid battery that could then be recharged in the farmer’s car or tractor. Of course, the battery might leak all over the parlor floor and ruin your carpet, so that method had its drawbacks too.
Listening to music now is a lot simpler and easier than it was then, but maybe not quite as…interesting.