By Jim Dees
The calendar now reads 2023 which has more of a space age sound to it than 2022. We are all George Jetson with flying cars on the horizon.
As we enter this brave new whirl, some of us tech-challenged fogies will find ourselves falling even further into befuddlement. For myself, even in glossy, fancy 2023, my vocations remain, writing for print and talking on the radio. That’s like being a polar bear on a melting glacier. Headed to extinction before distinction, It doesn’t get more old school.
Radio is now referred to as “terrestrial radio,” tethered to earth. One thinks of the small-town stations of yesteryear, including in Oxford; small huts situated on the outskirts of town. Next door or behind the hut would stand a tall antenna capable of throwing the signal to the two neighboring counties… maybe.
Back in the Golden Age of FM radio, DJs would play an entire album side without interruption. These 20 minutes afforded an opportunity for these working stiffs to step outside and take a swig or a smoke, action known in industry parlance as, “Checking the tower.”
On my old AM radio I had a pencil mark on the tuning knob so I could more easily dial in WLS Chicago. The Beatles debuted their classic “Hey Jude” in August 1968 at 6 pm, and the station preceded that monumental event with week-long teases.
When the day and hour finally arrived, I was dutifully posted up at that cheap little green radio. At the stroke of six, my father appeared at my bedroom door, barking orders: “Supper’s ready, turn off that radio; Let’s go, Go!”
There was no arguing or protesting with the old fighter pilot. I missed the debut of “Hey Jude.”
Sometime later, I was at home, again, listening to the radio, this time to our local church service (I must have been sick to be at home). Suddenly, in the middle of the preacher’s message erupted the unmistakable windstorm of my father’s sneeze.
After an interval, a second sneeze. Interval. A third sneeze.
I began visualizing the slideshow of Exorcist faces he makes between sneezes: head bobbing, eyes fluttering, mouth agape. That nether land of uncertainty; not wanting to, yet having to, sneeze. He goes through all the seven faces of the Seven Dwarfs before the sneeze finally, mercifully, comes.
“Ah – Chooh!”
I clocked him at fourteen in a row. The sneezes lasted longer than the sermon.
Indeed, he took a sad sneeze and made it better.
As a high schooler, my buds and I rode the Delta back roads on Friday nights, listening to the all-night Road Gang truck driver show from WWL New Orleans. Red Sovine, Dave Dudley, Phantom 309. It was a gateway listen to more esoterica.
As a semi-adult, working at the much-lamented Hoka, Oxford’s former bohemian cultural center, we were always looking for new music to play over our stereo system in the dining room. WEVL 89.9 FM out of Memphis proved an eclectic resource and I still have stacks of cassettes I made of their programing. (Yes, a lowly pirate).
I would tune in and record a big dose of Hawaiian, reggae, blues, country, R&B, soul, gospel and even a rousing polka – all in one show – if the show was Jim Spake’s “House Party” on Thursdays.
I remember a dinner party with my girlfriend’s parents where I excused myself in order to step outside and flip over a tape during a two-hour Ry Cooder special on WEVL When I realized the radio reception wasn’t great, I climbed out on their roof and set up the machine to get better results.
I’m sure her parents thought, “Yeah, this guy’s a keeper.”
During the late 1980s living with Ronzo of the Hoka and Willie Wallace of Local Color, we often moved furniture out into the yard for maximum seasonal enjoyment.
I was employing this very tactic on March 26 1987, listening to the Ole Miss Rebel baseball game. David Kellum interrupted his game call to announce a tragedy involving a Chi Omega sorority charity walk.
Later the news would emerge that five young ladies were killed. I can still remember the front yard, the warm sky, the radio and that feeling.
No matter the advances in technology and the Spacely Sprockets of the George Jetson universe, sounds simply coming out of a box will always be with us. Somebody, somewhere will transmit music or speak into a microphone and those sounds will carry across the airwaves to be received by an audience and it will mean something to somebody, somewhere.
Even fourteen consecutive sneezes.