Sep 26 2020

No Wood Fire

Published by at 11:07 am under Audio,Family

As I’ve surely told you by now, when I was little my father occasionally gathered the family—Ma, my older brother Jay, younger sister Kate and me—around his big old tan Ampex reel-to-reel recorder for “Family Nights,” during which he’d interview us in turn and have us each perform little songs and answer a variety of questions. He was a ham. Put him in front of a microphone and he’d take off, in his faint Virginia accent:

“We have with us today a charming little three-and-a-half year old girl and I thought it might be appropriate to interview her now. She at this moment has a piece of bubblegum, and if you listen carefully you can probably hear the bubblegum being squashed in the little fat mouth. What do you have in your mouth, hmmm?

“Bubblegum.”

“Ginna, what kind of girl are you?”
“I’m a Daddy-girl.”

Later, Ma joins in with a question.

Ma: Ginna, what’s your new doll’s name?
Ginna: Dolly.
Ma: What’s your old doll’s name?
Ginna: Doll.

My creativity has always shone brightly.

Anyway, I loved Family Nights, because (unlike now) I was sociable and enjoyed it when we all hung out together, instead of being off in our separate orbits. Plus, it was fun to hear what I sounded like on a recording, when Dad would play it back: so different from what I heard inside my head.

I remember the rectangular plastic microphone that was attached to the recorder via a beige spiral cable like a phone cord, which we weren’t allowed to play with because it interfered with the recording quality. My first lesson in radio production.

There are forty hours of these recordings, on brittle quarter-inch tape, and I have them all. When I was producing my radio series about childhood, I went through it every bit of it—Family Nights and a lot more: duets of Stephen Foster songs, peppered with episodes of laughter, sung by Dad and his brother; Ma bashfully playing sweet tunes on the piano; Dad picking Wildwood Flower on his old Martin guitar.

After Dad died, when I was helping going through his things, I spent almost an entire week in his basement office, digging through his roll-top desk where he kept all kinds of pretty much useless stuff. In his drawers were business cards from forty years earlier, paper clips, an orange mechanical pencil with my grandfather’s company name on it, ancient postage stamps with clumps of lint stuck to them. If I look in my own desk drawer I see similar things. In his closet, along with the office supplies, I found some wrapping paper with scantily clad pinup models on it. It was weird pawing through his personal possessions, especially without him there.

Stuffed in one drawer I found a cookie-tin-sized cardboard box. On the outside, Dad had neatly printed in bold marker, “Microphone. Bad.” I opened it. Inside was another, slightly smaller box, nested like a Russian doll. On top was another label. It said, “Very bad.” Inside that was, of course the broken mic. He just couldn’t toss it, though it was unusable. He wouldn’t get rid of anything (unlike my mother, whom you have to watch out for because she “pitches” things you might want) because maybe someday he might need it.

[Editor’s note: I am my father’s daughter, it seems. I’ve been helping my friend put together a radio show and, so that I could get my voice into my computer, I plugged in my beloved Electro-Voice 635A. It’s the microphone with which I did pretty much all of my interviews back when I was producing documentaries. It’s captured the voices of “Mister” Fred Rogers and John Waters and Doc Watson, for example, and well over a hundred other folks. But today’s tests revealed that its audio quality is no longer acceptable. So I dug out another of my old mics. This one was entirely non-functional. What did I do? I carried them lovingly into the other room, zipped them into their special faux-leather case, and returned them to the shelf. I suppose I should attach a Post-It: “Microphones. Bad.”]

But the whole reason I’m writing this post is because: a couple years ago I digitized some of these archival recordings—the family interviews and songs—and as I was listening to them the other day, I found something I loved. It was Dad, alone with his (functioning) microphone. He was recovering from a cold and so his voice was especially deep. Thus, he decided it would be the perfect time to sing Burl Ives’ No Wood Fire.

Here’s my daddy in the 1950s.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “No Wood Fire”

  1. Small (Larger, at that time!) says:

    Such nostalgia! Your words and the singing bring back so many happy memories of over 60 years ago.

  2. Molly says:

    He has such a sweet and wonderful voice in that clip!

    I enjoyed this whole post very much. They sound like halcyon times, the early “Family Nights” of recording.

    And the “Microphone. Bad.” nesting doll box is very funny and very Boop-esque.

    It is amusing, also, how you take after him in your fond collecting of items (while I’ve ended up more like your mother in that regard!).

  3. Elana says:

    Wow I love that recording. So cool to be able to hear your pop’s voice after all this time just hearing stories. And this whole post is some artful lovely high quality Ginnascript.

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