Nostalgia and the Curious Collector of 78 RPM Children's Records
As I get older, nostalgia has become an adversary I frequently want to bind with rope, coat in honey, and leave to the insects. "Guess what / nostalgia sucks," goes that NOFX song. Blunt, yet astute. Of course, that couplet is followed by, "But I miss the days of Reagan punk," a clear acknowledgment that no matter how unsavory nostalgia may be, its pull is fixed and inescapable.
Nostalgia often feels like a hindrance on personal progress. Besides, when I revisit facets of adolescence, the process inevitably requires a cruel acknowledgment of the ever-widening gap between the past and the present. Like any long journey undertaken, there's a need to calculate and contemplate the distance traveled, the vast spaces between starts and destinations. "Remember that free cassette that came with Nana and Grampy's new Oldsmobile, and how we'd play Toto's 'Africa' over and over and over again?" I was asked. "Yeah, that was almost 30 years ago ..." I sighed.
In an effort to better understand nostalgia's content, triggers, and functions, I've become oddly fascinated by those who readily embrace it and refuse to let go. Folks like Peter Muldavin, who possesses the world's largest collection of 78 RPM children's records.
The term nostalgia was coined by 17th century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer after noting the significant number of his expatriate countrymen -- whether living as students, soldiers, or servants -- who appeared desperately detached from reality. Military physicians went a step further, proposing that nostalgia was largely confined to the Swiss because of the incessant clanging of cowbells in the Alps, a clamor that inflicted damage upon the eardrum and brain. For Muldavin, 69, the cowbells have been swapped for 78s featuring Gayla Peevey, Ireene Wicker, a crimson-haired scamp named Sparky, and the perpetually tormented Mr. Flibberty-Jib.
"It's about recapturing childhood," Muldavin says about his collection. "It's about nostalgia for those things that defined my childhood. My wife frequently jokes about it. When I turned 50, the birthday theme she created was '50 Going on 5.'"
Muldavin's collection can trace its origins to an innocuous purchase of two 78s he once treasured as a child: "The Underground Train," a narration about the Underground Railroad and escaping slaves, and "Said the Piano to the Harpsichord," which features the two instruments conversing about their relative differences ("I haven't any damper pedal and can't jump around the keyboard the way you do," the harpsichord laments). That was 20 years ago. Today, his haul of 78s ranges somewhere between 15,000 and 17,000 vintage children's recordings.
Understanding Muldavin's passion involves an appreciation of the diverse content featured on these 78s, each one a potent trigger of nostalgic reverie. Records such as: "Sparky's Magic Piano," with its creepy vocoder-enhanced voices; "The Eager Piano," in which the instrument--complete with keys that shine as brightly as a girl's teeth in a toothpaste ad--dreams of one day playing Carnegie Hall; "Poor Mr. Flibberty-Jib With a Rumble-Bumble in His Head," its hero overwhelmed with the dizzying racket of the modern world; the Little Songs on Big Subjects series, eager to tackle topics such as patriotism ("What Makes a Good American?") and racism ("Brown-Skinned Cow," which features the wince-worthy couplet, "You can get good milk from a brown-skinned cow/The color of the skin doesn't matter no-how"); and "The Churkendoose," a story about a mongrel fowl that's part chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.
These records were conceived as entertaining diversions for tiny minds, yet still leaned on grand production values, as releases often featured stars like Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Orson Welles, in addition to sweeping orchestral backgrounds. The music and narrations were innocent and sweet and replete with puerile imagery, but still strove to sound big-brother/big-sister preachy. They achieved a sort of timelessness, yet also felt achingly dated.
"I'm realistic about being an adult, being a grown-up," Muldavin says. "At the same time, we all have our childhood still inside us. For some it's repressed; for others there are good memories. Regardless, it's always there. And it only takes a sight or a smell -- or in this case, a song -- to bring it all back."
Understanding Muldavin's passion also requires an appreciation of 78 record collecting and just how deeply it's rooted in solitude. A few years ago, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote a particularly engrossing article for Harper's on one of pre-war blues' rarest 78s, Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Words Blues." Sullivan described 78 hobbyists as "a community wide-spread, but dysfunctionally tight-knit, as by process of consolidation the major collections have come into the keeping of fewer and fewer hands over the years."
Sullivan detailed how genres such as the blues and country each feature fewer than a dozen serious collectors of 78s. Muldavin has encountered several others with a passion for vintage children's recordings, but none with such a prodigious collection. Simply put, he's come to occupy a tiny niche within a tiny niche. "I suppose it's good to be the king," he laughs.
Muldavin's expertise resulted in him publishing a mammoth reference guide to nearly every 78 rpm kids' record released in the United States. Most of the book's listings focus on the period between 1946 and 1955, when a confluence of events (the post-war economic boom; the introduction of the "unbreakable record," a sure selling point for parents with destructive offspring; the increasing, pre-television popularity of the record player) led to what Muldavin has dubbed the "golden age" of children's records.
One such record from that era was by the aforementioned Gayla Peevey, who was just 10 years old when she cut 1953's minor hit "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas." Muldavin details how he received an email from Peevey's daughter, detailing how she stumbled across his web site via a simple Internet search. Did Muldavin have any copies of her mother's song for purchasing?
"I guess it's not unusual for some of these artists to get rid of -- or never even possess -- a copy of their work," Muldavin explains. "The daughter wanted a CD, but I said I had an original copy for her. It turns out her mother, Gayla, was still alive and she insisted on paying for the original. I said the only payment I wanted was for her to get on the phone and sing 'I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas' for my wife. She did, and wouldn't you know it, she still had that little girls' voice. It was like those MasterCard commercials; it was a priceless moment."
Back in Hofer's day, when the mechanics of nostalgia were first being meticulously puzzled over, doctors prescribed various remedies to cure it: purging, opium, leeches, or "warm hypnotic emulsions." It appears Muldavin -- with his zeal for curating the long-cherished artifacts of our past and molding them into objects that feel new, unfamiliar, untouched -- has discovered his own precious cure.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.