50s Family Dubplates!

Imagine suddenly discovering that there were fifty-year-old recordings of your newlywed grandparents belting karaoke ballads in the family parlor and joshing (on mic!) about their already rocky relationship. For an ethnomusicolobloggerDJ like myself, it would be an unbelievable find — not just a revelation of family history but a truly wonderful slice of theretofore unknown audio/material cultural heritage.

It was a few years ago that my Aunt Lorna first told me of the existence of some home recordings made by her (& my dad’s) parents, Grandma and Grandpa to me, back in the 1950s. She wasn’t sure whether they survived the family exodus from Cushing Street, where the extended Ianelli-Marshall clan once occupied no fewer than 5 houses — or, if they did, who had them. I was delighted to learn that Theresa (or Terry, as she was then known) and Bernie once sang together – and moreover, that they met at an event where Bernie was playing in a Portuguese band (cymbals, Lorna thinks). Who knew we had such a musically-inflected family history? I was also, of course, deeply curious about the possibility of hearing my grandparents as young people — of finding a window into that world of the past, a past that not only I and the other grandchildren never knew but, indeed, a past that even predated the arrival of their own kids.

It was last May that I received an email out of the blue from my dad confirming the existence of the recordings, and their safe keeping:

Waynster….I have some “vinyl”, homemade recordings from the 50s that my mom and dad made. There are about 5 small records. A couple are degrading.

Do you know anyone that could try to transfer these to another media? I would be happy to pay just for the attempt or I fear my mom and dad’s voice will be lost forever on these things.

Turns out that he was right to put “vinyl” in quotation marks. The records that Grandma and Grandpa recorded together are not actually vinyl but aluminum discs with a thin coat of lacquer on them — in other words, dubplates. Of course, the novelty of being able to make your own record (at home!) comes with a price: they can only be played so many times and they degrade rather rapidly, relatively speaking.

Apparently, someone got hold of a consumer-end cutting machine (by DuoTone / DuoDisc) and brought it to 40 Cushing Street, i.e., “Ianelli Manor,” as Grandma calls it on the recording. There were at least two recording sessions, one on March 13, 1954 and another on November 5, 1955.

My father ended up with six records (five from the first session and one from the latter), and I was able to digitize five out of six at the house of a friend with a variable-speed turntable (they’re 78s). At this point, the records are not in great shape. The lacquer is literally flaking off them, and the act of playing them — even once — can be destructive.

Moreover, the recordings themselves suffer from microphone problems, as the occasional low buzz attests. They’re also, as can be expected with any old records, pretty scratchy and full of static. Of course, some people dig that sort of thing.

Regardless, they sound amazing to me. To listen in on the Ianelli parlor in the mid-50s is astounding. When I first heard these records last summer, I felt a little like a space alien encountering the Voyager and listening to the Golden Record. I don’t even have recordings of my own parents before I was born. That I can hear my grandparents singing and talking way back when is an unbelievable opportunity. I’m grateful for the technology and stewardship that allowed these records to be preserved, however imperfect.

The recordings offer quite the snapshot of my grandparents during the first couple years of their marriage. To hear each of them singing is just delightful. They’re pretty good! Now I know where my Dad gets his pipes (and though I haven’t heard them sing much, I suspect Glenn and Lorna inherited decent voices too). They each take turns singing the popular songs of the day. Actually, it’s Grandma who mostly has the mic. She takes two turns through the aptly chosen song, “Jealousy,” while Bernie takes one. She also sings “April in Portugal” and “I Love Paris.” (“Auntie” Josie finishes the 1954 session with a rendition of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which closes with a rant about needing to work on Saturdays if she’s gonna make any money.) There are some skips and jumps and such, and lots of voices lost in the static, but to be able to hear these at all is a miracle.

But enough narrating for now, the sounds speak — and sing — for themselves:

Terry, “Jealousy” (2:33)

Bernie, “Jealousy” (2:19)

Terry, “I Love Paris” (2:17)

Terry, “April in Portugal” (2:03)

Josie, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (1:39)

Two additional tracks, recorded on a different date, remain something of a mystery. The first one, a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” (including burp jokes!), is attributed to the “Auld Lang Syne Gang” and, in the audio, dedicated to “Lou and Annette”; while the second one features an older guy speaking in Italian who calls himself “Don Francisco Pablo” and someone named Joe (who may or may not be my grandmother’s brother). I think Bernie’s on these too. Not sure. It seems to be labeled “Joe & Christin Brie” — but I can’t quite make out the handwriting, and I don’t know who that might be. If anyone can help decipher, I’m quite curious.

Auld Lang Syne Gang, “Auld Lang Syne” (2:08)

Unknown, Talking (1:55)

I’m not certain that I know these people, but they’re sure sound familiar. I love the personality that comes through on these — the festive spirit, the joking and teasing (“you’re too fresh!”), the laughs shared by fellas & gals & elders. Reminds me of many a family holiday. And then there’s the mix of 50s affects, Boston accents (“New Yawk,” “awlives”), & broken English (“I want a cold bottle beer!”).

The most incredible find in the batch, though, is a recording of my grandparents talking rather than singing. Entitled “Me & You,” it actually offers the story of their first date! Who could have dreamed of discovering such a thing? Even their children hadn’t heard this story before a few months ago. On top of that, it’s a downright hilarious exchange, which I’ve transcribed below (in order to make it easier to follow).

On the flip side, my grandmother discusses the difficulties that have come with marrying my grandfather — both from her family and friends and from Bernie himself (the “ol’ bahstid,” as she calls him). Theirs was a troubled marriage, and this comes through on the recordings. They’re sad in their way, but also sweet; note that Grandma is laughing while teasing Grandpa about his infidelity. It’s really something that we get to hear their relationship so richly encapsulated by these brief exchanges.

Transcripts & audio of “Me & You” –

Side A: Introduction (2:15)

T: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Marshall broadcasting from the Ianelli Manor at 40 Cushing Street, Cambridge, Mass. … To this date, we have been a very closely knit family. At the time that I had met Mr. Marshall, no one was in agreement that I should continue this friendship, which later culminated into a full love affair. So we have now decided to be Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Marshall despite the fact that we do not have the good wishes and good will of all our friends and relatives, but eventually we hope to accomplish this feat. … My husband is, uh, nice at times, but then again there are times when, um, I just don’t meet his requirements and standards, but I hope too to accomplish this in the near future. … I, I think I can say that we are very much in love, but, um, sometimes I don’t know about Bernie. … You know this morning he met a nice little waitress, and I think he attempted to make love to her. But when he discovered she was one of my neighbors he changed his mind. (laughing) … The telephone, dear. Oh please, don’t answer the phone.

B: You’ll have to excuse, the telephone has rung. This wife of mine, Josie, what am I gonna do with her? Josie, where are you? Josie, where are you? Josie, where are you? Come home, Josie, come home. Josie… Bye.

Side B: First Date (2:14)

T: Bernie, what’d you tell me?
B: That I was single.
T: Why?
B: Huh?
T: Why?
B: You know the answer.
T: What did I tell you?
B: That you were married.
T: And what else?
B: Had a couple of kids.
T: And what else?
B: How do I know?
T: C’mon.
B: What else did you tell me? Oh yeah, you were a nurse.
T: Where?
B: At Mt. Auburn. Phony!
T: Remember the fun we had that night, though. What’d we do?
B: Dancing.
T: What else?
B: You weren’t hungry.
T: Go ahead.
B: You ate a chicken. If it wasn’t for being embarrassed, you would’ve ate the bones.
T: What else?
B: Oh yeah, you wanted to come straight home.
T: Yeah?
B: You didn’t want to go park. It took you two hours to get out of the car.
T: Oh no no no.
B: Oh yes it did. That’s the truth, go ‘head.
B: That’s what happened. It took you two hours to get out of the car.
T: Well, anyway, Bernie, mom wants us to go to Bermuda for our honeymoon. Whattaya say? Yah, you got enough money? Huh?
T: D’you wanna go to Bermuda for your honeymoon, Bernie? Ten years from now do you think you can save 1000 dollars? Ok, now you say something, honeybun. Oh, come on, darling. Oh, please.
T: Well, anyway we did have a lot of fun together. It was nice. But then we also had a lot of troubles too. Hey, Josie, got any dirty bloomers? I’m doing my laundry. You ol’ bastard, you. … Well, Bernie, I just hope the next 50 years will be as happy as the last one for us both. Good-bye.