Monthly Archives: November 2006

The death of a record collection

Last week I flew to Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, to witness the death of a record collection.

I should explain. I look after the film and music branch of a university library, a department that has an extensive American music collection—some 6,000 LPs and 3,000 CDs of jazz, blues, country, rock, pop, soundtracks, Cajun, modern classical, early electronics, Shaker music, native American field recordings, and anything else you can think of that might have originated in (or near—we have a small sub-collection of reggae, dub, and soca) the United States.

A few years ago the library agreed to accept a donation of some 4,000 LPs and 2,000 CDs from a private jazz collector upon his death. Though still very much alive, he is in his 80s now and fragile both mentally and physically, so his younger brother arranged for the collection to be taken early. My job was a diplomatic one, essentially—to oversee the packing and removal of the collection by a logistics firm as a mediator should there be any hiccups.

There weren’t. In fact it took four men barely an hour to pack and remove the entire collection. I watched them do it in a state of awed melancholy as it struck me that they had completely dismantled a man’s passion, a man’s life, in barely the time it would have taken to listen to Kind of Blue.

In recent years the collector had no interest in his collection. Ailing health, bereavement, and slowly declining hearing had sapped his once immense passion for music and left him with little but crosswords and memories of springer spaniels, tabby cats, and a wife who had all passed on. For a long time, he didn’t even have a record player on which to listen to his collection, and it had sat, unmovable and unplayable, in his living room like a giant hibernating creature gathering dust.

The collection had begun as an attempt to gather as many copies of “Tiger Rag” (composed by Harry DaCosta, Eddie Edwards, James LaRocca, Henry Ragas, Tony Sbarbaro, and Larry Shields) as possible. At one point it had striven to contain recordings on as many labels as possible, LPs ordered from the mainland and beyond via suppliers catalogues lent by the owner of an independent store on the island who charged a modest fee for his intermediary services. Forty or so versions of “Tiger Rag” were acquired, not just jazz but calypso versions with steel drums, and others.

The collector, surprisingly for such a small island (Guernsey has a population today of around 65,000) was not collecting alone—a friend on the island gathered a similar mass of records, again mostly jazz, and they worked almost as a team, each acquiring different areas, crossing over when something appealed to them both. Over the last few years the collector’s friend had begun archiving both collections digitally, plugging a turntable into a computer and transferring LPs to MP3s. The collector himself had no interest in computers. In fact by this point he had little interest in music, or anything, anymore.

Everything in the collection was listened to at least once. There are things in my collection, a modest 1,500 or so CDs and few hundred LPs, that go unlistened to. I have no versions of “Tiger Rag.” I’ve never even heard it.

I have suggested in the past that, were my collection to be destroyed or dismantled for any reason beyond my own will, I would find a new interest. I still like to think I would, but watching this man’s collection, amassed over 60 years, be put into cardboard boxes by people who cared no more for it than if it were a teapot or a stained rug, I found myself wondering, doubting. I always thought that a record collection reflected its owner’s personality and history. Now I am left thinking that, perhaps, after a certain amount of time, effort, and passion has been invested in a collection, the collector begins to resemble the collection instead—like owners growing to look like their dogs. And once a collection has stalled and begun to die, for any reason, then perhaps the collector stalls too.

The collector, in his 80s, is one of the first generation of people who have been able to experience recorded music for almost their entire lifetime. Collecting records has only really been possible since the end of the Second World War (in which the collector took part, at the D-Day landings), and the people who have amassed these archives of sound are now nearing the ends of their lives together, leaving masses of recorded music unattended. Who knows how many countless thousands of much-loved records are now orphaned, or even destroyed, because their owners have died. And a record collection with no collector, however complete, has no history, no personality, no one to tell the tale of how it began and how it ended. Though we know how they end.

By midday this room in a house on Guernsey, once full of music, was now empty, clad in vacant CD racks and bare shelves, even the memory of music fading quickly with no physical vessels in which to keep it. The speed and efficiency with which it emptied was profound and also pointless. Keats wrote in Ode on a Grecian Urn that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” He meant, I think, that the music in our minds will always be better than the music in our ears, simply because man is so idealistic and yet so flawed that we can never fully capture our dreams. Unheard melodies may be the sweetest, but heard ones that lay neglected are probably the saddest.