What I Still Hear: Sounds That Have Disappeared

I tell stories on a show called Radiolab with a guy who is several decades younger than me. Jad Abumrad is brilliant at it. Nobody turns complex subjects into soundscapes that work their way into the heart (and head) like he does. But — because he was born in the '70s, he's got blank spots. He doesn't know he has them, but I do. There are sounds he doesn't know. Not like I do. For example:

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Jad came into consciousness when the rotary phone was maybe in his grandma's kitchen — or in the movies. That clickity-click sound of dial running backwards is something I grew up with. But Jad now has a son, and that boy, who's going on 2 and a half, he has a very different set of sounds in his head. When he hears the word "phone", I suspect he hears this...

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There is a lesson in this for storytellers, especially storytellers who make their living on the radio. When we tell tales, the sounds we make, the pacing, the beats, the references, they come from the sounds we have inside our heads: the tunes we loved, the ads, the jingles, the noises that poured out from the appliances and the living spaces around us.

Vive La Difference!

What I heard in the 50s is different from the sounds Jad heard growing up in the 80's, which in turn, are different again from the sounds Jad's son hears growing up now. And because the music inside us is different, the music that comes out of us, the way we talk, the way we tell stories, is different too. (That, I think, is the fun of pairing up with someone from the "other side." Half the time, I have no idea what's coming out of his mouth, except that it has a kind of primal beauty, like listening to Portugese...)

And now, thanks to Kara Kovalchik of the blog Mental_Floss, we have a catalogue of sounds that the Over-50 folks will find totally familiar, but for you 10 to 20-somethings — alas, these are somebody else's sounds. You can't have them. You can borrow them, but they really belong, for just a little while longer...to my generation.

Going, Going...

Some have already disappeared, but rather than listen to them one at a time (why bother?) what I propose is you play them like a piano. Start with one, click on it, then add another, then another and sink into a waft of mid-twentieth century noise; it'll be strange for some of you, (kind of like cross-dressing) but oh so sweet to those of you who remember...

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Now, to see how the other half lives, I asked Andrew Prince, Maggie Starbard and Melissa Forsyth — all of them NPR wonders in their 20's — to update Kara's "Older" sounds to their 21st Century equivalents. So if you push on this next set of videos simultaneously, you will be listening to an altogether different mix of sounds, that, depending on your age, will either make you feel utterly comfortable, or make you amazed to have travelled so far from home.

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Kara's "Oldies" collection includes a gas station driveway bell (remember those?), a tv channel selector, a broken or skipping record and those after-midnight, end-of-the-day, tv station sign offs, always ending with the Star Spangled Banner. "Ah yes...", I hear some of you saying. "Whatever...", say your children. So it goes, says I.


Kara Kovalchik's essay is called "11 Sounds That Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard" and it can be found here.

Blogger extraordinaire Jason Kottke found a site at the Smithsonian where they have archived the sounds of a 1964 office. If you want to travel back to the days of adding machines, dictaphones, pop bottle machines, and time clocks, here's your ticket.

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