Between the Lines: My music is a shelf full of memories

Two months after my most recent move — and sick of fishing CDs out of packing boxes — I had to face the inevitable: It was time to haul my music collection out of the boxes and organize it onto the shelves.
With several hundred CDs to sort through, the first choice for a music nerd is whether to group everything together alphabetically or to separate the music by genres.
I opt for the latter though my decisions are bit fuzzy. Folk, blues and rock get tossed in together, even though Led Zeppelin and Judy Collins have little in common except that Jimmy Page stole a few good folk-guitar riffs. Jazz gets its own shelf, while classical and New Age intermix.
Then comes the task of organizing within each artist, by issue date of the CD. I can pretty much tell you which Bob Dylan album came before the next. But did Van Morrison record “Hymns to the Silence” before or after “A Sense of Wonder”?
Other decisions require sheer arbitrariness. Even if most artists are sorted by last name, I place Ian Tyson’s cowboy-western catalog in the “I’s” with Ian & Sylvia’s earlier, more folky albums. Jerry Garcia albums get thrown in with the Dead. Keb Mo goes under “K” even though his last name is Moore.
I try to avoid getting too esoteric. I don’t want to be like the John Cusack character in “High Fidelity,” who sorted his records by the name of the producer.
Inevitably the sorting process brings surprises.
Did I actually buy all those Garnet Rogers albums? Why didn’t I ever unwrap the live Nina Simone CD? Did Tom Rush really look that stoned on the cover of his eponymous album, the one where he introduced himself as “yours truly, little Tommy Rush from New Hampshire”?
Why did Richard Shindell find it necessary to write a song about a mule? Was Glenn Goodwin, the bass player who anchors several of our local groups, ever as young as he appears on the cover of that CD by Bordertown?
Musing about the process of sorting through the personal book library of his deceased father-in-law, “New Yorker” writer James Woods asserted that “our libraries perhaps say nothing very particular about us at all.”
That may be true of books, but it’s certainly not true of record albums. Book purchases may reflect random moods, but music is forever.
One look at my collection, for example, will tell even a casual observer that I’m hopelessly addicted to the traditions of folk music, and that I need the tonic of mellow jazz.
Joshua Redman is about the most improvisational jazz musician I can listen to on record without gritting my teeth. Life is chaotic enough without adding bebop to it.
The same observer would notice that I’ve traced one thread of my life through the songs of John Stewart, from his Kingston Trio days to his final concerts. And that I never really gave up on Joni Mitchell — even after “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” signaled she had abandoned the poignantly lustrous musical paintings of her early career for fake jazz and impenetrable lyrics.
Millions of people have put the CD-organization process behind them by transferring their music to iPods and other MP3 players. I remain loyal to the physical product.
In that regard, of course, the tiny CD pamphlets don’t hold a candle to LP covers. The old record albums provided a memorable palette for commercial and artistic design. Think of Sgt. Peppers or the White Album.
Another example: Though my initial copy of Dave Mason’s “Alone Together” has been unplayable for decades, I’ve held onto it because of the trippy tri-fold design that shows his cutout face overlooking a cliff. The original album pressing was delightfully mottled like Play-Doh. It was worth the price just to watch it make 33-1/3 revolutions per minute around the turntable.
Soon enough I’m just rambling around in my collection, lost in memories.
The LPs take me way back. The friends I was with when I first dropped the needle on that Joan Baez album. Peter and John Isaacson playing every Tuesday at Mister Up’s. Summer camp and Dylan doffing his hat on the cover of “Nashville Skyline.”
My friend Doug and I roaring along Route 66, having inhaled way too much, listening to John Stewart: “There’s something how your life will go as to how the heart is tossed.”
Driving up to Fletcher Allen to see my girlfriend, who was hospitalized with a badly broken arm when she fell off her bike along the River Road. “You’re my blue sky, you’re my sunny day.”
“The arc of a love affair, rainbows in the high desert air.”
On some music shelves sit entire lifetimes.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http:MiddleburyVt.blogspot.com. Email him at [email protected].

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