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Friday, September 23, 2011

One time and one time only: THRILLING Recordings of a Carnival Midway

Sometime in mid-August, I found myself driving back to D.C. from Frederick in the dark. Something caught my eye: it started as a little cluster of glitter ahead, but grew to a mighty glow, and then jangly music trumpeted through the car windows. A big, spinning wheel with a dizzying light display let us know that we were passing by the Montgomery County Fair. 

I haven't been to a fair in years, but I still felt a jolt of excitement when I saw all those familiar colored light bulbs lined up and telling me I needed to get myself some cotton candy AND FAST. It was a comforting moment with my childhood, even though my ears still rung with what was probably the world's loudest calliope minutes after we had passed the fairgrounds.

So when I recently came across "Sounds of Carnival," (FX 6126), one of the documentary recordings in the Folkways Records catalog, I decided to give it a spin. Originally recorded in 1954 at the Royal American midway by students of the Chicago Institute of Design, it's a walk through the organized chaos of a mid-century carnival -- the squeals of the Roll-O-Plane riders, a laughing clown (particularly creepy), the revving engines of the Motordome, smooth-talking barkers, humming generators and, of course, the "back lot"--little vignettes of the lives of those that made the midway happen. The interviews have an intimate quality to them--one man, a barker, explains that though he's had a stammer his entire life, "When I stand up on my [stage] to talk to the people to tell them about the show's a peculiar thing, the stammer disappears...I'll spend the rest of my days in show business." Another says of the constant travel,"You meet all kinds of people all over the world. It's interesting. It's more education than in a bunch of books."

The second side of the album is a collection of carrousel music recorded on-site--capturing what Charles Edward Smith calls in the liner notes "the ever-old, ever-young enchantment of the merry-go-round." My favorite part is the pregnant pause before each tune starts: remember when you were a kid and first got on your horse and the ride had started but the music hadn't? And then all of a sudden it would come booming out from nowhere and it hurt your ears, in a good way? These recordings sound just like that, complete with the ever-present slightly-out-of-tune calliope we all hold so dear.

For more on this recording, listen to a sample of the merry-go-round music, or read the liner notes.

Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections 

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