Elegy for the Mixed Tape
I think it was John Woodmansee who made me my first mixed tape, an eclectic collection of avant garde rock, Third World exotica, and jazz. He curated with care, making sure transitions were smooth, the Venn diagram of intersecting genres shaded with similarities, whether in pop-lit theme or in sonic overlapping – the B-52’s “Love Shack” followed by Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song,” for example. He labored over these productions, devoting hours into the effort of creating a gift both enjoyable and educational.
Music as mutual friend.
I, too, started making mixed tapes, mainly for students as rewards for significant achievements, like winning the year-end vocabulary bee or scoring the highest on our cumulative high school literature test. Occasionally, a former student runs across one of these relics and posts a photo on Facebook.
I also recall that ace student Larry Salley received one loaded with Stax classics, and he later played the tape over the stadium speakers before Porter-Gaud football games in his early days as the Cyclones’ announcer.
Jungle drums and tragic magic!
“Land of 1,000 Dances!”
“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay!”
As I became better at producing mixed tapes and eventually mixed CDs, I did my best to match the music to the student’s personality. When I produced compilations for friends or acquaintances, I’d throw in tunes that probably hadn’t heard, cuts like Les McCann’s and Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What” from their Live at Montreux Jazz Festival 1969. It was actually a helluva lot of fun assembling these auditory collages – unlike, I would argue, creating and sharing a set list.
What’s the difference, you ask? Physicality, that’s the difference. You can hold a mixed tape or CD in your hands. The folks at the Oxford American learned this the hard way. I subscribed to the OA last year to receive the CD included in their annual music edition, but when they replaced the CD this year with a playlist available through Spotify, I – and apparently many others – dropped the subscription. Guess what? Now the CD is back.
Furthermore, unlike on a playlist, time and space are finite on a cassette tape or compact disc. On cassettes, which needed to be flipped, I’d arrange the tracks as if they were appearing on an LP, the first songs on Side A and B rockers, the last cuts strong and long, like Warren Zevon’s “Desperados Under the Eaves.” The limitation of space and time lends itself to compression, which enhances meaning, like in good poetry. You’re talking an hour’s drive instead of an open-ended series of songs. Most play lists lack form, resembling a radio broadcast rather than an artifact. They tend to be assembled rapidly – eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
My wife Caroline brought the topic Friday night at Harold’s Cabin as we lamented over Jamesons the sad state of incivility that characterizes post-Trumpian politics. Caroline cited the disappearance of the mixed tape as contributing to the on-going diminishment of cultural exchange. People long for the mixed tape, hence its image has become a meme, its miniature form dangling from charm bracelets and necklaces. I’ve seen it also on t-shirts.
Perhaps, people gravitate towards images of mixed tapes because they represent a simpler, more three-dimensional, more concrete era before screens hypnotized and isolated us. Picking up my stepdaughter Brooks from Porter-Gaud in the afternoons, I see most students, heads bowed, staring down at their phones rather than bopping across the Green with a group of friends.
Streaming music isolates us; mixed tapes and CDs bring us together.
 Mixed tapes are a great early courtship gift that allows the would-be beloved a peek into the aesthetic inclinations of the CD bearing courtier. Does it feature Rashaan Roland Kirk or Garth Brooks? These things matter.