Elegy for the Mixed Tape

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.[1]

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.

Amy Sexhauer’s award for being crowned Vocabulary Queen
Allison Zachery’s award tape

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! 

1-2-3! 

“Land of 1,000 Dances!” 

“Slip Away!” 

“Think!” 

“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay!” 

“Mustang Sally!”

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.

Les McCann and Eddie Harris: “Compared to What?”

[1] 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.

3 thoughts on “Elegy for the Mixed Tape

  1. Steve Jobs understood that, too, I think. The iPod was popular in part because you could hold all that music in your hand and carry it around in your pocket. But there’s something about the cassette tape that is more personable. There was extra meaning when you know the person stayed up all night on their boombox getting the songs to fall close enough together without overlapping.

  2. You could still isolate with a good ol’ mixtape, if you had some headphones. 🙂 Of course, there’s the classic move of sharing one of your earbuds with a friend…
    I’m old enough to have been the creator and the recipient of several mixtapes in my high school days.
    Later, in the age of MP3 piracy, several coworkers and I did a mix CD exchange, where we each curated a mix and burned a copy to CD for every participant. Not quite the level of effort and intimacy represented by a one-of-a-kind mix for someone, but a fun bonding experience nonetheless.
    Nowadays, an online music community I participate in (authenticate with your Spotify Premium account, then stream anything from that catalog in communal DJ/chat rooms) hosts Thursday “Sessions”, for which we all sign up for one-hour long DJ spots and play our sets for whoever tunes in. The 1-hour limit, combined with whatever theme you’ve chosen, makes for a nice challenge. We’re currently doing a Secret Santa playlist exchange, where we get matched to a person at random and assign the theme that they must build a playlist around. Good times!

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