Then, around eleven o’clock, the radio world changed. The syndicated dramas finished; most local stations closed down for the night. Along the uncrowded airwaves, which anyway were stronger at night than in the day, came AM stations from as far as 1,000 miles away, from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Canada – Ottawa and New Brunswick – and, with the strongest and clearest signal of all, Wheeling, West Virginia.
The Zenith received short wave but, once the novelty wore off, the only things I could ever find on short wave that I wanted to listen to were classical music and BBC quiz programs. The most common short wave fare was one side of an extremely tedious ham radio conversation (“I know what you mean” [prolonged static] “Yeah” [prolonged static] “Yeah, I went up there the other day” [prolonged static] “That’s what I thought” [prolonged static]), or someone reading a never ending list of numbers, or news and weather in a foreign language, or one of the Soviet satellites’ English language services, whose enticement as forbidden fruit soon wore off thanks to its deadeningly boring content. When I did find some classical music or an interesting BBC program, it invariably would fade out and I’d have to get up on an elbow and fiddle with the tuning knob.
WWVA from Wheeling seemed to be a one-program station, but that one program was a humdinger: Grand Ole Opry. I didn’t realize it back then what great music I was listening to, since I disdained all kinds of popular music. (I have no idea where I picked that up that attitude. Perhaps I was emulating my father, who became subtly patronizing – so subtly that only my mother and I could detect it – when he was prevailed on by the Goldbergs or the Rosens or the Mannings to listen to the latest Broadway show or the new Guy Lombardo album.) Even though I could be riveted by a banjo or fiddle solo on Grand Ole Opry, I regarded bluegrass and country music as a whole as beneath me. I was an ignorant snob then, instead of the informed snob I am today.
It was not the music that kept me tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry, it was its foreignness. Foreign language stations were just marathons of gobble-de-gook with occasional half-recognizable words. Wheeling, West Virginia, was as foreign as Paris, except they spoke English. The jaunty twang of the announcer and the musicians, who seemed to love to talk as much as play music, and the hillbilly jokes, gave me the thrill of listening to aliens while understanding everything they were saying.
Nothing on the CBC led me to understand Canadians like the Grand Ole Opry let me understand West Virginians. The CBC’s classical music was introduced by announcers with the same plummy American accents I could hear when my father took me for lunch or an ice cream soda in one of the luncheonettes near the courthouse, where lawyers and lawyers’ secretaries would go.
A local station, WKIP, went through spates of trying to schedule an hour of classical music in the evening, but the CBC’s classical music program was far more sophisticated, with symphonies by Sibelius, piano sonatas by Prokofiev, concerti grossi by Corelli, 18th century wind quintets, etc. (Thankfully, the CBC then was not yet required to broadcast 50% Canadian content.)
One night, the CBC outdid itself in sophistication by playing a long, fascinating, outlandish piece of music, the most wonderfully eccentric and unusual sounds I had ever heard. I had no idea even what instrument I was listening to, although it was clear that it was plucked. The music itself was incredibly intricate and, unlike the classical music I listened to, playful and intimate, conversational.
I missed its introduction and could not make heads or tails of what the announcer said when it was over, and for years I wondered what it was that I had heard until, in the early ‘60’s, someone played me a Ravi Shankar record. I finally discovered the beauties of bluegrass a few years later, when I briefly mistook a bluegrass banjo solo for part of a raga gat.