Ansel Head’s mother never minced her words about communists, the Soviet Union, and their bellicose threats against her country. It may explain why she admired Van Cliburn and always kept his recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the record stack on the player at Lake Martin.
Her eclectic selections, which also included Doris Day and “My Fair Lady”, contained five or six well worn, scratchy 33 1/3 long playing vinyl records. Before her five o’clock gin and tonic, she would turn on the phonograph, allow a minute for the vacuum tubes to warm up, raise the stack to the top of the spindle, then rotate the spring loaded switch to the start position. The arm, rising from its pedestal, would swing into the stack to gage the size of the records, then move back. The bottom record would fall to the rotating turn table, the arm would swing inward below the remaining discs on the spindle to a point above the start of the record, then drop slowly onto it; following the record’s groves, the diamond needle would vibrate to the recorded creases and caverns; that vibration, amplified through the vacuum tubes, was then converted to magnetic impulses in the speaker. Out would come the music along with the sound of scratches and debris lodged in the grooves and on the needle. When the needle reached the end of the record, it would raise and swing out of the way, then the process would repeat itself. The player would automatically shut off when the last record finished. Someone had to then pickup the stack, turn them over, put them back on the spindle, and re-start the player.
There were dozens of albums in the cabinet below the player, but Head cannot recall anyone every changing the five or six records that were always on the spindle. That meant that Van Cliburn was part of the nightly repertoire at the Lake Martin cabin.
If that record happened to play during her second gin and tonic, his mother would invariably instruct her children on its significance.
“Khrushchev says he’s going to bury America,” she lectured. “He thinks the Russians are better than us, especially their musicians. Then along comes this nice boy from Texas. The Communist let him into the piano contest in Moscow just to show the world how superior their government trained players were. Van Cliburn showed them all right. The crowd went wild when he played this Russian classic. Khrushchev had to let the judges give him first prize. Bury us, hah!”
The children knew the picture on the album of the young American sitting at the piano, all alone in Moscow in the heart of the enemy. On hearing him play the dramatic and stirring introduction in the first movement, the children could feel the power of this everyday American storming into the arena and laying waste to the evil dictator.
“We will not be buried by this little, gloomy, fat baldheaded man,” the children said to each other. There was comfort in the fact that the Russians who heard Van Cliburn play must have been thinking the same.
Apparently many other people also felt the same since it became the first classical album to become a gold record.