Listening to Chances with Wolves’s lonesome, dusty mixtapes during a year of transition, loss, and decline.
I first listened to my favorite radio program, Chances with Wolves, in the summer of 2015, while cleaning out my parents’ longtime home. The premise, more or less, is that a pair of DJs play strange old records and periodically mix in wolf-howl noises, sound clips, and echo effects. All of their two-hour episodes—now more than 350—are streamable, so I had hundreds of hours of material for the hundreds of hours of labor in the task at hand. Sonic distractions in difficult times always leave an imprint. It was a hard year.
My father has Parkinson’s and my mother has multiple sclerosis; my wife, Grace, and I had moved to Nashville to help out. There are good days and bad days, but the prognosis is uncompromising in its bleak narrative: over time, things will get worse. The arc of one’s own mortal universe bends toward decline. If asked how he’s doing, my dad likes to respond, “Better than I’ll be doing the next time you see me.”
We used the word transition to speak of practical matters: moving my parents to a smaller apartment closer to town, and clearing their old house and readying it to put on the market. But the real transition was the awkward, creaky role reversal that no one wanted. There is no manual, and perhaps no wisdom altogether, for caregiving for your own parents. The emotional geometry is all wrong. We tried, delicate as diplomats, to navigate the new terrain without tensions exploding. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.
Logistics overwhelmed, as they tend to do. The state of the house had, inevitably, deteriorated in parallel to my parents’ health. And there was the matter of their stuff, a word that is doing a lot of work here. Both trained historians, my parents took an approach to their belongings over the years that preserved rather than purged the primary sources of their own lives. They had a lot of stuff.
Part of our job was to help them salvage and sort, to catalog keepers and question marks. We were in charge of the curation and restoration of what amounted to a private museum. As anyone who has ever rooted through such a museum knows, the treasures are interspersed with the trash. Copies of the New York Review of Books in the attic dating from the Carter administration, encrusted with roach droppings—right alongside a letter my mother wrote at eighteen, to her own mother, upon arriving at college. Antique chairs in the crawl space. Rat-eaten board games. A lifetime supply of disposable chopsticks. My father’s boyhood violin.
We filled box after box after box. In my headphones, a marimba cover of “Thriller” and Della Reese vamping through a B-Side. A French folk singer in 1972 spitting out the names of “les prisonniers politiques” and a 1960s Mexican ska band’s Spanish-language version of “Sound of Silence.” Chances with Wolves, episode 331. Sun Ra fades to the whisper of an unreleased Paul Simon song, to a creepy-crawly funk tune by Estonian singer Velly Joonas so exquisitely alien it made me blush, to a James Brown antidrug PSA. DJs and mixtape-makers often talk about a flow, but Chances with Wolves is more narratively wily than that, less a flow than a tease of questions, a trail of surprises.
The show has a fondness for work songs. I mean that literally—there are workers’ ditties and solidarity anthems mixed in—but the episodes also seem suited to the pulse and stir of labor. There’s an endurance to the songs they’re drawn to, a buoyant effort. Like any great radio show, its immersive hum is comfortably situated in the background. Wolf whistle while you work.
We hauled stuff to the storage unit, to my parents’ apartment, to Goodwill. Sorting through a bedraggled cardboard box recovered from the attic, I discovered a sheet of paper with a disorderly arrangement of watercolor reds and blues. My parents had labeled it: the first picture I ever made.
We had yard sales and negotiated with Craigslist hagglers. We filled two fifteen-yard dumpsters with trash. To avoid dust and grime, we went at the work with surgical masks and latex gloves. Like we were clinicians, dissecting a home.
When Marilynne Robinson was asked how the West was different from the East and the South, she replied, “in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations.”
The boyhood friends behind Chances with Wolves, DJs Kenan and Kray, are from Brooklyn, but their show seems to look westward in this way, to be attuned to a transcendent lonesomeness, to the grace in the lonely crawl of lived life (like the cowboy sings: “I’ve never seen a night so long / When time goes crawling by”). Each show has its own particular character, too elusive and allusive to be called a mood. But to my ears, a theme of sorts emerges across episodes: An ode to vast empty spaces and wide open country. Cosmic tumbleweeds, reverb in primeval caves. Like a jukebox in a ghost town.
We often think of the communal experience of listening to music—a beautiful thing, an experience that viscerally defines what we mean by community in the first place. But more often than not, I find that I listen to music alone. Not just alone, but typically with headphones that guarantee my solitude will not be interrupted. Over time I came to feel that Chances with Wolves was rhythmically aligned with this solitude. There is a homemade otherworldliness to the atmosphere they create, like a low-church congregation meeting. Or a haunted house—low light and fog and spirits.
I listened to episode 327 while I scrubbed the floor of my father’s office. It opens with a Merrilee Rush cover of the Four Tops, then the incandescent Malawian one-man band Gasper Nali, then a lurching French freak-beat song from 1964, then an instrumental cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin” by Balsara and His Singing Sitars (which is precisely what it sounds like), then a disposable version of the Animals’ “It’s My Life” by the 1960s Greek band the Charms, then a delightful calypso song about bedbugs. And on and on. Unmoored from context, a thread emerges, somehow: groovy, spooky, dusty, and undeniable.
Kenan and Kray’s tastes seem driven by the wonder of precocious children, an omnivorous appetite for discovery. Caribbean good-time songs and murder ballads and forgotten soul and low-grade Beatles covers and drifter’s laments and Mardi Gras Indian chants and lefty singalongs and hammy novelties. Digging up discarded ephemera, they excavate an alternative social history. The songs are typically obscure, but they sound classic, indispensable—so they feel both utterly new and gleaned from a familiar songbook. As if the radio was tuned to a cousin universe with a culture much like our own, only contingencies aligned a bit differently and we listened to slightly different songs on the radio. Same joys and sorrows, different voices and tunes.
Because it’s an Internet radio show, Chances with Wolves is unbound by the geographic limitations of radio waves. Their reach, as the saying goes, is global. They nevertheless evoke an idiosyncratic intimacy that reminds me of a bizarro version of the local AM radio stations that you used to be able to catch on road trips down blue highways. The way the dial seemed to eavesdrop on the town you were driving through. That particularity of place.
I should note, for the record, that Kenan and Kray are real live DJs who play real live shows, in New York and across the country. But listening to their radio show, I do not picture the actual clubs where they actually play. I find myself lost instead in the virtual world their episodes conjure. I imagine a drafty old house on a hill, piled with too many records, claw-foot bathtubs filled with vinyl, stacks of records falling over in the hallways and the stairwells. I imagine someone carrying a selection of the records down the hill, to play for a gathering down below. Outdoors, beneath a sky that seems to go on forever. I imagine lonely souls who find communion in the restorative power of these songs. A place where the dancing looks like drifting. Shadows and vibrations beneath a live oak tree.
The labels we put on boxes felt like family poetry: ASSORTED OFFICE. PRECIOUS. ASK DAD. We separated papers and files with confidential information of one sort or another, which we shredded or burned. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
We were coordinating a great migration of objects. Our cars carried load after load to safekeeping or to exile. The guys at Goodwill came to recognize me. More stuff? they’d ask. More coming, I’d reply.
Spring cleaning of this kind is ostensibly satisfying, a time of renewal. But sometimes when we cheerfully used the term downsizing with my parents, I think they thought of the corporate euphemism for layoffs. They thought of loss.
My parents had a library of what must have been more than ten thousand books. I found half a dozen different copies of a little book called The Historian’s Craft. (Sample: “[W]e are nevertheless successful in knowing far more of the past than the past itself had thought good to tell us. Properly speaking it is a glorious victory of mind over its material.”) Das Kapital, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog 1992, The Japanese Cat at Home, Secrets of Italian Cooking. I would flip through pages and find unsent letters used as book marks.
We picked through thousands of historical journals, dating back decades. It was astounding, really, to think of how many hours of lonely work had gone into each one, how many hunters of obscure historical details had labored over the articles in each volume, as I dropped them in the recycling bin.
My father’s massive multivolume copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was passed on to me. Its first cited usage of the word artifact dates from 1624: “If we reflect vpon the workes and artes of men, as, a good life, a commonwealth, an army, a house, a garden, all artefactes; what are they, but compositions of well ordered partes?”
As we worked, I would find a photograph to keep, or I would find detritus to trash—say, the jewel box of a CD I bought in high school—and it was like uncovering old stories, a prior self, a lost language. A remembered moment or thought, long buried, would arrive with the jolt of discovery. Objects are sacred not when they become signifiers of nostalgia but when they collapse time altogether, when they are restorative of memory. When they are connective strands of the self, of the family, of the community. Our histories are fragile in flimsy recollection. Stuff is the durable stuff of our lives. Music, too, is like this.
Here’s Marilynne Robinson again: “Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe.” Yes, let’s say. Human life is astonishing. The details of our lives are precious. Sometimes it overwhelms me just to remember that one of the things we do with our time is make up songs. The curatorial role of the DJ, by these lights, is profound—collector of miracles.
What an improbable gift: That forty-some years ago Judy and the P.T.S. were moved to sing psych ballads in California, and the Malaysian band Uthaya Sooriyan dreamed up a funky instrumental cover of a popular Bollywood song. And last year a couple of DJs tracked down the living record of these creations, and broadcast them via technology that I frankly do not really understand. So that they might be revealed to me, hundreds of miles away, as both dirge and jubilation—as I walked through the house, now empty, the week before the new buyers moved in.
When my parents arrived to take one last look, my mother put her arm around my father, perhaps for the millionth time. “It’s time,” she said, “to celebrate.”
In Tolstoy’s A Confession, he tells an old fable about a traveler who flees from a wild animal (let’s call it a wolf) and climbs down into a well to hide. He realizes that a dragon is at the bottom of the well, jaws open, waiting to eat him. He grabs ahold of a branch growing out of the crevices in the wall. This grants him a temporary safety from the dragon below and the beast above, but he sees that a pair of mice, one black and one white, are slowly gnawing away at the branch. It is only a matter of time before the branch will break and he will fall into the mouth of the dragon. As he clings for his life, he notices drops of honey dripping from the branch, which he can catch on his tongue. “This is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone,” Tolstoy writes. As the days and nights gnaw away, we are holding on to the branch of life. The branch will snap—and we know it. As the fable has it, faced with this bleak truth, all we can do is enjoy whatever sweetness the honey brings.
It is a strange and beautiful and difficult business, to have a life and to live it. I’ll confess that I may attach a largeness to Chances with Wolves because it served as accompaniment to a time heavy with mortality and the shape of life, decline and restoration. But long after the sale of the house, I still listen—and I still hear, in their collection of treasures, something of the precious richness of the long stretch of days. As if the dusty artifacts they hunt down unleash the emotional tremors that made them, so that something might endure. Redemption, struggle, resignation, defiance, longing, prayer, joy. I dance, I laugh, I do the dishes with my headphones on. I have come to think of these shows as a kind of battle hymn to the everydayness of being alive. The collection of songs they assemble speak, to me, to all of it. To the honey and to the branch. To the dragon and the darkness below. To the diminished light above. To the echoes in the well.
A soundtrack to the labor of living. May it howl.
David Ramsey’s work has been anthologized in Da Capo Best Music Writing, Best Food Writing, Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing, and the Norton Field Guide to Writing. He lives in DeLand, Florida.