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Record album covers from inception to extinction in our lifetime
Featuring seven different graphic categories of artwork on a treasure trove of 33 rpm (revolutions per minute) record album covers, the Ukrainian National Museum's "Rediscovering Ukrainian Album Cover Art" exhibit celebrates an art form and chronicles immigrant life in Chicago.
The Museum's Administrator Anna explains, "This exhibit is a snapshot of what it was like growing up as a Ukrainian immigrant in Chicago. We did different things, experimenting with music, going to see Ukrainian rock bands, establishing our identity ... that is what I think people can appreciate in this show, regardless of whether they are Ukrainian or from some other immigrant background."
Born in Chicago, Chychula grew up in the Ukrainian neighborhood with her five siblings. "I went to Ukrainian School Monday thru Friday and on Saturday. We went to Ukrainian dancing, everyone knew each other. We were all friends. We moved into each others houses on weekends...we all hung out together...very much like a big fat Greek wedding.
The universality of the beautiful art on the albums is but a snapshot of how life progressed. Ukrainian artists were influenced by American art and channeled back, making Ukrainian art."
Divided into children's, religious, romance, Cossack, folk art, modern art and pop, each category displayed has an introductory write up.
At the exhibit's opening reception, Bob Dudycz, a member of the Museum's Board of Directors and Chychula's brother, spoke about the pre-compact disc (CD) history of records. "In the pre-television 1950's, people were generally impressed with records but preferred live music as many children played a musical instrument. Hard earned dollars were spent on lessons and colorful sheet music rather than records. Records, however, became more popular and gradually one could find a record player in most homes. Our home had a small clunky record player but we graduated to a German Blaupunkt radio console that also had a turntable. Eventually, this console stopped working and became an end table.
People always bought records for the music, not the packaging. These records usually produced a sound that filled the air with scratchy noises and static. My first memory of recorded music was from a 78 rpm platter with a snappy little number called 'Oy Handju Luba' with the flip side being the ever popular 'Oy Syshidko.'
Records were packaged in plain brown sleeves with a hole in the center that exposed the printed label listing the artist and distributor, with each record containing one song per side. ARKA record company of New York was the most prevalent mass producer of recorded Ukrainian music of that era. Many records were sold in compilations and stored in a record binder similar to a photograph album. These discs were known as albums ever since. Later, technology allowed multiple songs per side and these new discs were dubbed 'Long Playing' (LP). Little did we realize that some time in this period sheet music was in its decline and records into its ascendancy.
I believe that there were two major factors in the rise of the modern LP. First, at the end of their tour of duty, veterans of the Viet Nam War returned to the United States via Japan. Japanese manufacturers mass produced advanced electronics utilizing the circuit board. Our young military people purchased sophisticated electronic stereo equipment overseas and had them shipped home. The exchange rate was extremely favorable so their cost was very low, and Uncle Sam picked up the shipping charges for all GI personal property. Soon thereafter consumer demand for more of this stereo gear created a sales explosion in the manufacturing industry.
Secondly, I feel that Rock and Roll music from the late 1950s into the British invasion of the 1960s changed the music industry forever. Experimental sounds flourished and bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues and others were heard on modern stereo gear. Sound quality was superior and the demand for LPs skyrocketed.
The music industry had to market these artists and thusly the marriage of two artistic media was consummated. Album cover experimentation expanded where many subjects and styles were applied to catch the eye and the pocket book of the consumer.
The Chicago Ukrainian community was no stranger isolated from innovation. Like the British music invasion, we had our own Canadian, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, California and other music invasions. Let us not forget our own home grown Chicago talent that influenced young Ukrainians throughout the country. Ukrainian music distributors used varied styles to market their product as well.
The music flourished but technology kept moving forward.
Where instruments used to be accordions and strings, we now saw keyboards and electric guitars. Music was once recorded in a room with a single microphone. Studios evolved to a room with mixing console with modern computer equipment.
We more mature adults remember eight track players, BetaMax, floppy disks, cassettes and of course record albums.Technology advanced us to better 'stuff' so no one mourned the passing of this old equipment. Album art is another thing altogether. The last commercial LP was released in 1991 and today albums are listened to only by the rare audiophile or music album purist. Most young people today have never heard music from a record. In fact, I would dare say that to them records are simply an oddity found at flea markets or in Dido and Baba's garage.
That objects of such beauty would go from inception to extinction in our lifetimes is extraordinary. What was once artistically applied to a twelve inch by twelve inch canvass would lose its impact on a cassette or CD case. Worse yet, with modern digital downloads, there is no visual art to appreciate. It is astounding that we claim witness to the passing of an artistic genre that seemingly trickled away and disappeared as does a fog above the greenery in Humboldt Park."
The exhibit is a charming walk thru time in a wonderfully constructed revitalized historic building. The show will be up for the rest of July at the Ukrainian National Museum, 2249 W. Superior St. Hours: Thurs thru Sun., 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Phone number: 312.421.8020. Free parking is available next to the Museum.