I thumbed through the sleeves, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Amber Wormington, 45, eyed John Prine’s album “Sweet Revenge,” her father’s go-to cradle music when she was a baby.
“There was two of everything, But one of me,” Prine sings on the opening song.
We sat in her family home in West Omaha, silent and empty in preparation for her mom, Cindy, 64, to move to Kelso, Washington, a small town about 35 minutes north of Portland, Oregon. Of the few remaining items sat two white cardboard boxes crammed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and Pink Floyd among the collection of nearly 200 vinyl records.
Most hadn’t been exhumed from the basement in the almost two decades since Amber’s father died — leaving behind this collection, his prized possession as well as a record of the family’s emotionally complicated history. But now, they were ready to part ways with it.
“I think this is the first time in my life I’ve really been able to let something go, so that I can feel that closure,” said Amber, who was passing the collection on to me.
All our lives, we collect. From records to furniture to ticket stubs and birthday cards, this stuff inherits meaning, and, when we die, it survives to tell our stories.
These records are no different. One I fished from Amber’s dad’s collection, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” is rich with history. “Blowin’ In The Wind” is forever tied with the 1963 March on Washington. In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan travels 12 misty mountains, a dozen dead oceans, seven sad forests, and 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard, showing the need for expression in a bleak world — something Amber’s dad believed in.
“I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,” Dylan sings. “And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it. Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’. But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.”
Amber always connected to her dad, Daniel Ben Wormington, through music. From the cradle to car drives, the Omahan was her guide to rock stars and storytellers. His records were his pride and joy, and even today many are in pristine condition.
“That’s because kids weren’t allowed to touch them,” Amber said.
One day in the late ‘80s, Amber saw Neil Young play “Rockin’ in the Free World” on MTV. She told her dad she wanted to buy his album, and they got “Harvest” at Shopko. Her dad was proud to hear Amber straying from hair metal.
He also pushed classic literature and counter-culture media (he always picked up an Omaha Reader, Amber said) at locales like the now-closed Antiquarium to give Amber a critical view of society. He tried to impress empathy on her by interviewing the homeless downtown.
But their relationship was complicated. Her father struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, creating a rough home life for Amber’s family. Then, in 2003, at 47, he committed suicide.
Music suddenly became a source of pain. Amber struggled to choose artists to listen to, letting algorithms shuffle through songs and pretending her dad was flipping through the tracklist.
“That’s why I love Pandora,” she said, “because it’s random, and when things are randomized in algorithms, I can convince myself it’s a ghost involved, and my dad is sending messages.”
As the years went by, Amber and her mother left the records untouched. Looking at them hurt, but the thought of giving them away felt wrong too. As individual records they’d be just like the other vinyl crowding the “used” sections of stores across the country.
Besides Ben, the hobbyist poet, factory worker and self-avowed anti-capitalist, would have hated any profit to come from his passion.
When Cindy decided to move, she and her daughter knew it was finally time to let go. They just needed to find someone who’d appreciate them.
When I was a high school student at Millard South I didn’t have much direction outside of guitar and the debate team. That changed when I met Amber.
I respected my junior and senior-year writing teacher’s smarts and humor. When I asked her opinion on Charles Bukowski, she had one word. “Misogynist.” In her classes, I lived my dream of being a writer. I waxed poetic and made my arguments, leaned against the grain and got true feedback.
Ten years later, she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in inheriting about 80 pounds of vinyl. We’d kept in touch off and on, and she knew I was a music nerd who’d give the collection a good home.
So, in late May earlier this year, she picked me up outside my downtown apartment and we headed to pick them up.
Down In The Groove
In determining the value of a collection there are two factors to consider: sentiment and monetary worth.
Most of Ben’s collection are classic albums, but many classics aren’t hard to find and generally aren’t worth much. At Recycled Sounds near 76th and Cass Streets, I flipped through the Joan Baez section, her smiling, me frowning.
Stuart Kolnick, the store owner, said that Ben had a focused collection rather than a whole bunch of random vinyl. People always try to hawk their old LPs, Kolnick said, usually not in the best condition. He himself wants to leave his prized possessions to his nephew.
Record collecting has an overwhelming psychological undercurrent, according to a 2006 study by the Journal of Economic Psychology. Though people in every generation crave the sensory and emotional aspect of music, for collectors, physical records connect us to artists, tell the world about ourselves and help us to decipher something greater about our own identities.
“The consumer–artist relationship is about capturing the essence of the artist,” researchers wrote, “rather like the possession of holy relics of the saints.”
For Amber and her mother, the records also represent one of the few positive things that can blossom from the tragedy. One person’s legacy of complex music appreciation, discovery and soul-pouring becomes another’s.
These records that Ben discovered throughout his life from the ‘60s to the ‘80s were now mine to uncover — reading liner notes, memorizing years, examining art, and of course, playing them. And as I blend them with my own collection, I hope I can imbue new memories on the albums and allow them to continue their journey.
Bringing It All Back Home
After about an hour of talking about music, Amber’s mother Cindy, wanted to show me her own passion — the backyard.
The trees and rows of plants stood tall in intricate designs on the downward sloping hill. It took years to nurture. And now she was leaving it, proud to let it pass to someone else.
As a collector, Ben’s albums radiated wisdom, struggle and love — even when he didn’t as a husband and father. Allowing his life to live on through his music lets Amber and Cindy close this chapter of their lives on a satisfying note.
But for me, the story’s just getting started.
I’ve already begun pouring through these relics nightly, listening to albums like the warm instrumentals of Leo Kottke. More than anything, I look forward to holding these memories in my hands and creating new ones with the people I love, whom I won’t ever forget, with music that I’ll love and study forever. Thankfully, I have my work cut out for me.