Nov 16, 2007

Amadeus, Burl, Elvis, Harry, Joan, Woody and ...

There was a lot of music in my childhood. Not that ours was a particularly musical family, on the contrary, there were a disproportionate number of people who couldn't carry a tune at all in the family. But everyone in my family respected and admired and appreciated music in his or her own way. Before the War Mom and dad as young, cultivated intellectuals living in the Chicago area, went to the opera and to classical concerts as often as they could. And they bought records - not the dinky kind of records we have nowadays, where a whole concert fits on a little shiny CD - not even the vinyl LP records I bought in my youth. They had the real thing: Massive 78 rpm gramophone records made out of shellac. A complete symphony or opera needed both sides of perhaps as many as seven or eight records.

And even though neither Mom nor Dad could ever sing, or read notes, or play any instrument, or had any theoretical schooling in music, they did love it. Our family gathered around the gramophone and listened to operas and symphonies in the evenings. Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovitch, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart Bach, Verdi. They all were in our bookshelves, packed in massive, elegant covers.

It is hard to explain the effect of hearing all this music in a household where both parents were as unmusical as Mom and Dad. On the one hand I became acquainted with a lot of wonderful music, and in time I developed a keen, if not erudite, appreciation of the European classical music tradition. I love it to this day. I love to listen to great orchestral works rising to great crescendos only to drop down to whispering adagios. On the other hand, this simple exposure to the music didn't help me to develop my own musicality in any particular direction. I learned to love the music from an early age, but the long and difficult names of the composers and the uninteresting titles of the works like "9th symphony", or "Concerto in D minor For Oboe and Cello" never stuck. I still find myself humming along with some familiar opus of classical music without the faintest notion of what piece I am listening to, or who wrote it.

But it wasn't just classical music we grew up with. The fifties was the last decade in which at least some Americans organized their lives without television. Even though television signals were available in Iowa from the mid fifties, our family did not have a TV set until the end of the decade. Instead, we listened to radio programs, we listened to music on the radio, and we talked. Music in the fifties was in the midst of developments that would produce the cultural tsunami of the sixties that would alter the voice of modern society. And our family was always somehow near the cutting edge of that wave.

In the early fifties the groundwork for my musical appreciation was laid out by this odd mixture of classical music and folk music. Perhaps the most played and appreciated of all the records in our shelves (by me at least) was a collection of children's songs by Burl Ives: "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and that sort of thing. Despite all the wonder and beauty in the music of Amadeus, Ludvig, Pyotr Ilyich, and Igor, it was Burl that hit home. The classics belonged to the adult world, down at ground zero where we kids lived, it was this more direct kind of music that took hold.

It started perhaps in all innocence with Burl Ives and Tex Ritter, but in these early years of the decade, a new wave was already on the way. Elvis. I was a totally oblivious seven-year-old when Elvis recorded Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" at Sun Records in 1954, but by the time I was nine in 1956, Elvis was releasing 45 rpm singles like wildfire, and hits like "Heartbreak Hotel", "Don't be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" hooked me immediately. I started using pomade in my already long hair, and became an absolute addict of this new sound. "That's All Right Mama" and "Heartbreak Hotel" remain to this day among my all time favorites. Among the consequences of my Elvis phase were my first attempts at learning to play the guitar and make music myself. A professor colleague of Dad, Dwight Saunders, offered, kindly, to teach me. As time went on, Dwight would prove to be a far more important influence in my life than Elvis ever could have been.

I'm sure I was never really destined to be an Elvis fan the rest of my life. In 1957/58 a number of things happened that would change all that: Elvis was drafted into the Army and went to Germany, and our family set off on a 'round-the-world adventure, spending a year in Wellington, New Zealand, visiting exotic places like Hawai'i and Fiji on the way there, and Australia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mumbai, Aden, Suez, France and England on the way home. Somehow, while we were away my whole perspective on the world had changed totally. Upon returning to Iowa, things like American provincialism and watered-down post-army music of Elvis' seemed greatly diminished in importance.

While ten-year-old me was turning on to Elvis in the mid-fifties, my sister (older and wiser) had already discovered the wonderful Calypso music of Harry Belafonte, and blues of Billie Holiday. Already before the end of the decade the first recordings of Joan Baez came into the house and the interest in playing the guitar that my Elvis infatuation had kicked off had led me into the midst of the folk-music movement - mostly due to the influence of my 'guitar teacher' Dwight Saunders .

Instead of rock and roll, I was now learning the politically aware songs of the socialist left from the first half of the 20th century as voiced by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and others; of the Civil rights movement, as voiced by Mavis Staples, Odetta, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and of the new urban radical left as voiced by young artists like Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. In addition I was introduced to the many ethnic folk musics of America: black gospel and blues, white hill ballads, bluegrass and honky-tonk, the Latino music of Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, and more. While this was happening the more normal 1950s Sock-hop was replaced in from 1958/59 on by weekly gatherings of folk music lovers, called hootenannies, that started at Dwight and Jeanie Saunders' house then moved to our house, then migrated around from venue to venue in Des Moines.

Thus, as the decade drew to a close, and my childhood awkwardly transformed me into a teenager, my own record collection was starting to grow. It was not the classical music my parents had adored, but the music of the radical left. And just two years into the new decade, the most important harbinger of the music of the sixties was already on my record shelf: A young man with a rusty voice and an odd sounding harmonica by the name of Bob...

[more ablout the 60's later ...]

1 comment:

Steven Meglitsch said...

[transcribed from the Meglitsch Blog]
Sara Ransom sa...

Hey! What about John Jacob Niles? Growing up not far from you, and the same age as you, and hanging out with some of the same crowd with you, my musical influences coincide with yours but with the addition of John Jacob Niles! My dad went to his concerts (I was too young), and he used to sing the Niles songs to me. Soon, I was singing the songs right along with dad. I'm perenially working on creating a solo performance piece based on Niles' research in Appalachia: the songs and the stories. What a haunting voice he has. And what great tales he tells of the hill-folk of the 1930s.

Furthermore, I kept waiting for you to mention the hootenannys/poetry readings held weekly at your house! How we'd roll with "Rock Island Line", verse after verse after verse...

"Little green leprechaun,
Big blue elf.
If you want any more,
You gotta sing it yourself."

9. november 2007 14:55
Bill sa...

You mentioned Joan Baez. When I attended Roosevelt, my homeroom teacher was this wonderful gentleman named Oakley Ethington. He taught English Literature. He was a church deacon. And a musician. He played piano. At one point during our study of English Lit, he brought in her first solo record album, which included a few English ballads. By the time we got to the 11th cut (“Mary Hamilton/Child #73) I was hooked.

I was never into folk music until I heard this album. Up until then, my musical preferences included, among other artists, Bill Haley and the Comets (“Rock around the Clock”), the Coasters (“Poison Ivy”), and Bobby Day (“Rockin’ Robin”):
“Every little swallow, every chickadee,
Every little bird in the tall oak tree;
The wise old owl, the big black crow,
Flapping them wings sayin'. ‘Go bird go’…”

(They don’t write lyrics like they used to!)

And then suddenly, out of Mr. Ethington’s record player comes the pure voice of this young woman, and I was hooked. Digging through my dad’s vinyl collection, I discovered Josh White...the Weavers...Woody Guthrie... Such a surprise! Dad always seemed so...Republican!

John Jacob Niles escaped me. I’ll definitely check him out.

Bill Herring

PS: You had weekly hootenannys and poetry readings? Damn! I was hanging out with the wrong crowd back then!!

10. november 2007 09:36
Steven Meglitsch sa...

Thanks for the input ... Your comments may indicate that you both might be interested in some of the installments to come.

What I'm writing at the moment are the beginnings of "threads" (environment, society, religion, culture, and politics more or less)that will lead on through my childhood to my youth until about 1969, when I leave DM for ever for who knows where.

At the moment, I am working on the 1950 decade as you might have noticed.

The weekly hootenanny period began for me in the school year 59/60 (or was it 58/59?) at Dwight Saunders house, and then later rotating from house to house., and that has got to be the main theme in the next 'music' installment

10. november 2007 12:39