Saturday, November 25, 2006

America Sings (well, it used to!)

Laura Lee Donoho has, once again, touched on a topic which gets me going. Last time, it was lunch at schools, and now, she's on lost melodies. In light of this week's passing of Betty Comden, I'd say the discussion was timely and worthy.

I have a bad habit or two when I go to auctions (quel surprise!), one of them being things made of paper... postcards, books, sheet music, old photos, card stock, and so on. Note in the midst of this, the mention of "sheet music"

and "books". Often I bring home music books, too. I'm particularly fond of the old songbooks we used to have in the schools. In them, there are patriotic hymns, nonsense songs, and -- gee whiz -- Christmas carols! I've come across "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" and "Silent Night" in school books published as late as the early 1980s.

My sister and several other good mommies I know have invested in song books and in "Wee Sing!" recordings/books to help them keep their memories fresh. And they sing along with the recordings. But even those recordings fall short, when it comes to the great old tunes I loved to sing as a kid.

And, my brother's sons, now in junior high and high school, know nothing but a handful of pop tunes they hear on the computer, on the radio, in movies and tv shows. I've tried to introduce them to classics such as "Frère Jacques" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody", but they ain't havin' none of it. The elder of the two can sing along with Kermit, in a croaking version (unintentional, naturally) of "Rainbow Connection". But he never learned the tunes my generation picked up in music class at school, or over the tables at summer camp, e.g. "My Hat, It Has Three Corners" (which, BTW, I was just singing last Sunday at the auction, having just bought a tricornered hat for a dollar), or the half-dozen chanteys, or even Irving Berlin's tunes. And they looked askance at me when I sang "Crawdad" every time they discussed having an uncle take them out fishing. And nobody ever picked up "Donkey Riding", darn them. Still, all hope is not lost. Since giving my cat (Proserpina) the nickname of "Peanut", the younger of my brother's boys has learned "Found a Peanut". (She is spoiled rotten, after all.)

Granted, my own repertoire has more than its fair share of pop tunes, tv theme songs, and commercial jingles, but my mom saw fit to make sure I knew some less-irritating melodies, as well. Dad, on the other hand, taught us the words to Dvořák's "Humoresque":
Gentlemen will please refrain
From flushing toilets on the train
While standing in the station I love you...
as well as "Punch brothers, punch with care". This was crucial for any irrational child's upbringing. I have had the pleasure of hearing Bob Harris, the father of Oscar-winner Ed Harris (and gifted performer in his own right, having been on stage with Perry Como and Carol Burnett, among others), sing the latter... he held a melody in a way Dad never could (Dad's singing sounds like a moose in distress), but I'm torn, choosing a favorite performance. Love does that to you.

I don't read music very well. I've had to reteach myself the very basic stuff I'd been offered in grade school, in piano lessons, in high school chorus. I'm relearning this because I'll be hanged if I'm going to let the little monsters I love go without a sense of musical continuity.

And I hope that Laura Lee Donoho and many others are of the same bent.

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