When I was little (before I admittedly became pudgy and started to sport boy-boobs, making me red meat for all-American bullies), I had a music teacher in third and fourth grade who made us learn songs that were all about work: “Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick a Bail of Cotton,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill” (which sounds like something Sarah Palin would say if she ran a brothel for gigolos) spring to mind. She also drilled us in the usual jingoistic fare, maybe to help us win the Vietnam War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republicans,” “The Star-Spangled Banter,” “From the Hells of Montezuma,” etc.
We never once got to sing Pete Seeger’s rousing anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” Tom Lehrer’s merry tribute to mutual assured nuclear destruction, “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” or the Animals’ “It’s My Life and I’ll Do What I Want.”
We were lucky enough to get to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” with the more controversial verses left out, but most fare seemed to revolve around hard labor and the organized execution of our fellow men and women (excuse me–boys and girls), as if we were already hardened criminals working on the chain gang (a Sam Cooke classic, alas, we never had the chance to croon). Maybe the idea was to prepare us for lives of abject, unquestioning servitude, doing away with the separation of church and state (considering that my wife’s church offers such wondrous Christian hymns as “Trust and Obey”–yowza! party time!) and silly old concepts like liberty and freedom.
Like most Americans, I can still recite the Pledge of Allegiance word for word, and although the whole kerfuffle about “under God” was probably overblown (Bill Clinton’s favorite word), the pledge does contain some nobly idealistic sentiments, namely “with liberty and justice for all”–especially subprime mortgage lenders and riot police. (Matt Groening’s parody of the pledge in Love Is Hell leaves the original in the dust.)
My parents were young and hip enough to listen to good music though, some of which I still even listen to today (sadly, as a noise-assaulted city dweller whose wife likes to inundate her ears with Christian pop, or whatever it’s called–CCM?–along with the sounds of self-congratulatory Korean celebrities laughing at themselves on TV shows such as “Gag Concert,” which she scrutinizes on her demonically diminutive cell phone screen, I only actively listen to music a few times a month; most of the Korean ballads and “K-pop” songs I hear in public make my ears retreat into my head like timorous sea creatures who’ve ventured prematurely from a coral reef, although the videos of the latter are fun to watch since they feature wild packs of scantily-clad Korean beauties who get the heart pumping; mind, you can always turn the volume down too).
As a toddler in the sixties, I’d roll around with my mom and siblings in the family audiomobile, listening to great songs that were–brace yourself–on the radio. Born in 1964, the year the Beatles came to America, we had the great fortune of hearing them, along with the Stones (whom I didn’t learn to appreciate until I was in middle school and beyond), as well as songs like “Downtown,” Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing “Something Stupid,” the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love,” and so many other chestnuts it would be futile to try to list them all.
After the historic invention of the eight-track cassette tape and player, my folks would play, both at home in the car, unforgettable albums like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Willie and the Poor Boys, the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters, Randy Newman’s Sail Away and Good Old Boys, the Beatles’ Revolver, and a Dionne Warwick album we must have listened to at least twenty times on a car trip from Cincinnati, Ohio to Taos, New Mexico and back. My dad turned us on to George Carlin’s AM/FM album, along with Tom Lehrer records he’d owned since college. There was also Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Cat Stevens. (Granted, that’s a fairly monochromatic list; read Keith Richards’ Life for a musical education about all the black blues giants who shaped his art and career.)
It wasn’t until sixth grade that I got to hear some decent music in school (curious that it involved just listening and not singing, which is a pity), thanks to a revolutionary teacher named Mr. Maclean, who played for the class Jeff(erson) Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s antiwar masterpiece “The Great Mandala.” He also taught us about how Simon met Garfunkel. Later, in seventh grade, music teacher Mr. Puccini introduced us to Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here,” and played the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” telling us how it was a parody of both Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
My brothers and sister played Elton John, Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne (hey, we all go through phases), Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal, the Grateful Dead, Santana. One brother went through an awkward Billy Joel and Eagles phase. In high school I got into Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Feat (as I was saying. . .), Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen. In college: XTC, the Clash, UB40, Madness, Men at Work, etc.
Over the years my tastes have become more catholic–even though I grew up Episcopalian (rimshot drum, please). I’m abysmally ignorant of most contemporary popular music, far behind my siblings in that department. I went through a feverish phase of buying loads of CD’s by the Kinks, They Might Be Giants, Pavement, Otis Redding, Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Kooks, Radiohead, etc.
But now I’m not allowed to listen to music anymore; my wife claims that when you play certain pop songs backwards, including those recorded by Simon and Garfunkel, you can hear the devil’s messages (I’m not sure if she means his answering machine messages, or if she’s referring to something else). I get a lot of exercise rolling my eyes, especially since people said the same thing about the Beatles back in the sixties. Maybe my wife’s concerned I’m going to mutate into Charles Manson.
Between you and me, I wasn’t planning on it, but if she gives me enough of an incentive. . .
Don’t worry–I’m as harmless as a dead bug on the windshield of Joe Walsh’s Maserati. I wouldn’t hurt a fly, even if I were one myself. I just hope that those people out there who are making great music–people like David Rovics and Ken Selcer, bands like Elephantom and Shango–can get the air time and exposure they deserve.
Rock on, ladies and gentlemen.