As the years mount up I find myself becoming more and more like my parents. They would wax poetic about what it was like to be growing up in the teens and twenties of the last century. My brother and I would roll our eyes and prepare ourselves for what was to come. How the kids of “today”(which was 60 or so years ago) have no respect and don’t accept responsibility, yada yada yada. I now find myself with those words on my lips and must bite my tongue because the torch has been passed to a new generation of nostalgic old men!
Looking at an old album of black and white photos of my family back in the 50’s and 60’s stirs great memories in my mind but it doesn’t stimulate feelings for me other than remembering the people and the event. Nothing brings those memories to life the way music does. I don’t need the pictures when a particular song comes on the radio. The music makes me feel, hear and see the people and brings me back in time to significant places in my life. And for me the music was always associated with significant memories and special places or events. One of my earliest family memories was of everyone sitting around the living room on some holiday with my dad playing the ukulele and my uncle, on the guitar and everybody singing, “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” Dinner would be over and my Aunt Eleanor would be dancing around the living room with the remnants of her last Manhattan sloshing around in her glass after a few too many, designed to make her unable to wash the dishes. Everybody was singing and as I write about this I can actually hear the voices, the clapping and laughing and the teasing of Aunt Eleanor about how she always managed to get tipsy as soon as the dishes had to be done. This went on every year and every holiday for the first 2 decades of my life.
In junior high school, we would spend summers in my mom’s home town, Mahanoy City, PA. My cousin, Linda and I learned to do the double lindy together watching American Bandstand and The Steel Peer and then practicing the dance at the Teen Canteen every Saturday night. The song we learned to dance to was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. To this day when I hear it on 50’s on 5 on Sirius radio, I can’t help but be back in Mahanoy City in my uncle’s living room practicing the steps.
In my senior year in high school, my friends Anne and Norman and I would get in Norman’s little Nash Metropolitan every Friday night. We’d drive on the Van Wyck Expressway to LaGuardia Airport. You used to be able to go on the observation deck, meet your friends and watch the planes take off and land. We whizzed along the highway with the top down and the radio blasting, listening to Cousin Brucie. It seemed he played “If I Fell” every Friday night. To this day when I hear it, I stop whatever I am doing, sing along and remember Anne’s clear voice, Norman’s tuneless voice and mine, trying to harmonize as we shared this carefree moment. I felt free and I feel that way whenever I hear it. Anne and I were dance partners too, and loved to dance together at the high school sock hops. We couldn’t wear our shoes on the gym floor so to dance we had to take our shoes off. I was popular with the girls in high school, ‘cause I could dance so I always had a dance partner, but Anne and I were special partners. I am still in touch with Anne though she lives half way across the country. We still want to meet once more before…….to share a few lindies together again. I am sure we could pick up right where our feet left off. She and I even invented a new dance we called the penguin to “Be My Baby.” When I hear either of those songs it brings me close to tears and a feeling of warmth and longing for youth fills my mind. I loved her parents so it even allows me a moment to remember them fondly, even though her dad always called me Stupid Bastard. I haven’t thought about that in years! And I was never sure why he called me that but it was said with affection so it was important to me.
Though musically inept myself, it was so important throughout my life. I could run up to my room, put my hi-fi on and get lost just thinking. I carried my transistor radio around everywhere to the chagrin of my parents, my generation’s version of the i-phone. I guess it isn’t surprising music is so important in our lives- it is everywhere- elevators, the doctor’s office, the barbers, in fact I can hardly think of a place where there isn’t music. Music was always playing in my inn, all day, every day, even when no one was there. One of my fondest memories from the inn was one weekend an elderly, excuse me, mature, couple from Great Britain came and registered. They were all excited about being in Vermont. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating and for the three days they stayed with us, it rained. The last night they returned from dinner and were sitting out in their car for a long time. I always checked the parking lot so I could greet our guests to see how their dinners went. I was in the dining room when they came in the door and she came over to me and explained to me that 50 years ago that night her husband asked her to marry him. They were at a night club in London and her husband asked the band leader to play her favorite song, “Moonlight in Vermont.” They came to Vermont 50 years later to celebrate and to see the Vermont moon in person, but the weather did not cooperate UNTIL they pulled into our parking lot after dinner. As they sat in their car, the clouds separated. The moon came shining through. So they did get to see moonlight in Vermont after all. She returned to her husband in the living room and I knew I had several versions of the song in my collection. I picked the one by Billy Butterfield and his Orchestra sung by Margaret Whiting. No sooner did 2 notes play than she came running into the dining room in tears saying that was the exact version that was played that night. I told her that dancing was permitted in the living room, started the song again and disappeared. The next morning at breakfast she and her husband told us that this was the most special holiday they had ever had. What a special feeling that gave me to think I had been able to provide them with such a memory, but it was more about the music! I get teary eyed a lot more than I ever used to. Nostalgia is something hard to avoid. Each generation has its own memories and its own music. The two are tightly intertwined, but the tears they provoke in me aren’t of sadness, but are tears of relived memories, renewed friendships, and recycled emotions. I can’t imagine living without them or without my music!
Getting in Tune
George, that’s a beautiful story about finding the Moonlight in Vermont tune! Your words underline the shared enjoyment of music and how it acts as a transit to past experience.
I wonder whether musical preferences change for a person as they age — or perhaps become more eclectic? Sure, I tend to gravitate to music of my youth. And I like some soft jazz, bosa nova, and reggae – background music. However, lately, I find a pull to more classically composed scores, be it methodical Mozart or romantic Rimsky-Korsakov.
My father played such music all through our childhood – he favored the romantics. I still love some of those pieces and think of him whenever they are performed (ah, Clare de Lune!). And of course, a tip of the hat to Walt Disney Studios for bringing classical music to animation. There’s more, though: the deeper, longer rhythms and lied motifs of these works call out to me – differently than a popular song that gathers you in with a catchy refrain and jaunty jingle (though I enjoy those as well).
I don’t pretend to know much about music, despite the best efforts of our college’s listening lab. However, in tennis jargon, if someone hits a ball that strikes your racquet with greater force than you would expect, it’s called a ‘heavy’ ball. Symphonic music seems like that to me – it has momentum, it builds; it carries the force of a full orchestra. Its weight is required to ping a chord buried deep within that may not be associated with memory, but simply a fundamental aspect of our nature
Now, some music has become decidedly less evocative – plaintive lamentations (“I’ve got tears in my ears as I lay on my back in my bed as I cry over you’) or pieces simply devoted to anger or calls to action. I don’t tend to seek that reinforcement of social consciousness these days. On the other hand, I am amazed to hear myself whistling hymns from time-to-time. What’s happening here? I’m curious how you would score your life in musical terms? My oldest grandson is resuscitating Pink Floyd, so maybe the Dark Side of the Moon would be his theme. I’d probably go for a tablespoon of Take Five with a dollop of Scheherazade. You?
Marching to a Different Beat
As I think about the role of music in George’s heartfelt story and I ponder the influence of music in my life, a curious notion is evolving that suggests I have a fragmented and disjointed relationship with music. Like George and Wally, it seems to me that most people regularly seek out music to bring them into a particular mood or frame of mind. I, however, despite coming from a family of talented musicians, don’t relate in the same way; at least not in any predictable or consistent manner.
My mother was an extraordinary, pianist; her brother was a natural on the violin and her father played the bass in the orchestra of the Waldorf Astoria for a living. And, while I dabbled with piano, violin, and viola in my early school years, I found it to be a foreign language I just couldn’t decode.
When music became an important part of the high school social scene, I again found myself struggling to understand it, figuratively and literally. And while I like certain popular tunes, and was caught up in the feeling of freedom and lightness during a college concert or from swelling voices extending a song on the jukebox at a local bar, it was short-lived and fleeting.
Even today, I can go days without playing any music in the house. When I do activate my Sonos speakers, I enjoy the oldies, classical pieces, and meditative arrangements. I feel them. They move me. But I don’t look for them. I don’t miss them when it’s quiet. They are, for me, just one of many nice options to lighten my day.
And, while I also don’t consciously seek it out, I enjoy immensely the music of nature. As I walk through acres of wooded trails with my rescue mutt Duke every day, I am calmed and moved by her sounds, the wind through leaves or as it whistles around barren trunks, bird songs, the hollow reverberation of the woodpeckers as they seek their food beyond the layers of tree bark, the many sounds of the stream as it flows, trickles, or rushes at different levels after a rain. As I write this piece on my porch with Duke by my side, the rain is falling steadily and plays a tune as it echoes off the metal roof of my nearby woodshed. I love the changes in volume as the rain falls more heavily for a while and then subsides. It calms and soothes me. It’s my kind of music. I’m not sure why I don’t think to seek it out but I do enjoy it when I find myself in its presence.