Friday, September 17, 2010

The Music Playing in the Background

A few days ago, I was tagged in a note to list 15 songs that would always stick with me. I didn’t give it much thought, I admit. Looking through my list on my iPod, I wrote down the last 15 songs that I had listened to, then posted and tagged 15 others as I was instructed to do. But, you see, as someone pointed out to me, I didn’t follow the instructions. I didn’t list the 15 songs that really have stuck with me all through the years; I took a shortcut and while the songs that I listed are ones that are some of my favorites, they didn’t quite meet the criteria of the directive. Okay, what some might not know is: I rarely follow instructions exactly. Usually, I make the instructions conform to what I’d like them to read and it normally works out just fine. But, after reading the beautiful list of songs that Bill Littleton came up with and the reasons for their being important to him and of course, the aforementioned comment (although done in jest) that I hadn’t complied with the note’s intentions; I felt like I had shortchanged myself for missing the opportunity to remember those 15 songs that had made enough of an impression on me to always stick with me.

So, I decided to think back and come up with those songs. In doing so, I realized we live our lives with music always playing in the background and that music becomes a big part of who we are and sometimes hearing a song that had meaning to us will bring back a memory that we don’t always take the time to acknowledge. That’s what I found when I sat down to make my list. The memories have flooded me today and with the memories, I heard the music playing. Now, the problem would be to narrow it down to 15 songs which I soon learned that would not be possible.

In the mid to late fifties, Savannah, Georgia like most cities in the deep south was segregated. Blacks and whites didn’t mix in social settings but in my living room on Henry Street in my favorite city in the world, my older brother, another white guy named Robert and two young black guys rehearsed some of the best Doo Wop you’d ever want to listen to. My favorite was In the Still of the Night by the Five Satins and whenever I hear that song to this day, I can remember the excitement these guys felt to be in that moment singing together with no real thoughts of anything but the music. My mother came home from work and opened the door to the living room and just closed it back. I’m sure she realized that this wouldn’t set well with the neighbors but she never said a word. She didn’t care that much what others thought anyway. The guys never became a real group but they sure had fun practicing for a while.

Along about that time, my oldest brother, who was also into music was busy singing Elvis tunes and my favorite was Jail House Rock which he would sing complete with the movements Elvis became famous for. Fast forward several years and he would be a total Johnny Cash devotee and whenever he walked into any of the local clubs, he would be asked to sing Folsom Prison Blues or some other Cash tune. The two musical idols he had chosen seemed to be so totally different from each other when I was young but in later life, I can see how he was drawn to these talented men; both very sensitive and brooding in their personal lives which made it difficult for them to handle the pressures of life and their music without using something to make the pain go away. We didn’t know it then but several years later, we’d see those same traits more clearly in my brother. Now, even after losing my brother twenty-one years ago, hearing those songs will bring my brother’s face into my mind and it will be him that I imagine singing.

My mother was very musically talented also and had taught herself to play the guitar. She played by ear and had a beautiful, sweet voice. One of the songs that she loved to play and sing was The Wildwood Flower by the Carter Family and an old Kitty Wells tune called It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. I didn’t have much interest in this type of music because I thought that there was no other music besides rock and roll at the time. Closing my eyes, I can see her sitting there with her guitar, lost in the music that was an escape from her problems and the long hours that she worked. Years later, when she was in the late stages of the early onset Alzheimer's that stole her from us at 59, she sat down at a piano and started to play. We had no idea that she knew how to play piano and she had not played her guitar in several years. After playing some tune for a few minutes, she got up and walked away just like it never happened. By this time, she didn’t speak and she didn’t recognize us but obviously, she still had her musical abilities. What a gift this was to us and now as I listen to the pure and real music that the Carter Family was so famous for, it makes these memories of her come alive in my mind.

Friday nights in my early teens meant a dance at a local community center and was the highlight of my week. The music was everything and this entire group of kids made the most of the evening dancing to Chubby Checker’s The Twist and Let’s Twist Again LIke We Did Last Summer and Big Girls Don’t Cry by the Four Seasons. There was dancing of all sorts and music of all different kinds. One thing for sure there would be at least one “stroll” of the night often to I Want To Walk You Home by Fats Domino or to The Stroll by the Diamonds. This was an older dance but in the early 60s, kids still liked it. Later on, the stroll lost it’s appeal and was replaced more often by the Twist and such dances as the Mashed Potatoes and the Monkey along with numerous other regional dances. There was still a lot of different versions of the Shag which originated in Myrtle Beach, SC along with the term “beach music.” I don’t think we labelled it so much as just got out on the floor and did it. The night always ended with a slow song and most of the time it would be Last Date by Floyd Cramer; still one of the most beautiful instrumental songs of all time to me.

None of us could know while we were dancing and listening to the best music that would ever be (to me at least) that our lives would soon change. Our innocent views of the world would be challenged in the next few years beyond anything that we had imagined.

While we listened to beach music like Surfin USA by the Beach Boys and Surf City by Jan and Dean and Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireball’s Sugar Shack, the world was changing around us. The war in Viet Nam was picking up and we now had over sixteen thousand troops in this place that we had never even thought of until recently. The South Vietnam President was overthrown by a coup and the trouble was only going to escalate. It seemed like there was turmoil every where you looked. At home in Savannah, our music was integrated but our schools were not. The Civil Rights movement was heating up and the March on Washington took place in August of 1963 and the speech, I Have a Dream, became a part of history.

Meanwhile we were still listening to music and dancing because we were kids and couldn’t imagine that any of the horrible things that we heard on the news would ever touch us in our town. Of course, they already had but we were too young to understand. With Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen and Deep Purple by Nino Temple and April Stevens playing on our radios, we went about our lives; school, dances, football games and the drama involved with young love. On November 22, 1963, I was in 9th grade Science taught by Coach Preston who doubled as the basketball coach when the Principal announced over the intercom that our President, John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. We would learn later that he had died. The shock that we all felt was indescribable; the girls cried and the boys for once didn’t have any wise remarks to make. They sat speechless. The days that followed were a blur. I remember watching every moment of this horrible event play out on television from the footage of the aftermath of the shooting until the finality of the funeral. The only respite from the sadness was the music I listened to at night on the radio. It was a comfort to hear the Cascades sing Rhythm of the Rain and the Chiffons with He’s So Fine because it brought back some sense of normalcy even if it was only for a while.

Eventually, we went back to being teenagers and going to our dances and football games and worrying about who liked who and what we would wear to school the next day. The dances were still a big deal and now, we had the British invasion to occupy our thoughts and airwaves. The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan in February of 1964 and we were all crazy about them. A Hard Day’s Night and Love Me Do were playing all the time but we still liked the Four Seasons who had a number of hits out with Dawn and Rag Doll being my favorites. The Animals’ hit The House of the Rising Sun was very popular and we all requested it at the dances not so much to dance to but because it seemed to be a little controversial and we were teenagers, after all. Looking back, I think I saw the changes even then as some drifted away from the Friday night event.

I think about it now and while we didn’t know it then but one day, us girls would remember as we read a list of names of the wars casualties and saw one that we knew, that we had danced with that boy in a magical time in our youth. And some of the boys that would return from the war would not be the same fun loving, carefree boys that we knew back then and if we saw them, we wouldn’t know what to say.

Music was still at the center of our lives and I always loved live performances. I went to a concert in 1966 that featured Ike and Tina Turner who were not as popular as they had once been in the US but still attracted a huge crowd in Savannah. It was completely wild and all I remember was It’s Gonna Work Out Fine which had been one of their earlier hits. They were so full of energy; the show was fantastic. Somewhere along that same time some friends and I snuck into a local nightclub where none other than the King of Soul, James Brown was the headline act. It was pretty easy to slip into those places back then. You never took boys with you, they looked younger and didn’t have enough brains not to try to order drinks. Us girls just went for the music. James Brown was unbelievable. He sang Try Me and Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag; some good stuff even today.

The year before I snuck into that club which was called the Bamboo Ranch, a hometown boy who had been a performer at the club with a band called Buddy Livingston and the Versitones, made it to the Top 40 Charts with a song called Down in the Boondocks. He’d have a couple more before fading to obscurity: I Knew You When and Cherry Hill Park. They were actually all good songs but I guess it took more than a decent voice and a song to make it.

All the time that I was listening to all the rock and roll and sure that this type of music would always be my favorite, I was still inundated with country music at home. My mother was still playing and singing her country songs and my oldest brother, the Johnny Cash fan, became an exclusive singer of Johnny Cash music. He played some of the local bars and he always wore his black and he did look a lot like Cash but in my opinion, my brother was better looking. He didn’t have the rasp in his voice like Cash but he did a great I Walk the Line. My other brother also leaned towards country but he didn’t play in a band; he just played at home or for friends. He had a great voice; always reminded me a little of Ricky Nelson although other than Elvis himself, he did the best version of Are You Lonesome Tonight? I’ve ever heard. My mother’s love of playing the guitar kept a steady stream of my brothers’ friends coming to have her teach them a few chords so that they could get started playing. After they learned a little, they came back to have her tune their guitars. Never did figure out how they could play but couldn’t tune a guitar. It was not uncommon on a Friday or Saturday night to have a house full of aspiring musicians having a jam session. My little brother wasn’t into the music too much then but in a few years, he would become a pretty good drummer. And me, I played the radio. So the music around my house was country and I have to admit, I had softened over time in my opinion of it and wore out a few albums by Ray Price and Jim Reeves. I guess when you’re born listening to something, it gets in your soul. As I got older, I realized I loved both genres of music.

The summer of 1966 brought many changes to my life. I met the guy I would marry six weeks later after meeting on a blind date. The music once again was a huge part of my memories of that time. There was such a variety of music popular that crazy summer. We were listening to the Statler Brothers singing Flowers on the Wall one minute and Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones the next. The Mamas and Papas were popular and California Dreaming and Monday, Monday were both big hits. When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge was probably my favorite, at least for a day or two. There was just so many to choose from. After I met my husband to be, we saw each other every night and often we would drive down to the beach and the radio would be playing Simon & Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock, Little Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs; the Beach Boys were still going strong with Good Vibrations and for some quieter music, we had the Righteous Brothers with You’re My Soul and Inspiration, You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling and one of the most beautiful songs of all times, Unchained Melody.

There’s so much to remember from that time but it all comes back to me when I hear these songs. No other time of my life has ever been so closely connected to music and no other music has ever affected me as much as the music from the 60’s. I feel this music has been woven into a tapestry along with the events and the people from that period of my life and like a piece of art, it’s beautiful to look at and cherish.


CatGem said...

love this so much -- thank you for sharing, dear one :-)

Katley said...

Loved this, June, it brought back memories.