Musical Youth

Grade school music classes certainly varied from place to place for boomers. While some received a healthy dose of musical meanderings, sprinkled with a soup├žon of history, others had what amounted to a Mitch Miller songbook that could potentially set back music appreciation a generation. Mister Boomer’s musical education fell into the latter category.

Parochial schools were supposedly known for better math and science classes than their public counterparts. Mister B can testify to the math category, but not so much on the science side. When it came to music classes, though, it was a whole other story. Mister B can’t vouch for public school music classes, but they did seem to have some choices. For years, we’d have a music class once a week that consisted entirely of opening a book and singing a few songs. There was no band practice. There was no record player introducing us to the great music of the world. Perhaps that’s why Time Life felt they had a void to fill? For us, a book and a nun equaled music appreciation.

By fourth grade the students had pretty much had enough. Every week, Sister Ukulele — or Eugenics, it’s hard to remember since all the nuns had strange names — would lead our “music” lesson. “They don’t make nun names like that no more,” as Thom Sharp observed a decade later. Sister Uke would deposit the music books on the front desk of each row at the appointed time, triggering a domino effect as students took one and passed the rest down the row. Before we opened the books, she’d request that the class do a “warm-up.” It was always the same: Rounds, row by row, of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Oh, the irony. She wouldn’t be satisfied until, like the plate juggler on The Ed Sullivan Show, she’d have all six rows in action, creating a cacophony of row-row-your-boatness.

Then came the main course. “Turn to page 43,” she’d say. We all knew what page that was. The Kookaburra song. Again. Still stuck in some gum tree and laughing at us, no less. The class response was less than enthusiastic as she took her position, front and center, her book cradled in one hand, the other conducting with as vigorous an arm swing as her habit would allow.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra
Gay your life must be*

We weren’t laughing. We were barely mumbling. “Come on, now,” she would urge. No dice. We’d had enough of some Australian bird song. Sister Uke would have to be satisfied with a half-hearted attempt from her classroom of tweens.

One fine day as the dreaded music hour arrived, the good Sister had a surprise for us. Instead of passing out the books, she dropped a stack of mimeographed sheets at the front of each row. Receiving the paper, we could see she’d taken to heart the teachings of Vatican II: She was attempting to make her music class more relevant for contemporary times. On that mimeo-smelling sheet, in faded purple ink, were the typewritten lyrics to Jan & Dean’s, Little Old Lady from Pasadena. It’s hard to say whether the class was in complete shock, or we were collectively rolling our eyes. Not a sound was uttered.

“You ALL know this one, don’t you?” queried Sister Uke. No response. “OK, it goes like this…” at which point she sang the first stanza in her mezzo-soprano nun voice. She was greeted with open-jawed silence. Mister B couldn’t help but think the whole scene was, man, so not cool, to hear this old woman singing about a shiny red superstock Dodge. Yet she persisted. “OK, the boys will sing the verses and the girls will sing the ‘Go, Granny‘ lines,” she commanded. Putting her conducting arm in motion, she tried to kick it off, but no one was joining in. Before she could reach the first “Go, Granny,” we had taken that 4:4 beat, dug in our heels and choked it to a halt. Frustrated but not deterred, she drove on, conducting like Toscanini yielding a whip while herding cattle, now moving up and down the aisles to see who was really singing and who was just mouthing the words.

She tried one more class to inject some enthusiasm into us before scrapping the Great Jan and Dean Experiment. Somehow, she did get the message. The following week, we didn’t have to sing Little Old Lady from Pasadena, or Kookaburra. “Turn to page 47,” she said. Just like that we had a new song. Waltzing Matilda.

Today’s “Glee”-ful followers probably can’t relate to that experience as their classes are so involved with whatever the current phrase is for gettin’ jiggy with it. Football players and cheerleaders singing in a chorus? Only if there was a scowling nun hovering over them, if you ask Mister B.

What music class memory helped shape your boomer experience?

*Kookaburra copyright by Larrikin Music; reproduced solely for the purpose of historical content and comment.