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.

Boomers Strike Solid Gold

Music and boomers go together like Fritos and corn — you just can’t have one without the other. Many would say that’s the case for every generation that followed the boomers, but the current explosion of portable music devices could not have developed if it were not for the successful roots planted in boomer teen time. Chief among the early devices was the portable radio.

Our parents had their music, as did every generation, but it was hardly portable. After all, it was tough to carry a big band around. To hear current, popular music, they only had two choices: the family radio or visiting in-person music venues. That all changed after World War II with the wide-spread introduction of the transistor into consumer products.

Though the first transistor radio made its debut in the late forties, it wasn’t widely distributed in the U.S. until the mid-fifties. The perfect storm for the new device was at hand: a boomer population reaching teen years, burgeoning rock ‘n roll and radio industries and two ways for this population to listen to “their” music without parental interference — namely, car radios and the portable transistor radio. That meant whether cruisin’ down the highway, into the drive-in parking lot, in the house or having a beach blanket party, music could be a part of the action.

Mister Boomer wasn’t a big radio — or music — fan in his pre-teen early days. The bulk of Mister B’s musical exposure came later, from sharing a bedroom with a brother who was two years older. Then, one day Mister Boomer’s Dad came home from his annual golf banquet bearing prizes. Through the years he had received great products that reflected the ideal suburban lifestyle that we all were supposed to be living: a badminton set; a mini charcoal grill; a picnic set with two Thermoses housed in a plaid fabric and pleather case. We used the grill on many state park visits, set up badminton games in the backyard and took the Thermos pack on driving vacations, with one Thermos dedicated to hot coffee, the other to milk or a cold beverage for the kids. On this occasion, he had a gift specifically for Mister Boomer and his brother. Mister B’s Dad opened two cardboard boxes and revealed two portable radios. Mister B’s brother grabbed the one with the light blue plastic casing. Mister Boomer received the other. It was a rectangle with slightly rounded corners about the length of a first generation iPod. It had a one-and-a-half inch tuning dial on the upper right corner. The remainder of the front was a shiny metal sheet with tiny holes that covered the on-board speaker. The backside was a plastic, dark burgundy casing, about an inch thick. The bottom had a sliding cap where you could install the 9-volt battery (included). On top was an on/off switch and a volume control. Since Mister B’s brother was barely in his teen years, he had not yet purchased a record player for the bedroom. It was the transistor radio that first filled the room with the sounds of the times, announced by local star radio personalities.

Boomer musical experiences varied slightly in those simpler times before the Summer of Love changed everything. Little by little, a national playlist was forming (we now know it was mainly bought and forced) as regional differences began to fade in importance and a more homogenous list of hits played the airwaves. Surf music mixed with Motown and pop/rock crooners everywhere. You’d walk on a beach or past the local drive-in and every car or portable radio would be tuned to the same station.

Boomer boys and girls did react differently to their music, though, and sometimes to the same song. The early days produced a conglomerate of genres emanating from radio speakers, that fell into two main categories: romance and fun.

Doe-eyed boomer girls felt the songs expressed their fledgling feelings for the opposite sex. They knew that Where the Boys Are was where they wanted to be. They all wanted a Leader of the Pack, but Wishing and Hoping wasn’t going to get them into boys’ hearts. They wrote Love Letters in the Sand. All I Have to Do Is Dream, they thought. Eventually they’d see He’s So Fine, but calling that special boy My Guy would lead to heartache as Lipstick On Your Collar told a tale on you. They’d come to understand that Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. They would prefer that he Break It To Me Gently and might exclaim, It’s My Party, and I’ll cry if I want to, when they realized that It Hurts To Be In Love.

For boomer guys, it was all about Fun, Fun, Fun, at least until Daddy took the T-Bird away. They spent a great deal of energy thinking about fast cars, even more than romance. Or rather, they envisioned fast cars would lead them to romance. Combining the two — cars and romance — was the ultimate in musical expression to the boomer boy. Whether they had a Little Deuce Coupe or a G.T.O., they’d still want to keep away from Runaround Sue. Often the mix led to tragedy. That seemed epic and heroic to boomer boys. If they didn’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve, well, that was an honorable end. In the fiery crash that ensued, they’d get all soft and with their dying breath, remind us to Tell Laura I Love Her. If they had to make a choice, many boomer guys would prefer to be The Wanderer since their mamas told them they’d better Shop Around.

As the sixties moved on, car radios begat FM stations and stereo broadcasts. Eight track tapes and cassettes would follow, and the rest, as they say, is history. Whatever our musical roots, many of us aging boomers may not be able to remember where we placed the car keys; but Mister Boomer is betting a few of those song titles are going to get you to recall whole swaths of lyrics. Which songs are going to run through your head today?

In case you did actually forget (in order of appearance):

Where the Boys Are – Connie Francis, 1960
Leader of the Pack – The Shangri-Las, 1964
Wishing and Hoping – Dusty Springfield, 1964
Love Letters in the Sand – Pat Boone, 1957
All I Have to Do Is Dream – The Everly Brothers, 1958
My Guy – Mary Wells, 1964
He’s So Fine – The Chiffons, 1963
Lipstick On Your Collar – Connie Francis, 1959
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Neil Sedaka, 1962
Break It To Me Gently – Brenda Lee, 1962
It’s My Party – Leslie Gore, 1963
It Hurts To Be In Love – Gene Pitney, 1964
Fun, Fun, Fun – The Beach Boys, 1964
Little Deuce Coupe – The Beach Boys, 1963
G.T.O. – Ronny & the Daytonas, 1964
Runaround Sue – Dion, 1961
Dead Man’s Curve – Jan & Dean, 1964
Tell Laura I Love Her – Ray Peterson, 1960
The Wanderer – Dion, 1961
Shop Around – The Miracles, 1960