I've always loved music, in spite of have never having had any musical ability. Then again, that's the beauty of music: You don't need any skill to enjoy it.
During my childhood, we often had music in the house, coming from our console radio. It was a huge wooden beauty that occupied the place of honor in the living room. We got WNBZ on its radio, and played records on it phonograph. The records were of course those old 78's that were made out of a shellac resin and were heavy, brittle, and easily broken.
A bunch of our records were classical, but I only remember seeing them in their albums, not listening to them. Instead, we listened to Broadway musicals - all the classics: South Pacific, Oklahoma, Showboat, and so on - and classic '40s stuff like the big bands and the Gershwins' music. We also had some '40s pop stuff, most of it eminently forgettable. In fact, the only song from that batch I can remember is the one I should forget - the then-hilarious but now politically-incorrect "She's Too Fat Polka," sung by The Old Redhead, himself - Arthur Godfrey.
I've always had great luck and proof is I was on the ground floor of rock and roll: When Elvis hit the boards on Ed Sullivan (and the entire U.S. right between the eyes and ears) I was the tender age of nine and I saw that show. What happened was post-infantile, pre-adolescent imprinting: Once Elvis even started to do his thang, I became an instant rocker - even if I had no idea why someone was a hound dog.
After that, it seemed rock was everywhere. I know it wasn't, but it seemed that way because I listened to whenever, wherever and however I could. I don't think today's young people, who're constantly exposed to every kind of music there is and ever was, can know what it was like to hear rock and roll during its world debut. I'll just say that after a lifetime (albeit a very short one) of Old Man River, Oh What a Beautiful Morning, and Some Enchanted Evening, as soon as I heard Jerry Lee Lewis's Great Balls of Fire, or Little Richard's Good Golly Miss Molly, there was no turning back.
My favorites back then? There too many to choose from, but I can remember especially groovin' on Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and of course The King.
Plus, living in Saranac Lake gave me an advantage over young music lovers in a lot of other places because we were exposed to country music too. Today, country is mainstream, and country's stars are as well known as rock's. But in the '50s and for a good part of the '60s the only people who listened to country were "hillbillies," for the simple reason no mainstream pop stations played it, and country bands had almost no following in Northern cities or suburbs.
I liked all the classics - Eddy Arnold, George Jones, Jimmie Rodgers, Kitty Wells, and of course, Hank. But my two favorite balladeers were Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison (yeah, I know Roy Orbison became a famous name in rock and roll, but three guesses where he started).
Lower tech and higher times
As I said, I know nothing about music - certainly, I can't explain in technical terms what makes Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison great. Is it their range? Their phrasing? Their tone? Or something else. I don't know I just know they are great. It's something I don't keep to myself either - I'm not shy about sharing my opinion with others, including my students. And I have the perfect opportunity to do so in my Sixties course.
The course is a hybrid of sorts a combination of social, political, and popular history; art, writing, music, and whatever else pops into my head. My drive is not only that the students understand the forces that drove the 1960's, how they came about, and what they led to, but to get a real sense of the times as well. In other words, as best as they can, I want my students to feel the '60s. Thus the music.
Last week I played Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline for them. None of the students had ever heard either of them (in fact, they'd never even heard OF them), but they listened attentively and appreciatively. I told them how Orbison was considered great by all the other music greats like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bernie Taupin, Dwight Yokum and on and on. His music was as impressive as his lyrics, and his voice itself, with its four-octave range and smoothness, routinely gave everyone chills. And even though most people don't know it, his guitar abilities were considered on par with his voice.
As for Patsy? Her stuff was classic country "po' sufferin' woman" heartbreak beautifully done. I played her version of the Willie Nelson masterpiece, "Crazy." Then I told my students that probably more good ole boys had shed more tears on more bar tops over that song than any other. Hyperbole? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
Ironically, Patsy Cline was hardly the woman of her songs. She was self-assured, strong, and nobody's victim. In fact, I think she was the first woman in country to headline above male acts, as well as the first one to perform in Carnegie Hall. She befriended and helped a slew of other performers, unknown at the time, who later became famous. And in a time when promoters routinely ripped off performers, it never happen to her since she insisted on being paid before she went on. Or as she put it, "No dough, no show."
I explain all this to my students, and then I tell them that as great as Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline were, neither might get anywhere in today's music scene. Why's that? Because while they had beautiful voices, neither one had beautiful looks. And today, given videos as the music medium, we see music as well as we hear it - if not more so.
So now when it comes to music, looks are the thingand in some cases, they're the only thing. But to me, never having a t.v., musicians' looks are no thing. Instead, I can appreciate the music itself, and appreciate it for what it is. At the same time I never have to deal with how hot, studly, quirky or berserky the musician is.
While the people who watch videos get a whole lot of hype with their music, I get the music, the whole music, and nothing but the music.
Like I said, I've got great luck.