Monday, October 04, 2010

Old songs: generational pedagogy and cultural memory. The other day, a daggy old song that I'd been taught in primary school popped back into my head. It was 'By The Light Of The Silvery Moon'. First published in 1909, it was one of those Tin Pan Alley songs that pandered to the craze for 'moon, spoon, June' type lyrics.

It was always a popular song and has been performed and recorded many times, but it enjoyed a new vogue in 1953 when Doris Day performed it in the movie of the same name.

Doris Day made lots of '50s movies that used these old songs as titles. This continues to be a popular practice in Hollywood. It seems to me it happened a lot in the '80s, because the ones that come to my mind include Dream A Little Dream, Can't Buy Me Love, Peggy Sue Got Married, Blue Velvet, Jumpin' Jack Flash, My Girl, Stand By Me and Sixteen Candles.

Or perhaps the 1980s were just enjoying a total romance with the 1950s and 1960s, as baby boomers got into positions of creative authority and were in a position to impose their childhood nostalgia on Generation X. This would certainly explain why, as a child in the 1980s, I was taught a song from the 1900s that was last popular in the 1950s.

The other day I was walking down the street and a mum was pushing a stroller and humming a song to herself and her kids. I've forgotten what the song is now, but at the time I recognised it and started singing it to myself. It was from the '70s or '80s.

I'd be interested to hear parents and teachers my age explain the songs they play and sing to the kids. Of course, this would largely be dependent on personal taste.

Unlike other people my age who had cool boomer parents who loved Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Roxy Music, I have really dorky parents whose record collection included Harry Secombe, John Denver, Anne Murray, Joan Armatrading and Cliff Richard singing in Italian. I spent my formative years listening to 1377: Easy Listening 3MP, which is why I still have a fondness for the MOR hits of the '70s and '80s.

But elsewhere, there were three different influences on my primary-school song knowledge:
1. our music teachers' and choir coordinators' favourite songs;
2. the campfire songs I learned at Girl Guides and through Whitehorse Showtime;
3. the songs in the ABC's Sing! series.

The hippest songs were 'Down On The Corner' and 'Space Oddity', which I sang in grade six. I'm pretty sure that was due to having a 'cool' teacher. Other songs I remember singing in primary school include 'Downtown', 'The Rainbow Connection', 'When I'm 64', 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo', 'Edelweiss' and the theme song for the International Year Of The Child, 'Care For Kids'. I'm not even counting all the dinkum folk songs that it's apparently vital for all Australian kids to know: stuff like 'Botany Bay', 'Waltzing Matilda', 'And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda', 'Click Go The Shears' and 'The Road To Gundagai'.

Meanwhile, we had an official Girl Guide camp songbook that was kind of divided between "jolly songs to sing on the bus on the way to camp" and "contemplative songs to sing around the fire". One of these latter songs, 'Land Of The Silver Birch', was my favourite.

Actually, that song makes me think about how cringey it was for white kids to sing this and other 'ethnic' songs, like 'The Banana Boat Song', 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton' and 'Jamaica Farewell', which, by the way, aged eight, I took for definitive documentary reports of the Black Atlantic experience.

But as usual, I'm getting off topic; 'topic' in this case being the way I can still sing some pretty old songs, having been taught them in primary school:

'Daisy Bell' (1892) – "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…"
'I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside' (1907) – "I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom!"
'In My Merry Oldsmobile' (1905) – "Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile…"
'Molly Malone' (1883) – "Alive alive-o, alive alive-0, singing, 'Cockles and mussels alive, alive-o!'"
'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag' (1915) – "And smile, smile smile" (Hilariously, I have only just realised that they bowdlerised the lyrics to teach it to us – the original lyric was "While you've a lucifer to light your fag", but we were taught "to light your way")

Interestingly, I also sang 'Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines', which was written for a 1965 movie that was set in 1910. So it was a pastiche of Edwardian popular song. Likewise, 'My Little Buttercup' sounds like a real Tin Pan Alley song, but Randy Newman wrote it in 1986 for the film Three Amigos, which was set in 1916.

I wonder if I am weird in still remembering these songs. Will future generations of kids ever know 'By The Light Of The Silvery Moon', and thus maintain a gossamer-thin connection to an era when cars and planes were strictly for rakes and daredevils, or will old baby-boomer songs become their barometer of 'impossibly ancient' songs?

Sounds like we were at school at about the same time! I also remember singing "Take Me Home Country Roads" at school and everyone laughing because of the reference to West Virginia (virgin...) As to my parents, Mum tried to fly the cool flag with a little bit of Beatles and Creedance but Dad was strictly Acker Bilk and the Carpenters...!
My parents played Nana Mouskouri and Peter, Paul and Mary. Oh! And Nina and Frederik! I do not maintain a nostalgia for these musicians...
I remember the Sing! series. We only ever wanted to sing the Ghostbusters theme or a song about playing on a new "play gym", from them.

I realised recently that I know pretty much every Frank Sinatra song and all the songs from every Fred Astair film ever. Baring in mind that my parents were born in the mid 50s, these songs must have been passed on from my grandparents. I can;t imagine any of them singing, though.
My childhood songs list is pretty similar to yours, Mel. I just listened to Care for Kids again and I do know it! It's pretty crappy though. (On a tangent, I then watched the classic Franco Cozzo ad. And then got excited when I realised that a translation of his name is 'Frank Mussel'. And then found out that the Italian for 'mussel' is actually 'cozza'. You see how disgressive I am.)

My parents brought me up with pretty great music, Dad especially. I listened to loads of Pink Floyd and the Stones and basically anyone who released a live stadium rock album in the 70s. I remember going through a bit of a Neil Young phase when I was younger. Dad has got an amazing vinyl collection - he was a DJ in the early 60s so has original releases of loads of stuff from back then. Horror thought - where are all these albums? Stuck in storage somewhere. I hope they're not getting ruined, I'd be devastated.

Alex and I are now singing 'Those Magnificent Men.' Thanks, Mel!
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