One of many great pleasures in my job is leading the preschoolers down the hall after music class to their classroom. Naturally, we do it with a song, often with improvised verses greeting the people we pass. After dropping them off, one of the new teachers said to me, “You know lots of songs!” And that is true.
But I didn’t learn them growing up in my house, school or church. The only two songs I remember from my twice-weekly music classes in elementary school were Erie Canal and a song called Baked Potato. The Unitarian Church I sporadically attended wasn’t that big on singing and my Dad had two songs he occasionally sang to me—There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea and a song he made up called Piggy Piggy Poo. That’s a pretty small repertoire in my formative years.
On the record player, I was much more apt to listen to Beethoven than Frank Sinatra, though once the Beatles kicked in in my adolescence, I did listen to the same songs every red-blooded American did—Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, Four Seasons, Temptations, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and so on and so on. I didn’t have a magnet mind for either the words or the tunes, but it did expand my repertoire.
When I first began working at The San Francisco School in 1975, I inherited a daily Singing Time and that was when I went to work in earnest. Alan Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America was my Bible and armed with my guitar and three to six chords, I learned and remembered some few hundred folk songs, including all eleven verses to The Frozen Logger. I also worked on a Spanish repertoire and still try to have at least a few songs in some 20 different languages at my fingertips.
Working on jazz piano, I dove into the Great American Songbook and again, having a specific need made that investigation more focused and serious. When I met Fran Hament at the Jewish Home for the Aged where my Mom spent her last six years, my weekly visit playing the piano included all the songs that Fran could sing—somewhere around 300. So I set myself the task of not only learning to play them without paper in front of me, but to learn the words as well.
Yesterday I went to visit Pamela, the now-retired 1stgrade teacher of 40 years from my school. She is in the hospital recovering from a difficult heart operation and now ready for live visits from the many folks sending her love with cards, thoughts and prayers. Naturally, I brought my ukulele and joined her husband Jim, son Nathan and 7-year-old grandson Jimmy who were visiting. I’ve known Pamela and Jim (who also worked at the school for 10 years) since 1975, taught Nathan for 11 years and sadly, am not teaching Jimmy. But because of our time at the school, we had a shared repertoire and off we went into song after song. Pamela didn’t just listen, but actively sang along. Such fun to sing the old school warhorses like Side by Side, De Colores, Skinnamarink, Jamaica Farewell, Chattanooga Choo Choo and such. Sensitive, as only a music teacher of kids might be, to Jimmy participating, we also sang Comin’ Around the Mountain and a fun version of This Old Man with him having to fill in the rhyming words. Other visitors had reported that Pamela seemed to tire after about ten minutes, but we went on for an hour and could have kept going. Why?
Why, music, of course. It not only goes from vibration to vibration to energize the body and sharpen the mind, but touches the heart when the chosen songs carry the memory of former times lived joyfully in company with loved ones. No secret. If Pamela had had a hospital roommate that spoke Spanish or Bulgarian, I could have chosen a song for them as well. In short, taking time in your life to learn lots of songs is one of the most supremely pleasurable and useful things you can do. You are armed and ready for any occasion to bring people together, to lift people out of any pain in the present or further express their joy. Whether it be sad, glad, mad or bad you’re feeling, you’re ready to meet those feelings and express them, transform them, transpose them. But when you’re sad, glad, mad or bad, don’t depend on you i-Pad. Store them in your memory, release them with your voice and extra credit if you can accompany with a ukulele, guitar or what-have-you. You’ll be able to connect with the 2-years before they have many words and the 102 year-olds after their words have flown away.
And not so bad for all the ages in-between either.