Since my wife retired, I drive to school alone. After 42 years of sharing the commute, you might think it would be lonely. But—shhh!— I love it! Mostly because I get to listen to music of my choice both there and back.
Today I stumbled into Sammy Davis Jr., who has to be one of the more extraordinary performers in American entertainment. Whether playing drums, tap-dancing, acting or singing, the guy fills up the stage with 150% of his charisma and draws you into its power. He was a pretty amazing imitator, doing the voices of James Cagney, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and more in the middle of his songs (check out Because of You and Rock A Bye). So here I was driving to school and on came this song, Gonna Build Me a Mountain. Catchy gospel-infused melody and great words— perfect for my current Singing Time theme of Happy Songs.
This is a repertoire I gathered years back, mostly jazz standards of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s designed to help lift Americans out of their depression caused by the Depression. Accentuate the Positive, The Sunnyside of the Street, When You’re Smiling, Side by Side, Pennies from Heaven, High Hopes, Pick Yourself Up and more. Most of them are about maintaining a sunny disposition, looking on the bright side of any matter and yes, they’re naïve, bordering on denial and repression, corny and maybe contributing to political apathy by making some of the nation’s sorrow a personal problem instead of a political one. (As in no black person in the South who could be lynched at a moment’s notice with no accountability for the murderers should ever have to be taken to task for not looking on the “sunnyside of the street.”)
But they are a part of us, inextricably woven into our cultural fabric, brought to life by the voices of Ella, Billie and Louie, the horns of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, the remarkable piano fingers of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. The old folks at the Jewish Home still love to sing them and the young folks at The San Francisco School love to sing them and occasionally, the two groups get to sing them together.
Gonna Build Me a Mountain isn’t exactly in this style, but it was sung by a guy—Sammy Davis—who sang all the others and has an extra perk—it talks about happiness not as a simple outlook, but as an achievement that takes vision, work and hard labor. That certainly has been my experience. The important words in the songs are verbs. Action words. Build, hope, do, try, push, make, take. So I taught it to the kids:
Gonna build me a mountain from a little hill.
Gonna build me a mountain, at least I hope I will
Gonna build me a mountain, gonna build it high.
I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, only know that I’ll try.
Gonna build a daydream from a little hope
Gonna push the daydream up the mountain slope
Gonna build a daydream, gonna see it through,
Gonna build a mountain and daydream, gonna make them both come true.
Gonna build me a heaven from a little hell,
Gonna build a heaven, and I know darn well,
If I build a mountain with a lot of care,
I’ll take the daydream up the mountain and heaven will be waiting there.
I asked the kids how many understood the message and about half raised their hands. So I went to the piano and showed them my first piano lesson and how at the end, I couldn’t even play Hot Cross Buns. But because I had heard my Dad play piano and some records of people like, well, Vladimir Horowitz, I had a little hope that I could learn to play like that. At 6 years old, my hill was very small indeed. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it, but decided week after week of piano lessons, day after day of practicing and pushing my fingers on the piano keys up the mountain slope, that I was gonna try. And sure enough, that hill got bigger. (Needless to say, the mountain peak of Horowitz remains like Everest—I'm never gonna climb that high. But I still I play every day to ascend a little higher.)
I went on:
“You know, kids, when I was a kid, school was a little hell for me. I didn’t like it very much and thought it could be a lot better. So I when I got older, I started to try to build a little heaven in the music class. I cared about it a lot and I tried to build it with care and I took that dream up the mountain and sure enough, heaven was waiting for me there. And here you are! Singing with you every day is my heaven. Now do you understand the song?
Good! Let’s sing it again!”
After the euphoria of the weekend marches, I heard some damn depressing stories from folks on the left dismissing it and raining on the parade. Bad timing. No one needs that kind of division now, even if the points are worthy to consider. It’s like the guy on the beach telling the other guy not to bother throwing the starfish back in the water or walking by someone building their mountain and stepping on their daydreams. We need to be out on the streets and I suggest walking on the Sunnyside of them, even as we are fully aware of what’s on the other side. We’ve got a bit—or a lot, depending on your skin color, religion, gender or sexual preference—of hell coming up and it’s time to build a heaven together, with a lot of care, for each other as well as for the work. Heaven may not be waiting at the top, we may be doomed to the Sisyphusean torture of pushing our daydream up the mountain only to see it roll down again, we have no idea how we’re gonna do it, but damn it, don’t you think we should try?
So at the end of school, a third grader was walking next to me out to carpool and she turned to me and said, “You know, Doug, Happy Songs are the best!”