December 9th, 2009 10:32 EST
The Musical Vocabulary of Children Today
The musical vocabulary of children today seems encyclopedic to me compared to my own as a child. I had the Christian Science Hymnal down cold. Every week, with the cross of Jesus going on before, I thumped off to a war I couldn`t imagine. I didn`t know where that war was, and I still don`t, but I`m still marching.
When it came to popular music the Chattanooga Choo-Choo was almost the full extent of my repertory. And that was because the kids at my boarding school skated around the basement to its tune, round and round until I imagined myself the choo-choo on Track 29. What I remember about the choo-choo is mostly how lovely a girl named Barbara Brittain was.
We live in iPodia now, a land in which it`s impossible to imagine having to go through such lengths as we did then to hear anything besides hymns, carols and time-worn traditionals.
I remember jitterbugging only as a whir of exciting legs, perhaps a bit too exciting as I entered puberty. But the hymnal was my musical mainstay, enriched at Christmastime by a handful of more exotic Christian songs. Sure, there was Bing Crosby dreaming of a commercially sanctioned white Christmas, but Bing would have been a welcome guest at our Sunday night hymn-sings, unlike the more outré Frank Sinatra. In fact, the German POWs who regularly attended seemed less dangerous than Old Blue Eyes.
I spent most of my childhood at that school, so when I encountered Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley as an already grown man I was more wide-eyed than any shepherd at a Christmas pageant had ever been. It never occurred to me that these guys knew the old hymns as well as I did.
I mean, these guys were kick-ass subversive. They were Mongol invaders. They were bringing civilization down on top of us. Dangerous, unauthorized, definitely non-canonical. I loved them. (Which happens to be why I don`t think the most orthodox Muslims in Western countries are going to keep their young women in hijabs very long.) They represented to me the possibility of obstreperous fun at the expense of an establishment that took itself entirely too seriously, just the way establishments do today. They`re the reason that later on rap exhilarated me while offending many others; it was offensive to an establishment that needed to be offended. But needing to be offended is different from deserving to be offended; I sense a grand and urgent compulsion to be offended in the land manifest in the Tea Party phenomenon.
It was the guys who got to me first. But soon enough I heard the likes of Billy Holiday, Josephine Baker, Sarah Vaughn, and then a little later Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, and once I heard that high lonesome I was a goner. It represented to me the stricken, blasted loneliness of American individualism, the nobility of seeing things clearly and its attendant price.
But unlike my daughter Darya, who seems to have hundreds of songs in her head and gives an eerie imitation of Janis Joplin, it`s the hymns that linger in my head, and now in my old age I find myself still humming them to myself. They`re my canon; everything else remains slightly illicit, a forbidden pleasure.
I don`t think I ever saw the movie that featured Chattanooga Choo-Choo. It was the 1941 Sun Valley Serenade with Sonja Henie and John Payne. By that time we were gathering around the Cathedral-shaped Philco in the evening to hear war news.
By the time I saw Sinatra in person on Broadway Bing Crosby was an avuncular film blur in my mind, but Frank was the real deal. I encountered Elvis before Holly and Lewis. I liked Holly, but Lewis knocked me out. He was stark raving mad, like me, only he wasn`t hiding it.
I encountered classical music before rock and country, and I was fixing to be a hard sell while The Beatles were riding high, but by the time The Stones came along I was digging rock with a shovel. My musical education was something of an archaeological dig. I knew all about Mick Jagger before I knew anything about Lewis or Holly.
The country singers came easy, because more than half my peers in Navy boot camp at Bainbridge, Maryland, were from Appalachia, so encountering Patsy and Loretta was like meeting my shipmates` favorite cousins. And then there was that high lonesome that electrified me, and still does.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.