“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

Musically, this song is the most complex thus far (on the playlist I gave my Lit for Musicians class), although it begins deceptively simply. After the introduction of the main melody, one voice splits off into the counterpoint, a simple song that makes a political point about the human side of war. Juxtaposing this against the folk melody is lyrically jarring, but also ironic in the context of the lush tight harmonies and nearly archaic harpsichord and guitar background.

This also was the first time I was aware of overdubbing. Paul Simon is singing both counterpoint and melody, which confused me when I first heard it, then lead to a lot of experimenting with my guitar and a tape recorder with me singing harmony with myself. It was fascinating and challenging.

I’m intensely political. There’s a decent chance that this song is part of the reason. As an pre-teen, hearing them personalize war, with the obvious implications about the Vietnam war, also lead me to questioning and thinking. Even now, about 4 decades later, I find myself thinking about the imagery and ideas.

I’ve seen Simon and Garfunkel in person, and I was disappointed that although they sang “Scarborough Fair,” they didn’t do the “Canticle.” I haven’t heard them sing that for years, and I suspect that the reason is that the time has passed for those gentle images and sounds to resonant with audiences; the politcal rhetoric now is loud and confrontational, not thought-provokingly metaphoric.

Like The Beatles, Simon and Gar are musicians who could show up in my playlist multiple times. They are fundamental, foundational parts of the soundtrack running in my brain. And like The Beatles, their sound morphs and changes, so this song is only representative of one phase of their careers, both as a duo and solo.


“I Want to Hold Your Hand”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

This could also be titled, “My Life as a Fangirl, Chapter One.” I was just about in kindergarten when the Beatles came to America, and I remember being allowed to stay up and watch them on The Ed Sullivan Show–that’s the only time I remember being allowed to stay up for anything television related, by the way. Epic moment.

The Beatles were sooooo cute, and the music sooooo fun. That’s what I knew as a little kid, to the best of my remembrance. My parents did not especially like the music, but they tolerated my bopping around the house singing it, and in fact took me to the drive-in to see Hard Day’s Night the summer before kindergarten. I didn’t understand much of the movie, but I loved it. And yes, I own it now.

Most of the pop music I’d been exposed to before this was smooth, polished, restrained–Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Pat Boone; my mom didn’t listen to much pop music, but what I did hear was of that variety. The beginning of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”–the jarring electric chord, followed by raw near-shouting was a clarion call to kids. It said “We’re going to have fun now!” The beat was stronger and more driving than anything I heard on the radio before (note: I had heard orchestral music and opera that emotional and percussive, but not pop music). The vocal style was eons away from Pat Boone. The Beatles nearly shouted, were sometimes just slightly out of tune, slightly discordant. This song and “She Loves You” were the first music I remember hearing that made me want to get up and dance around, shouting and singing. It was an emotional and energetic. (As a caveat, I think my dad liked Elvis, but mom didn’t I don’t think we had a record player, so all I heard was on the radio and mom apparently chose the channels, meaning don’t think I was exposed to Elvis till a bit after the Beatles. I love Elvis, too.)

I still listen to the Beatles. They did something interesting, something that many musical groups don’t do: they evolved and grew, and took their audience with them. When I was considering which Beatles to include on my playlist, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was not in the first five Beatles’ songs I considered. Some of their later work is lyrically and musically more interesting–but this and “She Loves You” are the first Beatles’ tunes I heard, so this seems more appropriate on the soundtrack.

Related to the issue of their growing and evolving is a point I’m not as comfortable thinking about: Paul is old. The visual I get when I hear the name “The Beatles” is of all four of them in the mid-60s. They were all in their 20s. Two of them have died, two are alive. Ringo has always been somewhat quirky looking, and he’s almost less odd as an old man, but Paul was my first fangirl crush. Seeing Paul now reminds me not only of his mortality, but of my own. I’m not the young, fun little girl that danced and shouted to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and he’s not the young, virile man with a long future ahead of him that I first idolized. He’s done great work since then, as did the others post-Beatles, but there’s a part of my mind that wants Paul to be 25, waiting for me to be 25, and we’ll live in England and visit the Queen on holidays…see the logic there?

The Beatles were great, and are great, but they’re only representative of one piece of my musical soundtrack. They helped form my tastes, but–like them–I grew and evolved, too.

My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

My Reading Life (as inspired by Pat Conroy’s book)

Define “reality.” Feel free to google it, and look through all the great philosophers and psychologists that Wikipedia so conveniently turns into sound bytes. I’m curious what they say, because I can’t neatly tie up in a tidy bow and point to it as a discrete package.

That’s because I read.

I don’t remember learning to read; I remember sitting in Mrs. Wild’s first grade, reading about Dick, Jane, and Sally. Decoding letters came so easily that I don’t think I ever consciously learned. Sure, I may have stumbled over new words as I sounded them out, but even that was minimal. I’m still baffled by how people learn to read. How do you not know how? And how can people not be entranced by the magic of one letter following another, making pictures in your head, conjuring whole people and places with the symbols on the page? One of my (many) downfalls as a teacher is that I assume that of course you will want to read, that meeting these characters or delving into this information is as wonderous for you as for me.

Pat Conroy, who is one of my all-time favorite writers, wrote a book that talks about the books that he’s been influenced by. It’s a cozy flannel sheet of a book, with his effusive and emotional explanations about what each volume meant to him. Usually, I race through Conroy’s work, finishing a first read of his huge stories in a day or two, then rereading more leisurely to sink into the place and people. (Yes, I do mean that the first time I read each of his books, I read twice, right in a row. Well, except for South of Broad, which I pretend he didn’t publish.Whole ‘nother issue!) My Reading Life, however, I’ve been eating in bite-sized morsels, a chapter at a time. Most then once, I’ve then read (or reread) the book that he rhapsodized about, wanting to see if I could find in the story why it was so influential to him. Some books focused as much on the person who introduced the book to him, fleshing out English teachers, librarians and friends who were fictionalize in many of his books.

There’s a punchline, of course. I’m going to take the Conroy Challenge. I’ve been off my game, writing-wise. My blog has been silent. In important ways, I’m more a reader than a writer–which is like taking razor blades to my soul to admit; I’m going to set a goal of writing about 20 books that have influenced me. That’s a minimum, fans. The challenge, I realize, is to say anything interesting enough about them for anyone else to read!

First book up…..hmm…...Little Black Sambo? Seriously, it might be–that’s a book I will write about. Over in the Meadow? Gone with the Wind? Little Women? On the Road? Stranger in a Strange Land? I’m not sure….but it’ll be this weekend!  (2020 Note: I still haven’t written about most of these)