The Two Kings
It was my mother, Barbara Ernestine Hall Shannon who said, “I get that.”
In the days before distraction fragmented family home life, before Little League, Nintendo and Gameboys life for kids was lived closer to home. The major social events in our house revolved around Sunday School, school activities and family. We played outside in good weather and sometimes bad, we did chores, we washed dishes and set the table and when mom could catch us we polished silver, which we all hated. Grandpa Jack taught us to mash potatoes when we were tall enough and to carve a turkey, all things that you could measure on the chart of growing up. We sang around Grandma Annie’s piano, songs from their lives, some written before the turn of the century or from the days when my parents were young. We learned the words and melodies to Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gershwin and Broadway shows from the thirties and forties.
Nearly everyone in the family played the piano. We had my mother’s, a Gulbransen upright her father bought for her when she was twelve for what seems to me the astronomical sum of $300.00. That was in 1930 because we still have the receipt to prove it. Mom had supple hands with long fingers and she could tickle the ivories. My dad, though I didn’t know it for many years, wrote original music when he was a young man. None of it published but his sheet music is carefully stored away to remind us that our old, official, adult parents were once young dreamers.
We always had a radio in the kitchen, and before TV became common it was always on. It would be tuned to a station that my parents liked and the music we first heard was theirs. A teenager in the late 1920’s and a college man in the thirties, he loved the honey dripping voice of “Der Bingle,” Bing Crosby, “Satchmo,” Louis Armstrong and the Big Bands of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers. Going dancing was a very big activity in those days of the Lindy Hop, swing dancing and the Foxtrot.
I try to imagine my dad, a farmer in flannel shirt and muddy boots, raising three boys on a farm, ever spinning girls across the dance floor at college but I suppose he did. My mom though, it’s no problem at all. She and her sister Mariel, used to take the Pacific Electric Redcars from Long Beach to the Biltmore ballroom in downtown Los Angeles just to go dancing. They could ride the cars from Long Beach through Compton and Watts to Hill Street station in downtown LA and directly to the Biltmore Hotel ballroom where you could swing to the most famous big bands in the country.
When my parents were courting here in our little town they went dancing in Pismo Beach at the pavilion, cutting a rug, amend that, sliding on the Cornstarch spread on the wooden planks so your feet could slide and glide across the floor. They danced at parties at their friends homes and sometimes in the living room of our house. Mom taught us to Charleston, Foxtrot and as much Jitterbugging as little kids could do.
Our piano benches could be opened to find sheet music, some of it more than a century old. My grandmother would sit at the piano and play while my grandfather sang in his bass voice, all the hits from their youth. The entire family would stand around her exquisite old upright, from little Cayce to my Grandfather Jack, the Aunts and Uncles and even the Mynah bird sang. Born in the 1880’s they still loved that music and we learned them too. As kids we were rooted in the music of our family.
Casey would dance with the strawberry blonde, I’m in love with Harry, Lets Do It, Your the Top, Lets call the whole thing off, Oklahoma, I’m gonna’ wash that man right outta my hair, The way you look tonight, and then Stone soul Picnic, Danny’s Song, House on Pooh Corner, Desperado, Tiny Dancer, “Oh, Blue Jean Baby, LA Lady, seamstress for the band.”
When we finally had a television it was Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller, and Ed Sullivan. Mom taught us “Mairzy Doats” and dad, “Funiculi, Finicula,” although I never did know how he knew a song written in 1880’s Naples. He would whistle Dvorak’s Humoresque; I still do in fact.
As we entered the teen years we listened to what is now known as top forty music. It came over the little transistor radio my dad kept on the kitchen table. The four Tops, The Coasters belting out Charley Brown and Little Eva doing the Locomotion which is where I discovered Carol King.
In high school surfing was the thing for me. My surfboard went everywhere in the back of my 1949 Woody. It sat in the school parking lot alongside 2 or 3 others and the old sedans with the back seat removed so those old long boards would fit inside. The Surfari’s, Dick Dale, Jan and Dean and especially the Beach Boys who for a time we thought actually surfed. About to be born was a new direction in music for me, buying my first Jazz album, “Sketches of Spain” and playing it for my friends.
I was coming off the highway in Pismo Beach in my ’57 Chevy Belair on the way to work in the Chevron Station on Price Street when I first heard the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Not a spectacular piece but it opened the door to the British Invasion. We heard the Yardbirds, John Mayall, the very young Rolling Stones and Petula Clark. The Kinks, Procol Harem and Eric Clapton. We didn’t know yet that the roots of that music came from the Juke Joints of our own rural south and the Blues clubs in Kanas City, Chicago and uptown New York, Harlem.
When I lived on the North Shore of Hawai’i in the sixties and seventies, we had no television. Think about that no TV. It seems strange today but it was true. The only dependable entertainment was National Public Radio, FM radio which could be heard over the mountains from Honolulu. It was a marvelous musical education. Each block of time was a different genre. There were all the classical ages down the centuries, There was a show that consisted of nothing but music written for medieval church choirs. They played Gregorian chants, Canticles, Madrigals and common plainsong. There were programs featuring all the ages in the development of Jazz. You could listen to the Duke and the Count, listen to Lady Day sing and the Prez make love to his Saxophone. Charley Parker, Rhaasan Roland Kirk, and The Jazz Messengers. The inimitable MJQ. The old timers too, Satchmo, Bix, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith Sings. Raunchy, Sexual and real. This wasn’t the Louis Armstrong you heard on Ed Sullivan, Oh no, this was the real, dyed in the wool New Orleans street kid playing the original Beale Street Blues.
We could listen to Mariachi and the songs of Latin America and Spain. Reggae from Jamaica Mon. Toots, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. From Cuba that fine Afro Cuban rhythm, a mix of American Jazz, West African and Cuban percussion.
From West Africa, Habib Koite and his band Bamada out of Mali. You won’t find it strange at all. It explains the roots of Jazz and Rhythm and Blues.
I learned that there is no style that can be claimed by anybody or any ethnicity. The native drums in the background of the 1933 version of King Kong can be heard in Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” which they played at Woodstock.
Mariah, GaGa, Nina, Whitney, Christina at the “Car Wash,” Muldaur, Janis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jewel, Emmy Lou, Gloria, Gwen, LeAnne, Pink, Chrissy Hyde, Grace, Joni, Anne Wilson who’s “Crazy on You.”
Listen to the lovely Slack Key guitar of Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon when they play “Wiaalae.” That ain’t no Don Ho white man BS. Apologies to poor Don, he had to make a living. He was actually a very fine Jazz singer and you could catch him in the little clubs around O”ahu after hours. His mother actually had a club on the Windward side called Honeys, where he grew up and began his career. You could cruise over there and here the best kind of Hawaiian music, the old time stuff.
On a Sunday afternoon, dollar pitchers on the Hawaiian Village Lanai with Trummy Young and Kid Orey, old time Jazz men who had played with all the greats in the Jazz world when they were young. You’ve heard “Muskrat Ramble,” that’s Kid Ory.
When I was a kid we never listened to country music, my dad would turn it off when it came on. But in the Islands I heard the Outlaws for the first time. Willy, Waylon, Merle, Kristofferson and the silvery voice of Jessi Colter. Throw in some Texas gravel sung from the back of the throat and you have Tanya Tucker. Then Bob Wills and the Texas Cowboys with his fiddles which led to Stefan Grapelli and Django Reinhardt. Asleep at the Wheel, Gram Parsons and that lovely girl from Tucson, Linda Rondstadt.
Chopin had the chops, Franz lizt and Sergei Rachmaninoff had the big hands. Lizt had pinky fingers like superman. Try Lizt’s Camanella, Wow. Can’t imagine Ludwig Von laying on the floor feeling the vibration he couldn’t hear, deaf you know. The Devil knocking on the door, Da, Da, Da, DA. What an entry.
You can disagree with Rap but oh my goodness, if Tupac isn’t a poet, who is. Think about this, where does it come from anyway? In the old south where white men owned black men as property, the same as they owned mules, slaves were forbidden to sing at work. Overseers would allow chants called out by senior field hands which they figured would help get the work done. Those field hand chants, sailors chanties, Railroad Gandy Dancers and the scat singers of the twenties and thirties spoke over the music. The speaking slowly took on an importance, an importance that transcended the melody.
It’s all connected. You can hear the seed for Mancini’s Pink Panther in Schumann’s No.7. Just a taste but it’s there. After all, it’s all done with only eight notes.
But I digress, this entire piece is about metaphor. My mother said, “I get that,” she really did. She said it about the Who’s “My Generation” when she heard them on Ed Sullivan’s show. She meant she understood how kids felt about the time they lived in. It made me love her even more. You see, she never talked down to kids. She kept those doors to new experience open all of her life and I’ve tried to do the same. She taught me not to close off just so I could have a safe place to be. It’s why I don’t look back at a time and say, “It was better then” because it wasn’t. The time is now, always has been. As my friend Roberta says, I wouldn’t go back. She’s right too.
Honey, Melva and Don Ho, Honolulu Advertiser photo