As I go through my history of music, I will continue to educate those readers younger than I am (about 90% of you) about the various devices I used to listen to music. The big leap in college for me was the purchase of this portable STEREO record player. Until now, all music came out through one speaker. With the amazing invention of stereo, the music came out of TWO speakers. And the music was closer(supposedly) to the way it really sounded when it had been played.
There was much debate about how to position the speakers to achieve the optimal sound. My dorm room was so small, however, since it was converted from a bay window and hall between two bedrooms of normal size, that there really weren’t any options. So the best I could do was to lie on the floor with one speaker against each ear and experience STEREO!
By this time there were people who were becoming audiophiles, and were beginning to spend real money on speakers. I was not among them. I didn’t have real money and I was still impressed by the improvement in sound over my previous record player.
In the summer of 1967 my boy friend arrived in Portland on his way to San Francisco for the summer of love. He had the new Beatles release “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with him and he lay on the floor of my parents’ dining room between two speakers positioned next to his head. He couldn’t get over the amazing sound. (In retrospect, substances may have added to his delight.)
Later that same summer, I joined him in San Francisco for a few days. More about that tomorrow. For those keeping track, this was the same boy friend that my roommate married. And it all goes back to that summer of love.
In August of 1965, a couple of weeks before I left on the train for college in the East, the Beatles landed in Portland and played two concerts in the then new Memorial Coliseum. My mother had somehow bought tickets for all of us and we went to hear the phenomenon
At 18, with my 15, 12 and 10 year old siblings, I was mortified at the thought that they might stand up and start screaming. I knew my brother would contain himself, but my middle sister had a crush on Paul, and I didn’t trust her to contain herself. All the way there, I stressed the importance of them being collected when the Beatles appeared. I was about to be a college girl, after all, and I had a reputation to establish.
There must have been some warmup acts to get us all restless before the Fab Four came out on the stage. Finally, they emerged. I stood and screamed my head off. My siblings sat still, obeying my orders to behave themselves. I surprised myself because I really thought I had not been caught up in Beatlemania. But, it turned out, seeing John in person let loose some primal excitement that needed to be expressed.
They never let me live it down! “Remember when you screamed at the Beatles?” How could I forget?
Bob Dylan’s voice certainly wasn’t for everyone’s taste. Fortunately for those music fans, the trio of Peter, Paul and Mary sang many of his songs. And they actually stayed on key and harmonized. They got short shrift among die-hard Dylan fans for popularizing his protest songs, but they definitely got many more tunes into the mainstream of popular culture than Dylan had.
In 1964 they toured many college campuses, and in that winter they performed at Lewis and Clark College, just five miles from our home. A good friend of my mother’s bought tickets for her three kids and our four and planned to take us. One of Oregon’s few snow storms hit just before and during the concert, but our neighbor was undeterred. Knowing that the concert would go on since it was at a college with a built in resident audience, she promised she would get us there. And she did. Fortunately it was downhill (literally) after the concert and going home was easy.
Having only seen them on television, I was delighted to see them in person. They sang “Blowing in the Wind,” “Lemon Tree,” and their delightful “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Comically enough, later writers would try to put “hidden” meaning into that last song, maintaining that it was about marijuana or about Viet Nam. I remain convinced that it was about a little boy and a dragon.
Soon many would discount Peter, Paul and Mary as being simplistic and naive. Harder edged music would take the stage in the years to come. Still, I have their tunes running through my mind at times, and I can still see Mary Travers shake her long blond hair over her shoulder.
After Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963 and the near immediate killing of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, my classmates and I began to take much greater notice of the world around us. Perhaps this was because we were now 16, or perhaps it was the times, but many of us became politically aware for the first time.
Up until now, I had enjoyed folk music, largely consisting of old English and Irish ballads. Now I became aware, first through Baez and Dylan, of the way music could be contemporary social commentary. And that led me to Pete Seeger and his album, pictured above, of freedom songs recorded in June, 1963. I bought this album that winter and listened to it obsessively.
I was introduced to the civil rights movement through music. I didn’t learn about Oregon’s racial history until later in my life, so I focused on the struggle for school integration and voting rights in the southern United States. It was a purposefully nonviolent movement, buoyed by songs, many of which I learned from this album by Pete Seeger and a crew of other singers.
The next year, 1964, Alabama’s governor George Wallace ran for the Democratic nomination for President and visited Portland. I joined many others in picketing the hotel where he was to speak. We waited in vain for his appearance, while he was whisked into the venue through an underground tunnel. He failed to win the nomination, losing to Lyndon Johnson. Protest music about Johnson had yet to be widely sung. That would come in my college years through such bands as “Country Joe and The Fish.” But I was still in high school singing “we shall overcome,” not knowing what we might have to overcome in subsequent political struggles. Our U.S. Senator, Wayne Morse, was one of only two who had the foresight to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August of 1964 which was our entry into the Viet Nam War. I knew nothing about it. That would soon change.
I had been listening to Joan Baez for quite a while when she came to Portland in 1963 to perform. My good friend Margaret and I walked down to the box office after school and bought two mid row front section seats. Excitedly we arrived and settled into the auditorium.
What we experienced was a startling duo of Joan and a shaggy haired mumbling guy named Bob Dylan. Clearly they were in love. Or at least Joan was smitten with Bobby. I think the picture above taken in 1963 shows their dynamic pretty accurately. But who really knows the inside of any relationship?
The evening was electric. Not literally, of course. Dylan was still playing an acoustic guitar, as was Baez. Her soprano voice sang out across us and he muttered right along. She loved old sad ballads about lovelorn maidens and heartbreaks. He just loved being in front of an audience. I guess you could predict where this relationship was headed.
Fortunately, Baez got several good songs out of the doomed affair, especially “Diamonds and Rust.
“Well you burst on the scene
Already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You strayed into my arms
And there you stayed
Temporarily lost at sea
The Madonna was yours for free
Yes the girl on the half-shell
Could keep you unharmed”
Doomed love affairs should always leave us with such good writing material!
Everyone I knew was trying to learn to play the guitar or banjo. Somewhere there are probably lots of guitars and banjos gathering dust in attics from kids who learned playing was harder than it looked. I could tell right away that those strings were beyond me, so I opted for an autoharp. If you have never seen one, it is pictured above, complete with a long haired, blue eyed teenage girl who actually looks close to how I looked by the end of high school. And she has that pensive/angst look so common on every 17 year old, including me.
To play, you simply held the appropriate button down with one hand while you strummed with the other. The buttons produced various chords, similar to a guitar without you having to remember the fingering. Of course, you were supposed to learn which button produced which chord. I never mastered that skill, so my strumming had long breaks while I searched for the correct button. This made for a less than stellar musical performance.
In the end, it turned out I much preferred to listen to folk music than to play it. I had many opportunities, both at the Caffe Espresso and the Folk Singers while still in high school. I also began to collect folk music records, beginning with Joan Baez who deserves a post of her own. Meanwhile, I grew out my hair, bought black tights, and did my best to look the part of a folk singer. That would have to be enough.
The Caffe Espresso moved uptown and morphed into The Folksingers, probably to take advantage of the scores of young people who had “discovered” folk music. Russo and Brentano, as this group was called, were local guitar and banjo players who were friends of Carol’s. We went to hear them often. Mike Russo was actually a very talented player and I found an old video of him made in Seattle. You can tell the influence of old blues singers on Mike.
Years later when I began teaching at the Museum Art School in Portland, I met his parents, Sally Haley and Mike Russo, both excellent local painters. The younger Mike painted houses to support his music playing. His art was more musical than his parents, but clearly a love of beauty ran through the family.
My little sister saved this flyer and framed it and gave it to me many years ago on my birthday. It pleased me greatly and it hangs in my library next to another poster she saved for me–a signed play bill for Pete Seeger. More about him another day.
Reading that flyer now, I am amused at how seriously the venue took the musicians. No talking! At least the coffee was free. And you can’t beat a $1.00 cover charge. Even then.
In high school, Carol and I went with other friends to the Caffe Espresso.(Turns out I had the spelling wrong yesterday.) This was the first coffee house in Portland and was, according to old newspaper articles, a hangout for “beatniks.” We didn’t think of ourselves as beatniks(though Carol did prefer black tights) but we certainly didn’t want to be seen as boring high school students. So we would walk boldly in, order our cup of espresso and listen to whatever guitarist was playing.
Up until now, I had drunk instant coffee, sometimes with milk and sometimes with evaporated milk. I stared in disbelief at this muddy stuff in a little cup, jet black with no milk. I gritted my teeth, tried my best to act normal, and sipped it. If this was what it took to be sophisticated, I would swallow the coffee with nonchalance. And it only cost a dime. The atmosphere was dark and smoky, since cigarettes were also preferred by “beatniks.” Carol joined them. I passed since at age 6 my mother’s best friend had let me take a long inhalation of her cigarette and I had promptly thrown up. It was excellent aversion therapy and I never smoked again.
I can still see me drinking coffee, listening to off key singers, surrounded by smoke. No sacrifice was too great to prove I was way too cool for school!
When we graduated from our little grade school, we went to a large urban high school which drew from six elementary schools. Lincoln High brought a very diverse group of kids together for the first time. One of the schools was very affluent, but several were definitely working class. It was, for me, a refreshing chance to meet new and interesting friends.
One girl, Carol, became close and invited me over to her home on various occasions. She lived in a two bedroom, one bathroom home in a neighborhood which had been mostly torn down in the interest of “urban renewal.” But they had stopped short of the synagogue where her family, Russian immigrants, worshiped. Her mother, a waitress, always made me a cup of instant coffee and kept a can of evaporated milk in the refrigerator since I liked milk in my coffee. Her dad suffered from Parkinson’s and was a baggage handler for Greyhound. I mention all these details because it was such a dramatic change from my dancing school environment. There many people were rich and we were relatively “poor,” though my father was an attorney. It’s all relative, I quickly learned.
Carol introduced me to the music of Lead Belly on 78rpm records she had recently found. His voice was unlike anything I had ever heard, and I had trouble acting sufficiently enthusiastic as we listened. Still she clearly liked what she was hearing, and I liked her, so I agreed to listen to more. In a way I was back in my grandfather’s living room listening to “roots” (though we would never have called it that)music. He was the first of many singers she introduced me to. And then she invited me to a folk music coffee house–Cafe Espresso! More about that tomorrow.
In addition to Gilbert and Sullivan, I grew up listening to Broadway musicals popular in the 40’s and 50’s. The records played over and over in our house, and I learned the words by heart. My favorites were “Guys and Dolls,” “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “Carousel.” Though my piano playing never improved very much, despite years of lessons, I had a book of Rogers and Hammerstein’s music and I played and sang many of the songs I loved from their musicals. Later I enjoyed Lerner and Loewe and sang their songs too. This was not singing for any audience; I just sang away in the living room for my own delight.
I did get to attend one live musical production when Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr came to Portland to perform “The King and I.” My mother bought me a program, a real extravagance after paying for tickets, and I treasure it still. In one very risque moment, the wives bowed and apparently they were not wearing underwear. I suppose they were wearing something flesh colored, but it got a big gasp from the audience. I had no idea what was going on since I was only seven, and I was feeling too grown up to ask.
Much to my delight, my daughter and granddaughter have both performed in musical theater, sometimes these same old classics. There is something profound in hearing my six year old descendant sing “Dites Moi, Pourquoi” from “South Pacific remembering my own singing of that same song at that same age. Not on stage for me, though.
I haven’t been to any new musicals for years. Since we live within easy driving distance of New York City, I think it is time. Maybe I will see “Hamilton” many years from now when tickets are finally available.