“10 Cents A Cup”

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!

“Leadbelly? Huh?”

leadbelly
Huddie Ledbetter

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.

“You Can Bet He’s Doing it For Some Gal”

Guys_and_dolls

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.

“Kashmir?”

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Before I started studying my family’s genealogy, I had very little ability to retain the dates of important events in United States history. Then, once it became personal, I began to connect particular relatives with particular larger events. A depression explained one family’s relocation. The Chicago fire dislocated a great-grandfather. History came alive for me.

Right now the same thing is happening to me because of this blog and the readers and writers I have connected with. One wrote about the impact of the sudden travel ban by our new President. Another is being affected by the government in The Philippines. I correspond with a graduate student in Turkey and avoid any political discussion lest I cause her trouble.

But the turmoil I was completely ignorant about is in the Indian province of Kashmir. I have been following a thoughtful Muslim young man from there who posts beliefs of Islam. That in itself has been very helpful. Even though I thought I was fair minded, I had been negatively affected by all the anti-Muslim rhetoric pervading our country. I had fallen for the negative generalizations more than I realized.

The fighting in Kashmir has been going on for a very long time, but it is at a peak right now. The Indian government has been responding with measures that are chilling. You don’t have to have a position on Kashmir independence to be distressed by cutting off internet access, shutting down Facebook and closing universities. So I am now praying for the safety of the people of Kashmir, for the freedom of their press, universities and air waves. If you know as little as I did about Kashmir, take ten minutes and check it out.

 

 

“Singing Satire”

gilbertandsullivan

One of the musical constants in my life has been the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, 19th century British operetta composers. As a child, I learned many songs from the phonograph records my mother often played of their work performed by the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. I learned the songs to “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “Pirates of Penzance,” and “Iolanthe.” I was particularly intrigued by the “patter songs,” mainly spoken ditties sung very quickly with tongue twisting challenges. One of my favorites was about insomnia from “Iolanthe“. I missed most of the humor as a child, but I loved how fast the singer could go. Another parallel delight was from “Pirates” about the model of a modern major general.

When my mother went to her 15th college reunion at Oberlin, she took my brother and me along and we all say “Princess Ida,” a musical I have never seen or heard since. When I was in high school, Reed College put on one operetta a year, which is where I first saw “Patience,” made even funnier by inserted lines ridiculing some aspects of Reed.

When my daughter was in 8th grade, her school put on “Ruddigore,” a story unknown to me until then. She had broken her leg, but still played Mad Margaret. The injury actually enhanced her role, as she thumped across the stage. She and two others sang a wonderful patter trio “It Really Doesn’t Matter.

There continue to be productions of Gilbert and Sullivan today, mostly from local groups which put on one or two a year. While much of the humor was topical and might seem to be irrelevant 140 years later, it still applies. The ignorance of the modern major general seems very parallel to the ignorance of the U.S. newly appointed Secretary of Education. And insomnia will never go out of style. Many of us will finally be ready to go to sleep just when the alarm sounds for us to rise.

 

“Patriots’ Day”

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Paul Revere and The Raiders

Holy Week is over, and I am returning to the very long saga of my life with music. Serendipitously enough, today is Patriots’ Day in our neighboring state of Massachusetts, a holiday which commemorates the first battle of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. And I am here, as promised to one of my readers, to write about Paul Revere and the Raiders–the band.

In high school after football games featured local bands, usually not much better than what you might think of as a garage band today. But we didn’t really care about the music because we were obsessing about who would or wouldn’t dance with whom. I endured one whole year of these trials without dancing once. Whatever spark had led me to win that grade school dance contest had gone out when I failed to reach maturity until 16. I was still 4’10” as a freshman, and I looked about 11. Not a prime candidate for a dance partner, apparently.

But the one band which did grab my attention was Paul Revere and The Raiders. They played actual music and had semi-coordinated dance steps while they played. Curious to see if my memory was accurate that they would have been playing in my high school cafeteria, I looked up their history before writing this post. Sure enough,”Around this time,(1962)(I think it was 1961) KISN(remember KISN). DJ Roger Hart, who was producing teen dances, was looking for a band to hire. Hart had a casual conversation with a bank teller who told him about a band called “Paul Revere-something”. Hart obtained Revere’s phone number and they met for lunch. Hart hired the band for one of his teen dances.”(Wikipedia)

So my one of my first live band performances actually featured a group that went on to some acclaim. I can’t say theĀ  same for any of the other musical acts!

“Get With It”

vineyard

A major change in leadership in our Friends Church led us to seek another place to worship. This time it was in a dramatically different setting called The Vineyard, where a student of mine was active. The adjustment was jarring, but we became comfortable in a very different setting. But the differences!

First, we were at least 25 years older than most of the attendees. We became parent figures, for better or worse. (Usually better.)

Second, by now we had been Christians for quite a while and were meeting many young adults with no faith background. So we became elders(in an informal sense.)

Third, the music was live and LOUD. So loud in fact that we bought economy sized packages of foam earplugs and kept them in the car to use at each service.

Fourth, there was no physical church, so each Sunday chairs were set up in a school gym and taken down and put away at the end. Fortunately most attendees were in their 20’s and handled this task.

And finally, their music went on for a very long time. And in the culture of this community, people stood, usually with their hands in the air and sang and sang. I usually sat after a few minutes and let the music be a backdrop for my silent reflection.(You can take a Quaker out of meeting, but you can’t take the meeting out of a Quaker.)

While this might seem, at first, to be very similar to the gospel worship at Maranatha, it really wasn’t. Reflecting on the reason, I conclude that the gospel songs at Maranatha were informed by a different theology–that of overcoming together with God’s help. They seemed communal. The Vineyard songs seemed to stress an individual relationship with Jesus. So even though everyone was singing together, it seemed to me that many individuals were having their own personal experiences.

I didn’t find my soul refreshed in the way that it had been both with gospel music and the old hymns, but I treasured the chance to get a glimpse into a contemporary Christian setting. And they served great doughnuts and coffee.