Annually anticipating The Kennedy Center Honors as the old year closes out, I thoroughly enjoyed the return of the star-studded program last week in all its traditional glory after four years of pandemic and political interruption.
What fun to watch Lorne Michael’s wacky pals from SNL pay tribute to the producer’s almost 40-year career of parodying, well, everything. Scenes from famous operas – including my favorite, Carmen – celebrated Justino Diaz’s illustrious bass/baritone career. Numbers from Bette Midler’s multifaceted list of accomplishments highlighted the Divine Miss M; predictably, I sniffled my way through “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” And there was a good old Motown lollapalooza as Berry Gordy was honored – especially with Stevie Wonder at the piano!
But it was the music of the fifth honoree that sent my mind winging its back to GHS. It did not immediately dawn on me that the blonde lady clutching a cane was Joni Mitchell. Two songs performed during her tribute, however, opened up memory lane right before me.
On the strains of “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” I found myself back in my high school gym enjoying songs from the era of Mitchell and her folk-singing contemporaries including the likes of Judy Collins, The New Christy Minstrels, Peter, Paul, and Mary – to name a few. The program was a hootenanny presented by Wittenberg University students. I cannot say for certain which songs I heard that night, but “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”; “If I Had a Hammer”; and “Puff, the Magic Dragon” were favorites of mine from the genre I continued to hear on campus as part of the coffee house scene.
The Falcon gym, however, was a location for music other than concerts. Off its walls regularly reverberated all manner of rock and roll music: shortly after every home football and basketball game, we lined up, paid a minimal admission, and danced for an hour or so. We shook, rattled, rolled, and maybe even twisted as we danced the night away to songs listed on America’s Top 40. Specific artist names and definitive song titles do not particularly jump to mind – there were so many. Suffice it to say that I need only a couple of measures, just a few bars to fly back into the middle of that hotbed of teenage social life for a spin around the basketball court. I mean, we have all seen fellow Boomers nodding their heads in time to the music or actually singing along during those PBS reunion shows of “our music” – while we do the same thing right in our own living rooms!
It is not a long stretch to move my music recollecting self from the GHS auditorium a little further back to the gym at Concord. Back then, kids in grades 1 through 12 shared bus seats, cafeteria tables, and the gym. There we little kids witnessed our older schoolmates role modeling us during concerts, class plays and basketball games. It takes only the beginning of the song “16 Tons” for me to be seated on the bleachers watching orange-and-black-clad cheerleaders with megaphones using Tennessee Ernie Ford’s popular tune to cheer the Bruins to victory. Of late, however, I have also been picturing myself in Concord’s gym singing the first patriotic song I ever learned. Although I have absolutely no memory of when or from whom I learned our national anthem, I do recall another song we sang often. Its simpler lyrics and musical construction made it the perfect choice for grade school kids: My country ‘tis of thee, / sweet land of liberty, / of thee I sing. / Land where my fathers died, / land of the Pilgrim’s pride, / from every mountainside / let freedom ring. It was a good introduction to more involved songs of patriotism and fit well into that era when we recited the pledge each day, heard a Bible story every morning, and said grace in our classrooms before heading to the cafeteria for lunch. I hope kids are still singing this song.
As the holiday season closes, I will share one other location related to songs transporting me through any number of years – this time straight back to River Road. In our drafty old farmhouse was a room we used infrequently. The front room, as we called it, was a second living room containing a coal stove we seldom fired up as well as extra furniture. The piano occupied a spot in that room, too. Mother could play and kept her sheet music there. Whenever I felt a musical urge – or more likely wanted to postpone my chores, I would slip into the front room and sing to my heart’s content. After a little “Sentimental Journey” and “Paper Doll” from Mother’s collection, I turned to the real reason I sat at the piano: a small booklet of Christmas carols, probably freebie from a filling station or a bank. It was actually something of a Christmas carol primer containing all the verses of all the major songs of the season. For hours I sang from that booklet, slowly memorizing every word of every stanza of every song. What a great source of musical education – and waster of time! I can still sing all five stanzas of “Good King Wenceslas” without consulting the internet!
Hey, thanks bunches for accompanying me on my musical flights of fancy!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.