King Solomon stated: "The thing that
has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall
be done; and there is no new thing under the sun."
From Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, Verse 8
Or as paraphrased in modern times: "There
is nothing new under the sun". This is rarely so true as in music,
past and present.
When I was a youngster and into my teens, one of
my jobs was frequently kitchen cleanup. This did NOT include loading the
dishwasher, believe me, because they weren't in general use then, nor could we
have afforded one. Dishes were scraped, washed by hand, dried and put
away. To me, this was the height of boredom except for one bright
spot. There was a radio in the kitchen, and I could listen to The Lone
Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Jack Benny Show, Fibber McGee, Sgt. Preston of the
Yukon and myriad other comedy, adventure and mystery shows, although my Dad
forbid me to listen to "The Creaking Door", deeming it too scary and horrid.
Later, when just eleven, I was a regular member
of a children's radio show, both singing and acting, and also took a course in
radio production when I was thirteen, which took a little of the magic out of
the clippity-clop of the Lone Ranger's and Tonto's horses. (When younger,
I thought they actually ran a horse through the studio!)
As television captured the public's attention,
these radio programs were discontinued. I think they were healthier that
television, forcing one to use one's imagination to visualize the scenes, rather
than sitting still in a state of hypnosis as a TV-couch potato. On the
other hand, television, when used properly, teaches and informs in a way nothing
else has until the internet came along.
So to amuse myself while doing dishes or other
boring chores, when adventure shows started disappearing from the radio venue, I
turned to musical programs. Soon after, I took a course in music
appreciation, something that began to open my eyes to the nature and purpose of
music for the first time, oddly, since I had played piano and several other
instruments from a very early age and was at that time beginning to study
classical piano under a concert pianist.
I found that musical phrasing and rhythm, both
played and sung, expresses ideas the same way as our facial expressions, our
body language or spoken word. Music is "hard-wired" into our brains
and can affect our bodily functions.
In my late teens I began to explore jazz, blues
and other music both ridiculed and forbidden by my conservative parents.
(My mother went around humming "Never on a Sunday" for weeks and none of us kids
had the heart to tell her what it was about!) I soon began to
realize that contemporary music not only influences society, but is a mirror of
it. And I began to collect first albums, and later tapes.
My oldest daughter, at about 11, asked to
take my new recording of "Hair" to her best friend's house. She was always
careful of other's property, so I let her. About an hour later, friend's
mother called me.
"I have to tell you something; I don't want you
to be mad, but us mothers have to stick together and watch each other's
children, right? And I have to report something Elizabeth has done." Oh,
oh! "She has an album of Hair! And she and Nancy are shut up in the
bedroom listening to it!"
"I'm sorry, it's my album."
Silence. Shortly, Beth came home with
the album, and with the most astonished look on her face.
Music in the fifties, sixties and seventies was
for a large part protest; against the unpopular Vietnam war, against fear
of the bomb and Communism's spread, against racial discrimination (or sometimes
in favor of it), for women's equal rights (or fears about the changes that would
bring), about unprecedented new sexual freedom, about religious intolerance and
exploration of new spiritual beliefs, about assassinations and drugs.
And about publicity and protest for the first time about the previously hidden,
but prevalent, rape, incest and child molestation. It was a reflection of
our rapidly changing society, and was a time of great change in music too.
For a little over a decade, music has once again
been changing rapidly. Never the less, if I had young kids now, I would
not let them listen to some of the rap, hip-hop and other stuff that
glorifies obscenity, death, cruelty and discrimination. And I'd explain
why. If the excuse "They don't mean anything by it" was offered,
then I'd simply say "Fine, then you don't have to listen to it. Wait until
But here's a thought: what does this music
say about our society? And what can we learn from analyzing it? Our
fears, our hopes, our grieving and our defenses are all expressed in our music,
whether religious, romantic, social protest, hip-hop or rap. And it's
usually the young that embrace it. Suppression doesn't work, just as it
didn't back in last mid-century. Change the circumstances and the music
will change too.
Challenge your kids. They'll be surprised
to learn (as you may be) that many of today's most popular songs have been
around for a century or two, or more. Some of the most beloved and sacred
religious hymns were set to the tunes of bawdy barroom ditties! (No, I won't
Judging music is like sifting grain. In
many parts of the world, grain is still cleansed the old fashioned way.
It's repeatedly tossed lightly in the air and caught again in a shallow basket
or pan, while the wind carries away the light weight chaff, that inedible stuff
consisting of husks, dried leaves and bits of stem. Music is
"cleansed" the same way. Some artists will be revered hundreds of years
from now. Some songs will still be sung. But many are chaff, to be
blown away in the wind, and rightly so.
My family was indignant when upon their very
first national introduction, I predicted that both the Beatles and Elvis Presley
were destined to be stars forever. In fact, Elvis' appearance always
resulted in a change of channels at our house. I don't even like
99% of their work, personally. That doesn't matter - they will last for
centuries. They weren't chaff.
In the past couple of years quite an
extraordinary number of stars on earth have gone on, undoubtedly to shine
elsewhere forever. Some were young, some were old. If you don't know
them, explore them with your family. You can get them from the library, or
listen to them on the internet. We'll bring some of them to your
attention. Read their biographies. You may like their talent, you
may not, but you'll learn something about music, history, social changes and
Then discuss popular music with your kids; what
the message is and why, and which are chaff to be blown away and which are
durable additions to our culture. Let them guess! Take a guess
yourself. Make a time capsule: write down the guesses and
check back in a year or three. Surprise!