Music and Memory

I enjoy music, but I’m definitely not a musician.  I can’t sing, and Jack used to tell me I even hummed off-key, although I seldom realized I was humming at all.  I guess I fall somewhere between my parents in this.  My dad played the saxophone and clarinet in high school and college (with a band that entertained at, he used to say, “bar mitzvahs and Polish weddings” in the Milwaukee area).  When I was a little girl, he bought and played a Hammond organ (I just looked that up on line, and it was quite a splurge back in the 1950s), and I learned to pick out a few simple pieces on it, but I had no musical talent.

However, unlike my mother, who had a tin ear and never understood any of the jokes in the recordings of P.D.Q. Bach, I do appreciate music, and I’m often surprised at the memories and emotions a song from the past can trigger.  Over the last week or ten days it’s been music from the 1960s, the decade I spent in high school and college.  I’m sure the music of that decade means much the same to me as Big Band Music (which I also like) meant to Jack, who was twenty years my senior.

A few weeks ago, some passing brainwave reminded me of the countless evenings my friends and I spent in the coffeehouses of Coconut Grove, Florida, in the mid-sixties, and I went looking on Amazon for my favorite album from that era, Tear Down the Walls, by Vince Martin and Fred Neil.  Somewhere in the house, I’m sure, I still have my battered copy of the original LP (remember those?  black vinyl discs about a foot across, in cardboard sleeves?), but it’s been many years since I had a functioning turntable (remember those?  I still have no idea why running a needle along a groove in the black plastic produces sound, but then I don’t actually know how a tape cassette or a CD works either.  Might as well call it magic.).

Anyway, I found the album reissued on CD at a ridiculously low price, and ordered it.  When it arrived a week or so ago, I hadn’t heard the songs, or the voices, in many years, but playing the disc  took me right back to those nights long ago, and sent me snooping around the Internet.  Fred Neil, who was probably the better known half of the team back in the day, died some years ago, but Vince Martin is still alive and (I hope) well, about ten years older than I am, which would have put him in his late twenties back when we thought he was–well, we were teenage girls.  You can imagine what we thought.

I’m no musicologist, but I think those years back in the 60s saw the transformation of old traditional folk music through protest songs into what would become folk rock.  Tear Down the Walls has some traditional songs and some protest tracks that seem, today, very rooted in the 60s, but I enjoyed them all.  Somewhere in that collection of moldering LPs, I have Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte Marie and Ian & Sylvia, but Martin & Neil were the ones I saw and heard live, and their album is special.

The 60s theme went on through this past week.  On the anniversary of the March on Washington the other day, I found myself brought nearly to tears by a story on PBS about the history of “We Shall Overcome.”  When I tried to sing along (in the privacy of my car), I choked up.

Today’s memory was happier: another PBS story about the recording of “Dancing in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas.  I was sure I had a copy of that somewhere, and when I got home I hunted through my CD collection.  Most of my CDs are stored in a tower in a darkish corner behind a closet door, mostly classical albums, some jazz and rock, and I was pretty sure I was looking for a two volume anthology of 1960s girl groups.  Even with a flashlight, I couldn’t find the discs, but there were more places to look: on a bookshelf (mostly classical), in a wooden box that once held computer floppy discs (mostly rock), in a box on the table (mostly jazz), a few near my computer, and another handful in my car (mostly rock anthologies, good road trip music).

I finally found the Girl Groups, in the Dark Tower, under a small stack of holiday music, and I played them through my computer this afternoon.  The music and beat are still fun, but I was mildly appalled by some of the lyrics (mostly variations on “oh, my world revolves around my boy friend”).  I enjoyed the retro-concert, but I never did find “Dancing in the Streets.”  I’d swear it’s here somewhere . . .