I started this blog about the Andrew Sisters and other music of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, with the best of intentions, but as you will see it veered into the intensely personal. I have decided to send it out anyway.
At my son’s request I am writing this blog about my ideas concerning popular music in the ‘40’s, ‘50’s,‘60’s and into the ‘70’s. I have been hesitant for several reasons: 1) I have no expertise in the area of popular music so what I am writing is sheer personal opinion. 2) It brings up emotional turmoil because, although I adored school, I had a hard time with my classmates partly due to the different musical content of our lives. And I am going to have to start with the trauma of those years, which is inseparable from my sense, feeling, reaction to the music of the time.
I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in the then prosperous, but not yet deluxe, suburb of Chappaqua about 36 miles outside of New York City. It had an excellent school system and taxes to match. In the late 1940’s and all of the 1950’s conformity was rigid in these communities, of course, more so among children. We dressed alike and all our tastes were supposed to be exactly the same.
I remember a boy in grade school wore a pair of knickerbockers one day, probably inherited from an older brother, since these had been popular ten years before but were no longer worn. He was teased. They were a signal of familial poverty. Knickerbockers, which still exist, are baggy trousers that end at the knee and are worn with knee-high socks. I have always wanted a pair in emerald velvet.
The smallest difference was mocked. Later in middle to high school I had a girl friend who also didn’t fit.
Her clothes were fashionable, rather than the prescribed skirts, sweaters and saddle shoes that were de rigueur. She came to school one day in a circular quilted skirt that was much ridiculed. She would have been fine in New York City where diversity was/is largely accepted but the suburbs are/were more confining. She also had very long hair, which she wore down her back. This was pulled and tangled so much that she was often in tears. Her family finally removed her and placed her in a private school. Having your child come home weeping every day is not pleasant. I wanted desperately to follow her to that private school, but my family did not have the money, so I learned to tough it out. I didn’t tell my parents what happened to me in school until I was grown.
I don’t know what I was like at that age. I may have been superior or arrogant in my attitudes and offended my schoolmates. Besides liking opera another of my social solecisms was that my mother made me wear long, tan, cotton stockings which were held up by a sort of halter over my shoulders with garters attached. She thought I was too frail to weather the winter barelegged. A girl in my class, who was also a neighbor of mine, I have no idea why, and I suspect she doesn’t know either, talked some boys into throwing me into a ditch to pull up my skirts and see what held up the stockings. The instigator of my humiliation was totally irresistible because she had breasts, which a fair number of us did not yet have.
I am missing pieces of this incident. Did I try to fight them off? I cannot remember. What I do remember was that climbing out of that ditch, leaf mold on cheek and knees, in an agony of humiliation and defeat, I wanted immediately to erase the incident from my mind. I never wanted to remember it. This is a natural but not a useful reaction.
What I had been taught, however, was an important lesson, that while I thought I was autonomous, free to do what I wanted, I was completely at the mercy of any group that wanted to use their physical strength against me. I had never had to think about this.
It meant that the other effect of this incident was I became immediately and permanently on the side of all underdogs in my vicinity and, slowly, underdogs anywhere. Whoever was baited, blamed, ridiculed was my companion. This incident made me aware that I was living in a society that was lying to me. I was not free. I was not equal.
It lead me to teach in Harlem at City College, interview ex government prisoners in Burma, a writer under house arrest in Indonesia, causing me to acquire a police tail, and to confront the Minister of North American Affairs in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam about writers in prison there. The later was not a very good idea. It is also, possibly, the reason I reacted so violently to the situation I found when I came to Spain in 1960 and saw the fear on peoples’ faces and the Guardia Civil in their patent leather hats posted along the roads.
What my neighbor and schoolmate did to me changed me. It changed her as well.
Practically no one gets through life without his or her soupçon of trauma and one shouldn’t. Trauma is a necessary lesson about life. My schoolmate/neighbor, who many years later apologized to me (more later on that), had her own horrifying trauma around that time.
Her father brought his Russian father to the U.S. This would have been the time of Stalin. It must have been a complex operation both expensive and difficult. I am sure this was done with the best of intentions. He, the grandfather, was a little man in his late sixties or seventies. I used to see him alone, neatly dressed, on our road walking. He was the only Russian I knew, my only Russian reference, until I was in college, when my memory of him gave me an aperçu into Dostoyevsky’s characters, isolated in their suffering. He was also the first person I recognized as being, even though I didn’t really know him, detritus, cast up on the beach of history. I have known many in that despairing isolation over my lifetime.
He was utterly alone, no English, no tendrils of relation to the alien culture he found himself in. He had his son, but I imagine his grandchildren viewed him as something incomprehensibly alien suddenly dumped in their lives. He was cruelly isolated at the end of his life.
One day he went missing. The police were called, I believe, and his family and others on the road searched for him. It was my tormentor, his granddaughter, who saw the top of his bald head shining above the water in the pond beside their house. Like Virginia Woolf he had drowned himself by walking into the pond.
We all get our spoonful of trauma.
Years and years later my schoolmate apologized but went well beyond saying she was sorry. When she contacted me she told me she had carried the guilt of what she had done for years gnawing at her. The boys involved, now old men, never apologized. I can’t remember who they were; trauma wiped them from my memory.
My former neighbor in apologizing explained, “I told my children and my grandchildren, ‘Don’t ever do anything like this or you will suffer terrible guilt all of your life.’”
I had no difficulty forgiving after such a confession.
That’s my introduction to the Andrew Sisters.
So after over a thousand words I have not gotten to the Andrew Sisters. I promise to be more on topic with the next blog.