The Music That Made Me
Updated: Jun 22
My Adventures in Underscore, part 1- Looking for music is all the wrong places.
Music isn’t just one of the great joys in life. As far as I’m concerned, life is better with musical accompaniment. When I think of all the great transitions in my life, the doorways that opened to new phases, new developments, I can chart that progress with music. Which might seem amusing, given that I am not a musician, or even much of a singer. But sometimes I wish I were.
My parents bought their first home in a small factory town in New Jersey. Our neighborhood was cut off from the rest of town by train tracks and a river, and was known as “Lost Valley.” Sadly their were no dinosaurs or exotic temples to be found there, much less many other kids my age. As an only child for my first few years, it was a solitary existence. One companion I did have was the radio.
There was really only one place to hear music at that time, and it came from the big wooden box in the corner of the living room. Nearly as tall as I was, I could barely lift the lid to see the amber glow of the radio tuner within. Pressed up against the crocheted fabric, feeling the vibration of the speaker against my belly, music was a feast for my senses. Including the pinch of the heavy mahogany lid on my little fingers when I lost my grip. Ouch!
The first song I remember hearing on the radio was “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I remember asking Mom about it and her reading the Little Golden Book adaptation to me. It was a mystery as to how these characters in the book, who clearly lived in “the olden days,” had the means to sing on the radio. Did they have microphones then? There was another song that my mom liked. It was okay—but when I heard it again on the TV, when she was watching Dr. Kildare, I recognized it. Instead of singing, it started with bells, like church. I liked that—it gave me goosebumps.
By the time that I was three, I had a new baby brother, which meant that Mom was busier and had less time for me. Fortunately, they had a solution to keep me company, which was much more stimulating than the squawking infant who sucked up so much of the energy in the house. After dinner, I settled down for a half hour of cartoons on TV.
Everything I love most about music started with animated cartoons. Whether it was a blue-colored dog or a white-gloved rabbit, their antics were syncopated by and synchronized with pulse-pounding sounds. I quickly became accustomed to action having a musical accent: bongos for running, slide whistles for falling, cymbals crashing on impact. It pricked up my ears and taught me to listen to what I watched.
That led me to pay close attention with at least two senses at all times. I became very attuned to the way rhythms and percussion played out in real life. Learning to put a balloon or trading cards in the spokes on my bike fired my imagination. Not just because it sounded like a motorized vehicle, but there was a staccato beat that raised or lowered in pitch depending on my speed. It was musical feedback. A soundtrack to my life.
There was an added bonus, that I was completely unaware of. My musical (and cultural) literacy was fed by Carl Stalling and company. Did you know that Looney Tunes were invented to sell sheet music? I didn’t, but Porky and Daffy would frequently break into song as they sauntered on screen, and I learned snippets of mid-century ditties like “The Lady In Red” or “Moonlight Bay” —that my parents probably grew up hearing on their radios. And if a piano rendition of “Those Endearing Young Charms” ended with a blast of TNT, it was all the more memorable.
The real motherlode, however, was in classical music, which the studios mined for cartoons because it was readily available—and free. Those composers churning out hours and hours of underscore could be forgiven for taking a few shortcuts. The best animators selected these tunes and designed their films to hit every note of Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” or Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” I didn’t know any of that, and wouldn’t for years. But I loved how the music and picture were played against each other, and I became addicted.
Like any junkie, I got a little anxious without a fix. One Saturday afternoon I was running errands with my dad, and it became clear that we wouldn’t make it home by 12:30pm for the airing of The Bugs Bunny Show. I was wigging out, but Dad managed to distract me with a promise. “One day”, he said, “we’ll probably have a machine where you could record that show and watch it when you want.” Really? My eyes lit up. When can we get one? He laughed and said something about “the future.”
He rewarded my patience with the next best thing—a couple of record albums of my own. The first was Bugs Bunny and his Friends, with a promising cover of my favorite characters gathered around a piano. Unfortunately, the musical bits were mostly segues between long stretches of dialog, in which Mel Blanc described the action of the cartoons. I listened, but with a growing sense of disappointment. Even then I knew narration was no substitute for stretch and squash animation.
Things were better on the next album, with a much better mix of songs and comedy. The Alvin Show was my favorite TV program of 1962, and the record album did not disappoint. The anarchic antics of the titular character made me laugh, as did the equally high-pitched voices of his brothers Simon and Theodore. The record ended with “The Witch Doctor Song” a rather grating novelty song with kooky lyrics that I couldn’t get enough of. By the fifth or sixth round of “OO-eee OO-ah-ah, Ting Tang Walla Walla Bing Bang,” Dad came into the study to try and distract me.
In a move he would soon come to regret, he demonstrated how the Chipmunks got their voices, by playing the album at 16 rpm, half its usual speed. It slowed Alvin’s chirp to something like normal human speech. To my amazement, his friend Dave’s regular speaking voice also changed, to a scary, basso rumble. My ears tingled with this new knowledge, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the phonograph.
I proceeded to experiment with Alvin, and then moved on to any other LPs I could finagle, changing speeds up and down—and even playing them backwards for effect. You haven’t heard Sinatra sing “The Coffee Song” until you’ve heard it at a caffeinated 78 rpm. (Once was enough for the parents.)
My main source of music was still on the television, and access was limited. There were plenty of shows of interest, and by the time I was in kindergarten, I was able to read well enough to scour TV Guide for leads. But watching TV was a privilege in our house, and I rarely had first choice of programming. There were several shows in rotation built around marionette mayhem that I thought were super. The announcer would declare “Anything can happen in the next half hour!” and I’d be ready.
Furious bongo drums heralded the arrival of Stingray, a futuristic submarine piloted by puppets who didn’t move much but managed to blow up their adversaries real good. Gooseflesh rippled my arms at the sound of that theme song and I wished that I could hear it again. But there was no record album to be had, at least none that I could find at Woolworth’s Five-and-Dime when Grandma took me shopping. And even then, my 25¢ allowance probably wasn’t enough. What could I do?
Fortunately, Dad was an early adopter of home recording equipment. An elementary school teacher, he moonlighted as a reading specialist and tutored kids in our basement a couple of nights a week. He would record their progress from session to session. Once again, his natural impulse to teach his son new tricks would come back to bite him. He gave me a complete demonstration of how the machine worked, threading the 1/4” tape through the recording head, wrapping it on the take-up reel and using the lever to play, rewind… and record.
Next Saturday, while Mom and Dad were in the back yard, I was lugging the heavy case upstairs to the living room. Carefully unlatching the cover, unpacking the cords and threading the reel just as I’d been shown. The power cord stretched around the back of the TV, almost toppling the bowl of wax fruit on the side table. I propped up the boxy microphone (roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes) and waited. Well trained in the art of suffering through commercial breaks, I held my breath in anticipation. As the hourly station I.D. appeared, my right fingers gripped the steel lever.
The announcer exclaimed “Stand By For Action!” and I jammed the lever forward as hard as I could. The bongos started, the brass wailed, and the reels spun wildly forward. Too fast! Uh-oh. Forgot to press “record.” I stopped the tape and tried again. This time the head engaged and I was recording. There was still 20 seconds of theme song left. But I didn’t have that long. “Joseph! What are you doing?!” Is that your father’s machine?!” I winced and tried making a silent “shushing” sound. But mom wasn’t having it. She made me stop the machine and shut off the TV.
After things settled down, and Dad returned the recorder to his study, I’d get a chance to replay that fragment of music, before it was recorded over. Even truncated as it was, I was thrilled to be able to hear it again, and again. I learned it was possible to take control of something important to me. That music, one of my favorite and most ephemeral joys, wouldn’t always be out of reach.
But I would have to wait a while longer.
(NEXT WEEK: TV themes, cassette tapes, and learning what a composer is...)
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