Music is such a part of our lives, it’s hard to imagine life without it. Our musical culture is an expression of who we and is a kind of universal language which needs no translation…Like the Simple Gifts of Aaron Copeland:
My musical education started with my weekly piano lessons that my parents insisted I take at the age of 5. I spent years practicing scales so that I could perform classical pieces composed by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert with dexterity and skill. Through this classical music training, I would little by little discover the American classical compositions that communicated more thoroughly the American spirit and experience such as Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man:
I grew up listening to the music from American musical films such as Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (my parents were from this State) and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I knew all the songs by heart as I used to sing along with our records non-stop. These songs evoked the wide open spaces of the Midwest or the social problems festering in the inner cities or the buoyant happy-go-lucky atmosphere of Hollywood. These different styles enabled me to express different moods and embrace American culture in all its richness and diversity.
In the late 60’s, a Gibson acoustic guitar replaced my piano as my wandering spirit required an instrument that I could easily transport and which would allow me to take part in the folk song revival which Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Seekers (to name only a few) ushered in. This instilled in me a love for singing and interpreting the music which surrounded me. Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow (a song about disapperaing childhood innocence)was one of my first songs that I strummed on my beloved guitar:
Cherish by The AssociationGrowing up in the Golden Age of Rock and Roll represented by the 50’s and 60’s hit tunes, allowed me to develop my musical tastes even further. Surfin USA The Beach BoysThe transistor radio became my constant companion while cruising the streets of Southern California and lolling on the beach surfing and soaking up the sun’s rays during the summer time (Stephen Spielberg’s film American Graffiti more or less mirrored my teenager years) or just hanging out at friends’ houses.
Certain songs can take me back to a moment in my childhood and youth and evoke indelible memories of school, friends and family. Wolf Man Jack and other disc jockeys were like friends to me, and as the 60’s melted into the 70’s and 80’s and then the 90’s, the “innocent” and “joyous” songs of the 50s and 60s were replaced by the sometimes more cynical and harder lyrics of the 80’s and 90’s. Here’s a clip from American Graffiti which depicts my youth:
The songs I used to listen to became known as the “Oldies But Goodies” or the “Golden Oldies” and the baby-boomer generation to which I belong have had to make a concerted effort to adapt to the changing styles and adhere to another philosophy and approach to music which mirrors the evolution of American society. I must admit though that I often listen to the music of the 50’s and 60’s when I’m feeling a little nostalgic for bygone days or when I just want to go back to a simpler time.
Having traveled around the world, I’ve come to realize how popular American music is in other countries. It’s sometimes so popular with some listeners, that some countries have had to limit the number of songs played so that American music doesn’t drown out the native music and songs of other societies thereby destroying and or altering their own cultures irreparably….although now songs are considered cultural products that compete the world over. Although it’s not the first market for music, the United States comes in a close second selling millions of dollars’ worth of music every year. American songs can be heard everywhere and have influenced other countries in many musical domains. Its popularity comes from its multi-ethnic origins (from Europe to Africa to Asia…) and has inspired composers to create a kind of cultural melting pot of styles from classical (Gershwin) to musical compositions (Rodgers and Hammerstein) to Gospel, Hawaiian melodies, the blues, Rap, Rock ‘n Roll, Folk, Bluegrass, Country music, Native American music and the list goes on. Much of the music of the United States derives its uniqueness from the use of syncopation and asymmetrical rhythms coupled with sometimes irregular compositions which reflect America’s vast territory, national parks and wide open landscapes which can stretch for as far as the eye can see…and
These pages will try to help my students and others appreciate some of the American songs which I grew up with and how they have helped weave the fabric of our national identity and defined the person I am. Click on the pages to explore my constantly growing list: