Memoir: Music and Me, with special Thanks to PS154

I’m not a musician; although, I have sung throughout my life in church choirs, college folk groups, and as an entertainer of my children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and others’ children.

As the child of immigrants from an outport in northeastern Newfoundland, I learned endless versions of sea shanties and comic folk tunes. I retain the choruses of “I’se the B’y”, “Lukey’s Boat,” and “Squid-Jiggin’ Ground,” taught to me by Newfoundland aunts and cousins.

As a 12-year-old, I sang two solos at my only sister’s wedding; 25 or so years after that I sang the same songs at the wedding of my only niece. I sang the “Anniversary Waltz” at a celebration of my parents’ 25th anniversary when I was 13.

Despite growing up in Brooklyn, I secretly became an avid listener to country music broadcast from New Jersey throughout my teens. I learned the songs of Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Faron Young, Jimmy Rodgers, and Webb Pierce, and later the songs of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Don Williams, Ed Bruce, and several others. As I often tell friends, I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 1000 country songs.

As a collegian, influenced by the folk revival, I favored The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Judy Collins. Later, I became a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, and Odetta. Even later, I was a connoisseur of more obscure folk purists such as Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett, and Ann Mayo Muir, along with John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and the Nova Scotian Stan Rogers. Also, when my wife and I began our family while living in Northern Vermont, Canadian television introduced me to Raffi, Fred Penner, Connie Caldor, and the Alberta cowboy that Ian Tyson had become.

In my senior year of college, I did folk concerts with a five-member group called “The Cellar-Dwellers and the Girl Upstairs” (four guys and a girl accompanied by a guitar, an upright double-bass, a tambourine, and me on the baritone ukelele).

Alongside this country-folk bias, I kept up with the songs of rock ‘n’ roll, and I never forgot most of the gospel songs I learned in church that were favorites of my mother and father. So my adult tastes moved understandably toward bluegrass gospel sung by artists such as Doyle Lawson, Joe Val, The Seldom Scene, and Ricky Skaggs along with Tony Rice.

I have entertained children and others with my almost verbatim renditions of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” “The Rock Island Line,” and “The Ladies of the Harem of the Court of King Caractacus,” and I can do a decent job on “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” which my father loved to hear.

But this litany of my music favorites obscures the most significant musical experience of my life: sitting in “Music Appreciation” classes at PS 154 in Brooklyn, also known as the Windsor School (located in Windsor Terrace). Under the tutelage of my upper-grade teachers, M. K. Seward, Sylvia Bradley, Ethel R. Convery, and two other lower-grade teachers whose names I forget but who served as skilled accompanists and tutors, I absorbed the wonders of classical music.

In this class, our instructors used “lyric pneumonics” to aid our learning of well-known classical pieces. Thus, decades later I still listen to and repeat by singing:

–“Barcarolle, from Tales of Hoffman, written by Offenbach, bum-bum“;
–“Morning was dawning, as Peer Gynt was yawning from under a statue of Grieg”;
–Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act 3 of his opera Lohengrin:  “Lo-oh-oh-engrin came to wed the fair Elsa . . .” [they never played the bridal chorus in class!];
–the subtle “Largo” from the second movement of Symphony No. 9 from “The New World,” by Anton Dvorak, which our teachers repeatedly played and to which we sang “to a rose, to a rose, to a wild, wild, rose”; and
–Handel’s magnificent organ piece of the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, for which we had no lyrics, but the organ was a singular giveaway for our identification of this classic.

Incidentally, I spent an hour or two reviewing these pieces as I wrote this memoir, and I noted my teachers’ preferences for wedding music!

And, of course, they did surrender to our childishness in allowing us to bounce in PS 154’s auditorium seats as if mounted on stallions as we galloped to the not-so-subtle “Finale” from the William Tell Overture by Rossini. Most of us recognized this piece because of our familiarity with that masked cowboy hero of radio, The Lone Ranger. For this, our teachers did not employ pneumonics, but lots of shushing as spontaneous exclamations of “Hi-yo Silver, away” rang out around the auditorium.

I have to conclude that music, while not my profession, is embedded in my consciousness, and that my eclectic taste is rooted in Newfoundland, cowboys, hippies, church choirs, balladeers, troubadours, and The Windsor School’s music appreciation classes.

Thanks to you all!

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