Sunday, September 13, 2015

What is it about “Our” Music?

I had lunch yesterday in one of the popular eateries here in town. The place was jumping but not as busy as it is usually. It seemed the lunch crowd came through before we did. The busy hubbub was a few decibels lower than usual and above the clink of dishes and silverware, lunch voices and the football game on the TV in the corner I could hear background music coming from the speakers in the ceiling. This restaurant’s customer base ranges in age from sorority sisters to senior citizens so the choice of music surprised me a little; coming out of those speakers were the tunes that I grew up with in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. That got me to thinking about the music we hear in restaurants and other public places and it seems to me that the majority is what we call “Oldies!”

“Why is that”, I wonder. The subject matter of the lyrics of oldies covers all aspects of life; love, wonder and youth, as well as loss, heartbreak and loneliness. Not terribly different than music of all the decades that followed. So why does oldies permeate the soundtracks of our lives no matter when we were born?

My first thought is that no matter what a song was about it was presented with an upbeat style that just makes you smile. That strong backbeat and rock and roll chord structure just makes you feel better when listening. Think of “Moody River” by Pat Boone, “Tragedy” by Thomas Wayne and the DeLons or “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, all songs about love lost but the melody was not maudlin and sad. It was upbeat and light. If you hummed the song you would think that it was about something fun.

Don’t you just love the 1963 chart topping song “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto? Well the lyrics in Japanese tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles while he is walking so that his tears will not fall. The verses of the song describe his memories and feelings. Rokusuke Ei wrote the song in a depression while coming back from a protest and feeling dejected about the failure of the protest movement, but the lyrics were rendered purposefully generic so that they might refer to any lost love. But the emotion of the song to American audiences was exactly the opposite. Even the 1981 cover of the song in English does not convey the sadness of the translation. Sung in the upper register instead of hearing the sad lyrics, the song still seems to convey a feeling of love temporarily lost and a hope for its return. It seems you can’t keep a “feel good” feeling down.

You can make the argument that some of the popularity of Oldies comes from the fact that they are a product of simpler, happier times. But were they really? The cold war was upon with the threat of nuclear holocaust, polio was running unchecked, the Korean War was raging and Vietnam was coming. But I think that there was a fundamental difference; hope! We still had the feeling that the problems of the day were temporary and a brighter future lay ahead. All we had to do is to work together to achieve it.

Scientists, tell us that smell is the one of our five senses that evokes memories the most. But I believe that music evokes memories on a much grander scale than our olfactory nerves; even memories that are not ours. When I hear “Swing Swing Swing” by Benny Goodman or “The White Cliffs of Dover” by Rosemary Cloony I’m taken back to the stories my uncles told us as children of their involvement in WW II. “Moonlight Gambler” or “Cool Water” reminds me of riding in the car with my dad turning up the volume and whistling along with Frankie Laine, The Sons of the Pioneers or Marty Robbins. I can never listen to these songs without a smile on my lips.

When I hear a song that I played on the radio, I immediately picture the studio control room in my mind and flash on memories of the other DJs, radio station staffs and listeners that were so much a part of my life. I’ve had this conversation with other Radio DJs, some of which were the ones I listened to when I was younger and that feeling of nostalgia is common among us. Just in case you ever wondered how important the audience was to a DJ, let me assure you, they were on the top of the list. They may never have seen you, maybe just talked to you on the phone, but the audience is a part of every DJ’s heart. It still is thrilling to come across someone who used to listen to me back in the day.

From time to time I’ve been amazed at how much people of all ages love oldies. Many of the request calls on my Oldies show on WUSC-FM come from folks who are much too young to have listened to them while growing up. I like that; it makes me feel much younger than I really am. WUSC-FM is located in the Russell House University Union building in the heart of the sprawling urban campus of the University of South Carolina. It is not unusual once or twice a year that a student would walk into the studio to tell me how much they like the music I play there, that it brings back great memories of growing up. I usually sit there slack jawed for a moment and then ask, how can a 18 – 22 year old have memories of oldies. The answer is always the same, they heard their parents or grandparents play it.

So, it seems that oldies, that wide variety of musical styles that filled the airwaves of our youth are still filling the hallways of the memories of young folks today and as Dick Clark used to say are becoming part of the soundtracks of our lives, even today. Oh MY!

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