Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to Indoctrinate People

The role of records in my early life was strictly utilitarian. My parents weren't record fetishists like I am; they had reasons for buying records that had almost nothing to do with collecting. It was pretty much just a combination of their personal taste (classical) and the need to have some pop stuff on hand for when they had parties. The pop ones I remember are Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's Going Places!, Blood Sweat & Tears 3 and, I don't remember any others. When I was a teenager and asked my dad why in the heck, out of all the records that came out in the 60s and 70s, Blood Sweat & Tears 3 is the one rock record they felt the need to own, he said they needed some music for their bridge parties.


For me, they had a few kiddie records. I remember exactly one kiddie record from my toddlerdom, and it's a record I still have. It's by Marc Field and it's called On Top of Spaghetti and Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and Other Favorite Songs for Children. (It's really hard to find information about Marc Field on the internet, because he had the misfortune of having a name that would later be a computer science term [and a metadata/library science related one at that!]; a yahoo search on the name at least turns up more persons [though none appears to be him], possibly revealing interesting differences between Google's and Yahoo's different approaches to search technology.) The Internet does have this video of a song from the record, a song whose title ("Drag the Magic Puffin") I recall but I can honestly say that despite dozens of plays of the record as a toddler, and perhaps a dozen more in my adult years including twice in the last month, it doesn't even sound familiar to me. I just now had to play the record again just to verify that it's on there. It is - it's the second song on side two, between "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" and "Blue Tail Fly", both of which I remember quite well. It's the only original song on the album (Marc Field wrote it!), and it's, um, not that good of a song, so maybe that's why it escaped my notice until now.

Yeah so that's not the record that Frances picked out for me. Syke!

On the dissecting table today is Marc Field's label-mate at Rocking Horse Records, the Rocking Horse Orchestra and Chorus, and their album Puff the Magic Dragon and Other Favorite Folk Songs. I picked it up about twelve or fifteen years ago when I decided to explore other records on the same label as my very first record. This mini-collection effort ultimately turned up seven LPs, including the alarmingly titled Magic Toy Shop Where Music Brings the Toys to Life, a record of hymns called Children's Songs of Reverence, a couple of fairy-tale story records, and the Marc Field record. They're all loosely organized by themes - some are hymn-y religious-y, some are folksy, some are fairy tale-y - but the aesthetic is pretty unified. It's a synthesis on records of various strands of folk and religious tradition that together perpetuate the values and legend of America. Middle class values, with a heavy emphasis on religion.

On this album, the Rocking Horse Orchestra is a guitar and a banjo, and the Chorus, as far as I can discern, has a single female and two or three male voices. They're singing in that 50s folk idiom, like Burl Ives or the Kingston Trio. I'm picturing them in black and white vertical striped shirts, with those round stiff flat hats.

What's interesting is the repertoire. In particular, two of the songs are ones that I know from Lead Belly's recordings: "Ha-Ha Thisaway" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton".

Whoa. Hold on. Wait a minute. "Pick a Bale of Cotton"? Hmm...

So you put the record on. It's called "Puff the Magic Dragon", and that's the first song: a version of Peter, Paul and Mary's bittersweet ode to the orphaned creation of a child who no longer needs childish things. You're all set for a loose, fanciful journey through the institution of middle class childhood: joy and sorrow; wondrous stories; love and learning; candy and popcorn. Instead, you're immediately thrust into the problematic chorus of the next song: "Oh Lordy, pick a bale of cotton, oh Lordy, pick a bale a day."

A song can be a challenge, a message with multiple meanings. This song is undeniably happy-sounding. It's not just the kiddie singers that make it happy. The most famous version is Lead Belly's, and it was also famously recorded by the British folk singer Lonnie Donegan and, bizarrely, ABBA; none of these versions have a hint of sadness or melancholy about them. In contrast to the manic mood of the tune, the scant lyrics evoke a back-breaking labor ("Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton, jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day"). Enslaved people weren't the only ones that picked cotton, especially in the South of the early 20th Century; plenty of white people broke their hands and backs in this way - historically, it's a labor associated with people of limited means and limited choices. But if that's all the song evokes, a kind of populist poor-people solidarity, why should I even have to mention race? What's the first thing you think of when you think of cotton picking? As a cultural reference, there's no separating it from the institution of slavery and the narrative of race in America.

There's no clear record of who wrote "Pick a Bale of Cotton". However, no recordings or references to it exist before the early 1930s, so it most likely originated in a prison farm around that time, and it's safe to say that Lead Belly, who had been an inmate in Texas and Louisiana, encountered it there. He wasn't the first to record it, so he probably didn't write it, but whoever did wasn't far from him in time or space. A prison farm in Texas in 1930 probably didn't look or feel too different from a plantation in Georgia in 1830 - with the polarization of the post-Reconstruction South, the loss of the security of the unquestioned order and status quo that existed in the slavery era, and the fact of it being a prison rather than a business, it could have been as bad or worse. And what survived to tell the tale? A song. A song written not to make a buck, not to express a creative impulse, not to win friends and influence people; rather, a song written to make the hours of agony go by, to scratch the itch, to divert the mind from the pain and boredom of insane reality.

A pure song; a song meant to annihilate pain with absurd happiness; a response to hell. A happy, catchy pop song.

Another absurdity is the amount of work called for: a bale of cotton was 500 pounds. Nobody could do that in a day. It's this crazy exaggeration, the invoking of super-human ability to call out the ridiculousness of endless work.

It's an absurdity of contrast: the happy tune with the hellish words; the superhuman task depicted with the dehumanization of the people who had to do it; the straight-up catchiness of the snappy hook with the discomfort the song as a whole. The circumstances of its creation and the circumstances that nurtured it through time and space, a message cryptically divorced from its meaning, a folk song without context on a children's record for white middle class kids. An extraordinary reclaiming by human minds of an essential fact of humanity: a legacy from the pit of hell.

The opposite of "Drag the Magic Puffin": a song that won't let you forget it, no matter how much you want to. A song that does what a song's supposed to do, too well.

The thing about music is, it can be really, really catchy. Its distortion of the way you perceive time gives it its power: simultaneously, it simplifies and deepens its subject. I'd guess that no one in that prison farm where they started singing that song for the first time some 80 years ago cared where it would go, or who would hear it beyond a hundred yards away, and yet here we are today in a world where it reached across generations to boondoggle hundreds of thousands of people. Was it the extreme circumstances of its creation that gave it its staying power? Was it just an unusually catchy song, or is there something about those words and that music that touches a deep place inside us?

No idea. I do know this, though: a message divorced from its meaning, a work song scrubbed of its difficult origin, has a dangerous power. Songs can have so much power that without historical context, they can perpetuate evil. Ironic intent is lost or construed as its opposite; bitter, angry men become happy darkies; history is rewritten.

Puff, the Magic Dragon and Other Favorite Folk Songs is another such misguided message. Its existence as a kiddie record, devoid of context regarding its creators' intent, renders its mixed messages instantly cryptic. I think the Rocking Horse crew had a legitimate belief in the good they were doing. Preserving the folk legacy of America; instilling Christian values.

They open side two with this, another Lead Belly number:

Ha-ha thisaway, ha-ha thataway
Ha-ha thisaway, then oh then

Ha-ha thisaway, ha-ha thataway
Ha-ha thisaway, then oh then

When I was a little boy, a little boy, a little boy
When I was a little boy a few years old

My daddy went and left me, left me, left me
My daddy went and left me, I've been told

Life's not all candy and popcorn, kids. Be happy you're one of the lucky ones. The story of "Ha-Ha Thisaway" continues: his mom and his school were good to him, they taught him the Golden Rule, they saved his soul. So the dad leaving seemed like it was gonna be a problem, but he's cool with it cause his soul got saved. To which I say: right on. Still and all, it seems like kind of a downer of a bio to be presenting in kiddie song format. I guess the Brothers Grimm's and Charles Dickens's tales for tots had their share of broken homes too, and worse.

Charles Murray, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post, discusses the New Elite that the new populist movement in America has coalesced in opposition to, and with which I, however reluctantly and incompletely, must identify. This New Elite has as one of its less endearing qualities a tendency to look the other way from the ugliness that life has to offer. We've got an easily offended sensibility. "Colorblindness" is a potentially really destructive attitude that's come out of this tendency as my generation has come of age. Colorblindness is the impulse of privileged, majority-racial-group middle class people to say, "Racism is icky. I'm not racist - everyone is the same!" It ignores institutionalized, entrenched inequalities, expects the same standard of behavior from everyone regardless of their background, and thus ultimately perpetuates racism. One of the most powerful ways to fight the damage colorblindness can cause is by talking about race, especially with children, and especially if you're part of the privileged group.

Kindermusik, the music education program Frances has attended since she was six months old, uses for more than half of its material traditional songs from many different cultures. In some cases, the tunes they use have problematic histories and lyrics - and their approach is usually to change the lyrics. So "Ten Little Indians" becomes "Ten Little Bubbles". Kindermusik has the resources to contextualize and create dialogue around difficult issues - but they've mostly chosen the "colorblind" approach.

I'm not sure that it's really part of Kindermusik's mission, or their responsibility even, to confront these difficult issues. In fact, you might characterize their attempt to reclaim these tunes from history and use the power of the songs to teach language, rhythm and motion, rather than divisiveness and racial stereotyping, as admirable. But whether it's Kindermusik or Rocking Horse Records, one thing is clear: catchy songs often outlive the circumstances of their origins. A catchy song is the best way to get a kid's attention - and once you get the kid's attention, they will believe whatever message you are sending.

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