“Music has charms to soothe the savage beast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.” That would depend on whether the music was good or bad. My father’s mellow baritone could soothe a savage beast. Mom’s caterwauling could certainly soften rocks or bend a knotted oak, as well as cause the wallpaper to fall off the wall in strips, and coyotes in the distant woods to howl in unison. What Mom lacked in musical talent, she made up for in enthusiasm and volume.
Their music reverberated through my youth; both his and hers. Dad was musically gifted. He often sang in the house. He taught himself to play several musical instruments. Sometimes he’d invite his musically gifted friends over and they would gather in our living room and “jam” until late into the evening. His favorite genre was country music. When he heard his teenage children playing the top rock tunes of the era, he would bellow, “You call that music?” or “Loud is not the same as good!”
When I hear his favorite tunes (which isn’t often anymore, unless I listen to an oldies station of the 1940s and 1950s music), waves of nostalgia and fresh grief sweep over me. He passed away in 1977. The 1954 hit “Jambalaya” was a favorite of his. When he sang “Amazing Grace,” it would bring tears to the listener’s eyes.
Hearing one of my late mother’s favorite tunes also brings waves of nostalgia and grief, but it is tempered by laughter. She knew how painfully bad her singing was; she just didn’t care. Maybe we all should joyfully throw our tune-deaf voices to the sky like Mom did.
Mom’s favorite tune was, “Misty,” as sung by the late Ella Fitzgerald. When she reached the line, “Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree,” the syllable “less” in the word “helpless” was shrieked at a decibel level that threatened to shatter all the glasses in the cupboard. For some reason, she often sang (and I use the term loosely) that one when I had friends over, which I found mortifying and my friends found hilarious.
Dad worked 60 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. Mom stayed busy caring for her five children. It was obvious she missed Dad a lot. Often when he got home from work, she would sidle up to him, with a twinkle in her eye, and loudly sing, “I’m in the mood for love, simply because you’re near me,” which always prompted a grin from him, and groans of embarrassment from us.
At the end of a busy day, as Mom was clearing the dinner table, she would sing to Dad, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” Then the two of them would grab a couple of lawn chairs and sit together under the apple tree by the creek in our yard and talk, their lit cigarettes flickering in the dark. I don’t know what they talked about, because we five children were not invited. It was their alone time, which Mom said was important to keep a healthy marriage. That’s the same reason she gave for sending us to bed hours earlier than our friends. We complained about it often, but she was adamant.
I inherited my lack of musical talent from my mother. At my middle school, all students were required to take a choir class. After the choir teacher heard my pathetic attempts to sing the tune he’d selected, he sighed and said, “Well, I guess I’ll identify you as an alto, but it’s all right if you want to just mouth the words.” In high school, I was forced to participate when all the seniors sang at the graduation ceremony. I just mouthed the lyrics. My friend Mary, who stood next to me on the bleachers at the rehearsal, said, “I didn’t hear you sing anything.” I replied, “Believe me; it’s for the best.”
Years later, while pregnant with my son, I read an article that said exposing babies to music in the womb helped build brain function. So, like my mom, I sang, loudly and badly, to my developing child. I failed to recognize that he couldn’t escape my caterwauling for nine months.
When he was a toddler, I tried singing to him. He covered his ears and cried, “Mommy, no! Stop!” I hope his mom shrieking tone-deaf tunes to him will bring him happy memories of childhood, as my musical memories have to me.