Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What My Mother Taught Me, Part 1

My Uncle Tom was not the only person who fed me music when I was three years old. His sister, my mother, already had a decent music collection by the time I was born. Almost all of the LPs, perhaps numbering 100, had belonged to my parents before my birth. Then Mom subscribed me to the Disneyland records, so I had some LPs of my own. Singles that survived the Great Meltdown of 1972 that did not come from Uncle Tom’s bargain-bin excursions included 45s by Elvis Presley, Patti Page, and the group I’ll feature Saturday.

The collection that existed when I learned to manipulate the record player (instead of manipulating my parents into playing records) at age two actually served as a core of music that intrigued me and thus incited Uncle Tom’s purchases. If there had been no records in the house for me to react to, I probably would never have received any discount 45s at all.

As Mom’s collection melded into mine (ten years before they Melted together), I began to lose track of which songs she had bought for her own listening pleasure, or Hörenvergnügen. I am sure that Nat “King” Cole figured high on her list of favorites, and I know which song meant the most to her. But the mere fact that there was a sizable record collection makes me realize that I came by my appreciation of music naturally.

I have talked about my dad on this blog, but just about all I’ve said about my mom is that she died when I was nine. I will share more about her on Saturday, closer to her birthday of June 26. For now, I want to examine our relationship to a song she clearly enjoyed, “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Kapp 573).

The single entered the Top 40 on February 29, 1964, and at some point shortly thereafter, she started trying to talk me into wanting the 45. It wasn’t a hard sell, but I wonder if she would have bothered getting it if I had showed no interest.

What she saw, I believe, was an opportunity to introduce me to a legendary performer during a high point of his career. “Hello, Dolly!” was Louis’s first #1 hit since 1932 and his final pop #1. He was in good form both vocally and instrumentally. Unlike Sammy Davis Jr.’s biggest hit, “The Candy Man,” “Hello, Dolly!” didn’t require that Louis set aside his musical integrity. The show, and the song, have endured, so his recording remains valid.

Mom was giving me more than a glance into the still-vibrant career of Louis Armstrong. She was taking me to another part of the musical world. While she was at it, she was validating the African American contribution to society as a whole.

You know by now that I was born in Gary, Indiana (let’s all sing . . . ). During the first decade of my life, there was considerable “white flight” from Gary, and racial tension abounded. It did not help matters that the main vice of Gary shifted from alcohol and illegal gambling to drugs, and that an alarming percentage of the new residents of the city fell prey to that scourge. There was a lot of murder going on, mostly black on black gang/drug crime, but young addicts started knocking over stores that had already lost much of their business, and the city essentially shut down.

In my new, mostly white subdivision, people who had been stung selling their houses below market value just to escape the violence (and often just not to have African American neighbors) had little good to say about Gary and its people. Sure, people bought records by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole and eventually the Jackson 5, but when it came to dealing with the average black man on the street, there was a lot of hostility.

When my mom went back to work as an ER nurse around 1967, there were plenty of housewives in our neighborhood who would have been glad to earn a few bucks watching her four children. But she opted to deal with a Gary agency that supplied trained childcare professionals. These women, beginning with Mrs. Hawkins, drove in from Gary to care for me and my three siblings. These women were all African Americans, driving into a white neighborhood thirty long blocks from their comfort zone.

I would like to be able to say that my neighbors behaved themselves well. There was never any violence, so that was good, but I heard the local teens muttering words they had heard their parents say about the woman Phyllis Dwyer had hired. Since Mrs. Hawkins did light housekeeping while she watched us, some of the women were jealous or annoyed that they hadn’t thought of hiring someone first. They couldn’t accuse my mom of being lazy, since she was in the ER downtown, giving trauma treatment to gunshot victims.

One day, I told Mrs. Hawkins what the local kids were calling her, and she had me gather them for a friendly chat. She was the definition of dignity, and after she gave the boys her perspective on name-calling, I never heard another negative word. I cannot imagine how much courage one has to muster to do what she did, and how much patience to do it so kindly.

Beginning with the music lesson on Louis Armstrong and continuing with the welcome of Mrs. Hawkins into our home, my mom demystified the African American experience for me to a greater degree than that achieved by most of my peers. Especially at a time when Cassius Clay was saying that blacks should not associate with whites and whites were generally showing little respect to blacks in Gary, her decision to educate me in this area of life was a wise one.

Does that mean I became flawlessly free of prejudice, or that I fell off the horse on the other side and adopted black culture to replace my own? No. I am still an Irish-American, and I have failed my African American friends in disheartening ways. But the lessons I have learned about race would have come to me much more slowly, and in much more difficult ways, if it had not been for my mom and the opportune surge of Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!”

Do I need to give a bio of Louis Armstrong? There’s a pretty complete bio at Wikipedia, so I’ll save the space here.

The songwriting credit for “Hello, Dolly!” goes to Jerry Herman, who wrote tunes for La Cage aux Folles and Mame as well. Herman and Armstrong each won a Grammy for the song. Not bad for a recording that was intended as a demo. I’m very glad Kapp Records decided to release it.

Saturday, I’ll talk about my mom’s most significant 45. See you then!

Hello, Dolly!

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