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“One two and three jolly coachmen sat in an English tavern…”
My two sons are singing along at the top of their lungs with the music pouring out of the car speakers. We are tooling along a gravel road in the Bolivian Andes. A herd of llamas shuffles like low-flying clouds under the jagged, snow-grazed peaks. “For tonight we’ll merr-eye be, tomorrow we’ll be sober. WHAT?”
The kids love shouting out that last word, along with the Kingston Trio.
“Three Jolly Coachmen” was on their first album, released in 1958. I was a big fan. Their first half-dozen albums were part of the soundtrack of my high school life, along with rock and roll. “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”
For me, the Kingston Trio brings back dim Pennsylvania dorm rooms where I labored over term papers, sun-licked breezes on the Indiana lake where I sailed in the summers, and the pangs of adolescent romance. “When I was seventeen, it was a very good year…”
Now those earlier associations are accompanied by others, singing with my children nearly half a century later, in another world. “We come on the sloop John B…”
Technology transfer triggers strange and wonderful juxtapositions of past and present. I long ago recorded my LPs on cassettes, for greater portability. More recently, we transferred our copious, disintegrating tape collection to the digital I-pod, a true miracle of compression. For road music, we burn discs from the I-pod for the car’s CD player.
Suddenly, the past is not just prologue, it’s right here right now.
Musical themes of my previous incarnations – from ten, twenty and fifty years ago – recycle, free of my karmic baggage, for my single-digit-aged children to impose their own spin, their own emotions. “Yellow Submarine,” the Beatles’ 1966 stoned anthem to alternative childlike realities, connects perfectly to my own children’s sensibilities. “We all live in a yellow submarine…” Yes, we all still do. And now we can sing about it together.
Of course, not all ancient tunes find favor with my off-spring. But some oldies are surprise hits. Jonathan Richman’s “Abominable Snowman in the Supermarket” (1977) proved oddly winning. “Hear the housewives complaining to the manager, get that snow thing out of here…”
Some of Richman’s “Berserkley years” coincided with my own. I imagine he sometimes felt like the Abominable Snowman himself, a freak scandalizing the upright citizens. I know I did. But my kids know zip about metaphor and never heard of the counter-culture. They simply, instinctively, favor anarchy.
Strangest of all is my sons’ hilarity at the 1950s parody records of Stan Freberg. Freberg satirized TV shows like “Dragnet” and goofy pop tunes, like those of “Crying” Johnny Ray. He punctured the era’s cultural pomposity, rendering it ridiculous. Freberg – along with Mad Magazine – provided fresh air for those of us feeling stifled, growing up in the suburban 1950s USA. But then, I knew the music, the shows and the values he was satirizing. My kids never heard of Jack Webb or Mitch Miller.
But when the snare drummer overpowers the singer on “Yellow Rose of Texas,” or the singer annoys the hip bongo-drummer on “Day-O” and must leave the building to finish his part, my kids enjoy order being overturned for the sake of a laugh. “Wunnerful-uh, wunnerful… Thank you so very much, um uh,” says Freberg, catching the kitschy manner and music of the inexplicably super-popular Lawrence Welk.
In seventh grade, my friends and I cracked up listening to this record over and over. Freberg’s silliness exposed the formulaic foolishness of Welk’s program and the banality of popular taste. My sons know nothing of Welk, but they love it when the bubble machine runs amok, floating the Aragon Ballroom out to sea. Like those bubbles, Freberg’s satire has floated free of its target, still getting laughs half a century on, proving that the recycled pleasures of technology transfer are indeed wunnerful, wunnerful…”
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.