Gershwin, Gounod, and Goodies
One of MamaLu's passions, besides her five boys, Johnny, BB, Curt, Paul, and me, was music. She loved many types of music and understood how all of its elements were brought together to produce everything from a song to a symphony. She had perfect pitch and would know when an instrument in an orchestra was having intonation problems. She was known to write some musical compositions for the piano from time to time. My favorite one was "Frolicking Mice," a short piece that she had written when she was sixteen years old. Anyone who heard the piece could easily imagine the mice playing and scampering about, maybe even on the keyboard. Each day she taught the five of us something about music and its components, specifically melody, harmony, and rhythm. We lived in the same town as a major university which had its own classical music radio station. We listened every day so we were constantly exposed to a variety of composers, styles, and noteworthy compositions. When listening to a piece, it was not unusual for MamaLu to say: "Listen to the oboe, it's repeating the same melody that the viola just played,” or, "Can you tell that Rachmaninoff had large hands?" or, "Did you know that Polonaise just means a certain dance from Poland?" She wanted us to be astute and knowledgeable listeners to all types of music, hence we had an informal music appreciation course every day of our existence.
Throughout the fall and winter opera season, we listened every Saturday to at least parts of Texaco Presents the Metropolitan Opera, where we learned to appreciate the greatest of all opera composers, especially Puccini and Verdi. Our Puccini favorites were La Boheme and Madame Butterfly, and for Verdi, La Traviata and Aida. Thankfully, MamaLu would give us a pass on Wagner ─ “too heavy," she said; but, she thought that well-educated people should be able to hum at least a few bars from several of his most beautiful arias, and should also be able to pronounce the names of composers, operas, and their main characters correctly. No Wagner pronounced with a w sound for her children. She would not give us a pass on Maria Callas, nor Robert Merrill, nor any other opera singers when they performed selected arias on The Ed Sullivan Show. We liked Beverly Sills the best. Her voice was beautiful and she seemed like a real person, even being referred to as Bubbles. Given our daily lessons, we were probably the only kids in our neighborhood who knew, for what it was worth, what a contralto was, much less what a cappella meant. In MamaLu’s mind, living in the Deep South was no excuse for musical ignorance.
Most aficionados of music would have thought that since MamaLu loved serious music, including operas and piano concerti, she would most likely disapprove of country music — but she didn't. She loved the low and gutsy voice of Patsy Cline, and claimed that Patsy really would finally hit that note she was searching for, citing the word "pieces" in the line I'll fall to pieces as an example. She just eventually slid in there like it was home plate and she had just hit a grand slam worthy of Mickey Mantle. MamaLu had the same comment about Johnny Cash. Her critique was that his voice just wavered around – on and about the notes throughout whatever song he was attempting to deliver. No one was going to sentence him to Folsom Prison just because he was consistently a quarter tone away from the notes as written. His heart and soul just poured out in his singing, giving listeners an excuse for any musical misdemeanors he committed. Anyway, most listeners still appreciated his approximations. MamaLu said that he could sell a country song as well as Ethel Merman, the belter of all belters, could sell a Broadway hit. And Ethel was also very well known to dance around a note or two. MamaLu also liked the way that Mother Maybelle Carter played the autoharp, both strumming and picking it. She was especially delighted that Mother Maybelle knew shaped-note singing, a technique long out of practice, one that had been used to teach hymn singing, especially in country churches in the South. MamaLu knew that Heitor Villa Lobos and Zoltan Kodaly had devised similar processes to teach the general populations in their respective countries, Brazil and Hungary. If it was good enough for those countries, it was good enough for South Carolina.
Another "must" experience in our music education experience was the weekly televised Young People's Concerts with Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor extraordinaire of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, also pianist and universally proclaimed musical genius. He would take a complex issue and explain it in the simplest terms to his very wide audience. One of my favorites was an episode about "modes." He made it so easy by just playing scales, playing the ascending white notes on the piano beginning with "c" (ionian mode), "d" (dorian), and so forth. MamaLu's favorite program was about "musical atoms" – what she was always teaching the five of us; in other words, intervals — the distance between two notes. Bernstein gave all types of examples, some being the same ones that MamaLu used when she was talking to us about the beauty of music. Bernstein also introduced us to several twentieth-century composers that we would have never known – Paul Hindemith, Dmitri Shostakovich (our favorite) and Gustav Holst. We were fascinated by Holst's Planets. It was so different from other music we knew. And, every now and then, MamaLu would tell us that the music being played in a cartoon was really a piece by a serious composer. Music education and appreciation was just a normal part of having MamaLu as our mother.
As far as church music was concerned, MamaLu expected us to be aware of hymns, spirituals, gospel and liturgical music. We knew that some of the hymns we sang from the Presbyterian hymnal had their origins in major pieces of serious composers, such as Joyful, Joyful, We adore Thee, from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Choral Symphony; and, Be Still, My Soul, from Jean Sebelius' homage to his country, Finlandia. Also, one of our favorites, was a very powerful hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which had become the unofficial anthem for African-Americans. MamaLu expected us to know it, to appreciate the meaning of each word, and to sing it with joy and understanding.
We knew and sang several spirituals, some in the hymnal and others we just knew: He's got the whole world in his hands; Wade in the water; and Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. But our favorite was His eye is on the sparrow, sung so soulfully by Ethel Waters every time there was a Billy Graham crusade broadcast on television. She could bring tears to the eyes of even the most emotionless person, especially when she concluded with . . . “and I know that He watches me.”
We really enjoyed the rhythm and fast tempo of most of the gospel music that we heard. The Gospel Singing Caravan was usually televised late on Sunday evening and we watched it. The LeFebres were the main singers; they seemed so sincere and happy in their songs of praise, but they were also loud and extremely shrill. They could jazz up a funeral dirge and have people clapping their hand and stomping their feet in spite of themselves.
Actual jazz was not one of MamaLu’s favorites. According to her, it lacked melody — “if you can’t find a line or two to sing or hum, it’s not really music. And, rock ‘n’ roll as well as the top 40’s hits were fun for listening and dancing, but were never considered within the realm of serious music.
The Midnight Mass televised on Christmas Eve was also a must-watch, at least a portion of it. The organ was massive and the choir was equally large and sonorous. There were resounding echoes in the cathedrals where the services were held. Although the words were in Latin and we only knew a few of them, the music was especially emotional. We learned to expect the Kyrie at the beginning, the Agnus dei at the end, and several other parts in between. The melodies were very pure and straightforward; the sound of the organ, majestic. MamaLu promised us that we could and would celebrate in one of these magnificent sites during our lifetimes. We did.
MamaLu was proud of our musical training and expertise and thought that it should be brought to bear for our benefit during the summer months when the local university radio station had its Name- that- tune contest. It faithfully appeared at 11:15 each morning. The person out in radio land who first named the tune accurately would win a picnic basket full of all types of goodies provided by local merchants — hot dog buns and wieners, potato chips, sodas (preferably Dr. Peppers), cookies, pickles, and occasionally one or two surprises. At the appointed time, the well-modulated voice of the announcer on WMUU stated that the contest was beginning. He would expound upon the rules and regulations. All that anyone had to do to win was to be the first caller to correctly identify the piece of music selected for the day. The music might be popular, as from a Broadway musical, such as the announcer’s favorites – Oklahoma and South Pacific. It could also come from the realm of the classical or more serious music; but no rock ‘n’ roll. All of the tunes were frequently played on WMUU, so the average listener to the station should have been able to win occasionally. For us, it was a family affair. MamuLu had such musicianship that she could usually identify a piece by its first interval, in other words, its first two notes.
At a few minutes before 11:15 MamaLu would position herself immediately next to the radio and the telephone, with the five of us surrounding her. There was never a question about whether MamaLu would know the piece of music. That fact was understood at least 99% of the time. She was always very happy, however, when one of the five of us knew the title before she did. She would get one of us to call the first few digits of WMUU's telephone number as she concentrated on the first two or three notes of the music. The entire process became both an art form and a technical feat. We would begin to call the numbers while the radio host announced the contest, its rules, etc. We had to dial very slowly, slowly enough that we were at the last digit or two once the piece of music began. But, we also had to dial it quickly enough that it did not disconnect. My brother BB, as usual, mastered a fail proof technique and basically became the expert on such matters – and the self-designated caller every day. His abilities were incomparable, connecting immediately with the radio station and, most of the time, being the first caller. When the connection was made, MamaLu would take the phone and give the correct answer, most of the time not only the title, but also the composer.
My first memory of our winning was for the piece Forgotten Dreams, a favorite of the contest. Composed by the American composer, Leroy Anderson, it was a very beautiful piece that every one of us liked. MamaLu taught us that the first two notes were an interval of an octave - eight notes apart. When she heard that octave she was ready to win. The Syncopated Clock, also by Leroy Anderson was an easy piece to identify. Another favorite of the contest was Summertime, from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the first two notes being an interval of a major third. And then there was Un bel di from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, an interval of a minor third. We also recognized the beautiful Ave Maria by Charles Gounod and sometimes we could name it with just one note because it, the first one, was held for so long. At times it took as many as five notes as in The March of the Siamese Children from the musical The King and I. MamaLu prepared a list of numerous tunes that began with various intervals for us to have on hand during the contest. We felt as if we had failed if we didn’t identify the piece by the fourth note.
Sometimes the contest managers threw in the lyrical pieces of Chopin, the poet of the piano. MamaLu loved the piano so she recognized them instantly, especially the Nocturnes and the Etudes – even the nicknames of the Etudes, the Revolutionary being her favorite. Usually, she could distinguish which of the two most well-known keyboard performers, Arturo Rubinstein or Vladimir Horowitz, were performing; and, once again, she would surprise the announcer with her knowledge. The Shaker song Simple Gifts, a theme used in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, was another favorite, particularly since it was used on a television commercial. MamaLu always used the complete title Simple Gifts, in Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. I know that she impressed the radio DJ. Claude Debussy was also a favorite and we could count on Claire de Lune or Golliwogg’s Cakewalk at least one time every summer, both recognized after two notes.
Invariably, MamaLu would win a basket or two during the first week of the contest in June – but, there was a hitch. Each family could only win one basket during the season, so, MamaLu became the pinch hitter for many family members and neighbors. Sometimes she would even try to disguise her southern accent, using what she claimed was a "British" accent. On other occasions she identified the piece and one of us called the announcer giving him the name and address of our neighbors – the Smiths, the Wrights, the Goodbrads, the Longs, and others. I’m not sure that my squeaky little voice passed in any way as an adult. After a few weeks, the announcer seemed to catch on to the fact that so many listeners were coming from the same part of town. On one occasion, he commented with a chuckle that "all those people out there in Taylors really know their music well." Then MamaLu switched over to great-aunts, great-uncles, our grandparents, and garden club members. After naming the tune and winning for them, she would call the winners and make them aware of their impending luck – the delivery of a picnic basket. Our grandfather, lovingly referred to as “Grindaddy,” could not accept the basket based upon his strict Calvinist upbringing, so he would bring it to us and admonish us to be honest – and then he would eat at least two hot-dogs, with chili, onions, relish, mustard, and ketchup!
But not to be fooled, the announcer caught on to MamaLu's technique and switched to another plan. Now, instead of the first accurate caller becoming the winner, the second, third, or fourth caller would win, whichever one he announced immediately before playing the tune. This change called for BB to develop an entirely new strategy. When the announcer said the second caller with the correct title would win, he would dial all of the numbers except the last three. Upon the identification of the tune, he would rapidly call the remaining numbers. If the announcer said the third correct caller would win, BB would dial all of the numbers except the last four. MamaLu would always devise some plan of action in order to beat the system and we would win at least one basket each week for someone. I think that some of the "winners" felt sorry for us, or guilty for accepting their ill-gotten gains, so they would bring the basket to us. We did not decline. We always enjoyed grilling out the hot dogs, sometimes just putting them on a stick or a coat hanger and holding them over a fire. We also munched on the Lay's potato chips and drank our Dr. Peppers. Sometimes we would sing or hum the winning tunes and laugh, wondering what the upcoming tunes would be.
MamaLu always loved a challenge, especially our local musical one, so we spent many summers enjoying what we eventually referred to as “Gershwin, Gounod, and Goodies.” Now, many years later, I still find myself humming many of the tunes and in an almost Pavlovian manner salivating for a good grilled-out hot dog with lots of mustard and chili and thinking about the incomparable MamaLu.
About the Author: Chris Carbaugh writes the adventures of five boys, him and his four brothers and their incomparable mother, MamaLu. His work has been accepted by THEMA, Tampa Review, The South Carolina Review, Heartland Review, Broad Street Review, New Southerner, Kestrel, The Bitter Southerner, JMWW, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.