a child on a farm near Saltillo
in the 1940s, I depended on radio as the only contact with the world beyond our
community. We had no telephone. The only newspaper we received was a local weekly.
Occasionally, a neighbor would give my younger brother and me copies of the Saturday
Evening Post. But the hours we spent listening to the radio far surpassed the
hours we spent reading. |
The first radio my parents bought was a Stewart-Warner
battery-operated model. The battery was essential, since the Rural Electrification
Administration did not install power lines in our community until 1947. The first
song I remember hearing was a rendition of “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” an
instrumental featuring a fiddler on a live broadcast from Nashville. Even at a
young age I realized that radio allowed me to hear the sound the band made at
the same time the musicians were performing. In my imagination I could see the
fiddler. In my mind’s eye he looked like our neighbor, only younger. Tom Holbert,
our neighbor, was the best fiddler in Hopkins County.
When my oldest sister’s
husband was drafted at the onset of WWII,
my sister came to live with us while he went to a camp for basic training. She
brought with her copies of magazines such as Song Hits containing lyrics of popular
songs. My younger brother and I read the lyrics and sometimes sang the songs we
had heard on radio.
Your Hit Parade, my sister’s favorite radio show,
aired for forty-five minutes on Saturday evenings. Because she listened to that
show, my brother, who was three years younger, and I also began listening to it.
At 7 P.M., when the show began, my sister would take a pencil and a tablet, turn
to a blank page, and number ten separate lines; then she would skip a space, write
the word Extras and number three separate lines. She faithfully recorded the titles
of each tune the orchestra played beside the number of its ranking for that week.
The orchestra played the tunes in random order except that they always played
the # l tune at the end of the program and an “extra” just before that last tune.
Some evenings there were guest vocalists. Frank Sinatra sang on the show in 1939,
a few years before we began listening.
As a ten-year-old, it was exciting
to learn whether a tune that made # l standing the previous week had repeated
its honor. Nonsense or “novelty” songs were favorites of my brother and me. I
can remember rocking in the front porch swing and singing “A Tisket, A Tasket,
My Brown and Yellow Basket” and “Three Little Fishes.”
A few years ago
I learned about the Princeton Project of the 1930s and its condemnation of the
popular music of the time. In 1937 the Rockefeller Foundation funded a research
project at Princeton. The goal of the project was to improve the quality of radio
programming. In their report two researchers in the project, Theodor Adorno and
Paul Lazarsfeld, published their strong objections to what they considered the
exploitation of the public by the recording industry. They deplored what they
interpreted as an utter lack of taste demonstrated by composers and recorders
of popular music.
Call it nostalgia, if you will, but the popular music
of the 1940s was our escape from the news about the fall of Paris and the Nazi
atrocities at Lidice not to mention an escape from the sameness of life on a remote
farm. It requires more effort than I can muster to write off entirely the beat
and the sentiment of the Andrews Sisters’ recording of “Don’t Sit under the Apple
Tree” or a plaintive rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” by a
17, 2011 column
Robert G. Cowser
Robert G. Cowser Columns