Valentine parties, Easter parades, Hallowe’en fun houses in the basement, Christmas programs, we had them all, but those were special occasions. At Rheems Elementary, a two-room school, we had our daily ritual: Bell ringing from the school-house steeple (always by a boy), Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and then singing before lessons began from this songbook:
This is My Father’s World, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and Home on the Range were staples in our little golden songbook. But many of the lyrics we sang would be considered insulting to various ethnic and racial groups today. For example, Old Solomon Levi, playing to the stereotype of the wily Jewish merchant:
My name is Solomon Levi
At my store in Salem Street,
There’s where you find your coats and vests,
And ev’rything else that’s neat:
I’ve second-handed Ulsterettes,
And ev’rything else that’s fine;
For all the boys — they trade with me,
At one hundred and forty-nine.
Oh, Mister Levi, Levi, tra, la, la, la.
Poor Solomon Levi, tra, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
Next, we might sing My Old Kentucky Home with what was then dubbed the negro dialect: “The sun shines bright in on my old Kentucky Home, / Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”
What! “Darkies are gay . . . “? Innocent of the dissonance in the words we would discover later, we sang the chorus at the top of our lungs:” Weep no more, my lady. Oh, weep no more to-day; / We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home. / For the old Kentucky home, far away.” For sure, Paula Deen would be safe in such a culture.
The dialect continued when we belted out Dixie: “I wish I was in de land ob cotton, / Old times dar am not forgotten, Look a-way! Look a-way! Look a-way! Dixie Land.” There was even a winking nod to obesity in one of the stanzas: “Dar’s buckwheat cakes, an’ Injun batter, / Makes you fat or a little fatter . . . .
And then there was the wistful: When You and I Were Young, Maggie, and My Grandfather’s Clock, sung by youngsters that had no conception of aging or mortality.
Graduating to Junior High in 7th grade, the singing before lessons stopped, but my classmates and I were introduced to both highbrow and lowbrow music. The official music teacher, Miss Enterline, fresh out of college, enthralled us with Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and cajoled us to join her gender-separate choruses: Melo-men and Melo-dears. Then there was my homeroom and typing teacher, Mrs. Elsie Care. Her door name-plate said “Mrs.” but when she came to school in a dress with a zipper down the back, she asked a student to help out with the zippering up. Where was Mr. Care, I wondered: Traveling? Too busy to bother? Was she separated, or even divorced? I noticed someone always helped her out of her sartorial dilemma soon enough. Though she taught business courses, she insisted that we learned the words to “16 Ton,” even writing them on the blackboard with her large, loopy handwriting. At the time I thought it strange, but, endearingly, she had introduced us to pop culture:
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Mrs. Care signed my yearbook with shorthand, which I neither cared about nor understood, but her quirkiness is etched in memory. . . Mrs. Elsie G. Care, the “G” for Gioconda, woman of mystery and intrigue.
You manage to capture so much about the culture at large in this post, Marian. The thoughtless placement of white Protestant values in the center and the ways in which other races and religions were marginalized. You do this delicately, showing innocence with no intent to harm.
Your hand is never heavy in these stories. Rather, we travel along and meet all kinds of interesting characters.
I enjoy your vivid memories. Thanks for bringing poor old Solomon Levi back — but alas, now I have his song running in the background like an ear worm. I guess I\’d better listen to 16 Tons.
I have to think 16 Tons is now running through your head. : D
As you know, the way to erase that is to listen to something else: The Mennonite Hour, classical? You pick. Sometimes for days after I hear a hymn or solo at church the melody line persists in memory.
About your comment on the culture back then, I am reminded of Maya Angelou\’s quote: When you know better, you do better. We are \”doing better,\” I\’d like to think, because of our altered world view and actions to match. Thank you for always bringing a sociological sensibility and insight to my writing. You underscore the fact that writers simply are not aware of all the implications of their stories. Grateful me!
Love your 2nd grade pic. Beautiful hair and eyes in your \”plain\” dress. Sounds like Mrs. G may have been the \”fancy\” lady of the time. I\’ve always believed a woman should have an air of mystery about her. Much more interesting. I remember the little ditty, \”school days, school days, golden rule days.\” Tennessee Ernie Ford was a family favorite of ours, 16 tons is a catchy tune. You stir such memories, Marian.
I\’m guessing you played the video too, dear friend. Music and dance are such a part of you, I\’m happy you can relate to all these tunes–but through Southern eyes of course.
You bring back so many memories with your words, and most light hearted ones. I can remember morning assemblies where we always sang religious songs, even in public schools. Kids are missing out on so much nowadays. My younger half sister once asked me, (when she was 22 yo and in trouble) How come nobody ever told me about Jesus? I had a hard time with that. We were not raised in the same household.
You piqued my interest in your younger half sister. How was her question answered, I wonder.
I couldn\’t answer except to apologize for not having been there for her. She went through a faith based recovery/treatment program and is a Christian now.
Glad to hear it. So many stories to tell. . . .
Regarding Mrs. Care, our typing teacher. She wore bright red nail polish and if she came to your desk to point out an error she would leave behind a large red line on the paper.
Are you implying that she painted her nails during class, as we were heads down and hands on the typewriter? I want to know more, Jean. Also, did she have a real mole or just one that was penciled on? You have really piqued my curiosity here.
Yes, I also remember Mrs. Care. How could one forget her? While she was my teacher, she took an extended leave of absence. It was near Christmas and some of us from E-town chorus went to sing at the Harrisburg hospitals. Who should we see in the one hallway but THE teacher \”Mrs. Care\” She was as surprised as I was. Of course in those days you did not discuss why she was at the hospital. In a few weeks she was back in the classroom.
For us plain girls, Mrs. Care was a fancy teacher. My guess on her operation, something related to \”female\” problems. Did you see Jean\’s comment?
You have those famous Brooke Shields eyebrows, gorgeous.
Wouldn\’t life be happier if we praised the good we see?
Why the gender bias in the bell ringing? Little girls can make just as much noise as little boys, just at a higher pitch. 🙂
I see I made my point, telling the truth at a slant. Never thought about this crazy bias until I started writing about it.
Glad to know the words to Old Solomon Levy. I\’ve been singing it all my life wrongly and inserting my own lyrics. I also have been singing My Old Kentucky Home with he original lyrics, I do not use the black accent when I sing it. When I was a child, I never thought of any racial prejudice. I will cntinue to sing those original songs and nobody should ever accuse this tree hugging liberal pf being prejudiced against anyone!
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Bill. These songs, prejudiced or not, are part of our cultural heritage. I think we can all agree on that.