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.