Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

519. Out of Time?

In Aging, blogs and blogging, Education, Music, poetry, Stories, Work, writing on October 22, 2022 at 6:20 pm

You’re obsolete my baby
My poor old-fashioned baby
I said baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time.
               —Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Out of Time is a Rolling Stones song, on their 1966 album Aftermath. In 1971, our senior year of high school, we played and sang along with it again and again on the funky record player in Andrew and Michael’s tree house (TMA #4, The Tree House).  Aftermath was one of the 33 rpm records that inaugurated the album era, replacing 45 rpm “singles”, and was also the first Rolling Stones album for which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composed all the tracks, rather than simply covering songs by other artists (mostly African American blues singers). The song is about an old girlfriend who has returned from a time away only to find that she has been replaced and is sadly out of touch. Like so many songs of the era (The Times They are A-Changin’ and Roll Over Beethoven, just to mention a couple), its message to old fuddy-duddies was, Get with it or get out of the way. But 50 years later, I am in danger of becoming one of those old fuddy-duddies myself, someone who makes people roll their eyes when she speaks. I have to decide either to get with it or to make my peace with becoming increasingly irrelevant.

I wouldn’t have had to explain all of the above back in 1971, because everyone would have understood. It was our time, after all or, at least, so we felt. In July of that year the U.S. Congress ratified the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18 from 21. It is illuminating to read Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy’s March, 1970 case for the change, in which, among other points, he argued that it was wrong for young Americans to be able to be drafted to fight and die in Vietnam when they couldn’t even vote. He also argued that young people were better educated, more mature, and more politically active than their parents and grandparents had been at the same age, and they needed recognition and representation. (Sadly, half a century later, it is questionable whether 18-year-olds have taken advantage of the opportunity, since in the 2020 presidential elections the 18-24 year old age group had the lowest rate of voting, at only 51.4 percent, while those in the 65-74 age group had the highest rate, at 76 percent.) But I digress. My point is that at the time, our music, our slang, our political views all occupied center stage. Although the youth didn’t run the country politically, we did own the culture. We felt that we had our fingers on the pulse of the times, and that everybody else was hopelessly out of touch.

I’ve confessed elsewhere (TMA #140, Music Alone Shall Live) to being decades out of touch with popular music—and with popular culture in general, if truth be told. Constant contact with undergraduates in the classroom has given me at least a minimal name recognition of the music, television, and movies of the 18-24 age group, and—my subject today—of the language they use. It has been my job to teach them Standard English and to help them use language that is appropriate to different settings. While I believed that the language they used with their friends was valid on its own terms, I also felt that they needed to learn how and when to code-switch, changing their writing as appropriate in different media, from texting to formal essays and reports, and everything in-between. But increasingly, I found myself performing the role of the pedantic English teacher, and feared that I was actually becoming one of those old fuddy-duddies in their eyes. It was time for me to get with it or get out of the way.

Something that shocked me recently, and gave me a serious wake-up call, was a complaint by one of my husband’s siblings that my written language in emails and texts was pompous and gave them the distinct impression that I felt superior to them. My first reaction was high-handed indignation: this was just how I spoke, how I had always spoken. Was I to be expected to adjust the language that came naturally to me—to amputate myself, in a sense—just to make other people feel better? Shouldn’t they love and appreciate me as I was? But after some soul-searching, I have realized that my proper response demanded of me exactly what I have been teaching my students all these years: to recognize that there are different audiences as well as different forms and formats that demand different styles of writing and language usage. Using a formal letter format (Dear So-and-So) to introduce oneself in a text message just looks ridiculous. And yet I’ve been doing exactly that in what must be an infuriatingly self-righteous way.

As my sister reminded me in a recent conversation, adjusting one’s language to suit the setting, situation, and audience is not necessarily dumbing down—a term that betrays precisely the kind of superior attitude that diminishes and devalues all but users of the dominant form of Standard English. My sister, who has been working to bring her department’s public documents in line with The Plain Writing Act of 2010 (requiring that “federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use”), noted that making one’s language more culturally and linguistically accessible is not dumbing it down, but becoming smarter about being understood and getting one’s message across, which is, after all, the purpose of writing in the first place.

Take idioms, for instance—figures of speech. When writing for Tell Me Another, a personal blog to be sure, but also a public forum, I am ever-conscious of the probable unfamiliarity of many of the terms I use. Rather than code-switching to something more current in American speech, I tend to hyperlink to a definition of the term. To take one or two at random, I have hyperlinked Britishisms like going “back to the year dot” or South Asian English expressions like wanting to give someone “one tight slap” (both culturally specific and politically incorrect). I also regularly hyperlink dated or culturally specific words to their explanations, words like “corrasable” or “satchel.” But, at least until now, I have been steadfast about continuing to use the language I use, even if it meant that I was fast becoming a relic.

When I talk to age-mates, people who have grown up with me or who come from shared cultures and subcultures, I don’t have to explain myself. What a joy, to know that one will be understood! In such intimate company one can use language that would not fly with a general audience. Most of the time, however, one has to perform a version of oneself that is more broadly acceptable—and rightly so. As a kind of compromise, I have tended to put new usage in quotes (inverted commas, as my older self might have said) as in, My students are having “issues” with my reading assignment. Or alternatively, I might have followed it with a parenthetical “as they say” in order to distance myself from it, whether culturally or generationally, as in, The poor are being disproportionately “impacted” (as they say) by the new government’s policy. Impacted, like wisdom teeth? I ask you.

In the end, has this been an exercise in self-improvement or self-justification? Yes, I am increasingly at risk of getting out of touch, and I’m running out of time. No, I have my reasons for wanting to continue to write as I do. Is there anything at all that I have taken on board (as they say)? Well, yes. I recognize that if I want to reach a particular audience I have to use language that is intelligible to them (duh). If I must use obscure language, then I must define it. If I want to convey the necessity of code-switching in our increasing plural societies, then I must model that code-switching in my own writing. And I must practice what I preach by tailoring the length and style of my writing to the format and the audience. I do not want to go gentle into that good night. I must “burn and rave at close of day”. Although I insist on making a noise, I don’t want to be made a laughing stock or, worse still, to become irrelevant. I want to hook my readers, make them shout out, with Chuck Berry, “gotta hear it again today.” But I may just have to accept that to most, I will never be anything more than a pedantic English teacher. Gotta own that.

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512. My Champion

In clothing, culture, Family, Immigration, Music, parenting, places, Stories, United States, women & gender on June 5, 2022 at 12:44 pm

I.

During our sojourn in England in the late 1960s, many of the girls in my school would hike up their mini-skirts still further by folding over the waistbands as soon as they left home in the mornings. Of course, once they got to school they would have to fold them back down again because there were rules governing how many inches above the knee your skirt could be (see Exposing Whose Perversity?). But when we immigrated to the United States in 1970, we found that what was acceptable in Boston was very different from the prevailing London fashions. Mum had to take down the hems of several of my skirts and dresses before I could wear them to Brookline High, despite the fact that in every other respect it was more permissive than any school I had ever attended. We were struck by American prudishness, not only in fashions but also in the media, where nudity and swearing were routinely censored, even as violence seemed to be entirely permissible, even early in the evening, when children were still awake. In Britain it was just the opposite: sex on television was perfectly acceptable, while violence was a no-no. But over time I have come to appreciate more and more my mother’s open-mindedness.

As a teenager, I thought of Mum as prudish. I suppose it was a necessary stage I had to go through, of defining myself in opposition to her. As I grew older, I realized more and more how forward-thinking she was. That’s probably why most of her female friends in the States were so much younger than she was; the women her age were stuffy by comparison. In the early 1970s, as I was discovering youth culture in the U.S., I must have felt the need to shock the older generation, and my parents were the closest old fogeys at hand. But although Mum played the role that she had been socially assigned, and set ethical standards for me, I think she disapproved of American morality, which she considered backward and hypocritical. She generally presented herself as stereotypically British, prim and proper, and a stickler for good manners and “correct” diction and pronunciation. But in fact she was a rebel who had broken with tradition time and again and who stood up courageously for what she considered to be right action even when she was standing alone. There was one time in particular that I remember Mum springing into action publicly in my defense, just a few months after we had arrived in the States.

It was our first summer in America and I had just turned sixteen. Perhaps for my birthday, Mum had made me an outfit of her own design: a tiny gathered skirt, so short that it was more like a tutu, with a matching short-sleeved crop-top like a sari-blouse. The cloth was a cotton print from a little fabric shop in Coolidge Corner that carried a line of beautiful African batik prints. The day I wore my new outfit in public for the first time, Mum and I were riding a trolley on the Green Line, that runs from downtown Boston out to the Western suburbs. Out of the corner of my eyes and ears I became aware of two old ladies commenting disapprovingly on my appearance, quite loudly enough for me and the entire trolley car to hear, casting aspersions on “girls these days” but also on my own morality. I don’t remember how I felt when I heard them, but Mum certainly knew how she felt, and she made it abundantly clear to them.

Raising her voice and speaking clearly and directly to the two old gossips in her Queen’s English, she told them that there was nothing wrong with a young woman wearing pretty clothes. It was not my morality that was in question, but theirs. Her exact words escape me, but she made it abundantly clear that it was their own minds that were smutty; her daughter was entirely innocent.

Wow. That silenced them. Without a word to each other about what had just transpired, Mum and I continued on our morning’s errands. But thinking back on this episode more than half a century later, I marvel at her courage to speak out as fiercely as she had done in public and how unquestioningly she had stood up for me. My champion!   

II.

Lest you think that mini-skirts were the only things in fashion in 1970, long, flowing skirts were equally in vogue. There is another story about Mum and me and the African cotton prints at that fabric store in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. It must have been our first Christmas in the U.S., when I was wracking my brains for a present for Mum that I hit upon the idea of making her a skirt out of the material she liked so much. The only problem was that I was useless at sewing; the only time I had ever been the recipient of corporal punishment in school was in needlework class. Still, I got down to work and eventually produced something approximating what I had had in mind, wrapped it up, and waited impatiently for Christmas Day.

Now Mum was Father Christmas in our household. She loved Christmas more than any other holiday and started preparing for it months in advance, tiptoeing into the house with mysterious-looking parcels that she would bundle into her and Dad’s bedroom and hide away in a secret stash. On Christmas Day there were always more presents for my sister Sally and me than for anyone else, and certainly many more for us than there ever were for her, so Sally and I had to start opening first, otherwise Mum and Dad would have nothing to open later in the day. I had already opened a couple of presents—can’t remember what, though I’m pretty sure that my presents that year included George Harrison’s single, My Sweet Lord, and The Who’s album, Tommy—when I spotted an interesting-looking package from “Santa”; certainly not a record, but almost certainly an article of clothing, what we called a “softie” in our family. Until quite recently softies had been boring presents for us, but now they were getting more and desirable, even for Sally, who had hated them when she was younger. Anyway, I opened mine with great anticipation, and did a double-take, thinking at first that I had somehow mislabeled one of my own presents.

It was a full-length, African-cotton skirt, of identical design to the one I had made for Mum.

My champion, my role model, my twin!

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506. The Loudest Voice

In Childhood, Family, Immigration, Music, people, reflections, singing, Stories, women & gender on December 14, 2021 at 3:19 am

After all these years, only now am I listening to this luminous story by the late Grace Paley. In 1998 she read it out aloud on Vermont Public Radio for the holidays, and there it still lives, her voice issuing forth at the press of a button and conjuring up a time, a place, and a child’s innate self-confidence. She was 76 when she read the story, one she had written 40 years before, and her voice was still clear and well-modulated. Oh the sly humor! Chosen for her clear, strong voice, the very voice that parents, teachers, and neighbors are always admonishing her for, the Jewish girl in a Jewish immigrant community attending a Christian school delights in narrating the school’s Christmas pageant. She has no feeling of being an outsider. She simply filters the entire story through her own consciousness, whence it issues utterly–and wonderfully–transformed. And her voice, the loudest voice, comes through with flying colors.

I met Grace Paley several times during the 1990s. She certainly didn’t need to raise her voice to command respect and perhaps she never had. At our first meeting I had no idea who she was. I had gone to a reception for the campus visit of the late Edward Said, and didn’t know anyone there. An elderly couple were in the room and so I struck up a conversation with the husband, who was standing a little apart from the others and wearing faded denim jeans like any old Vermonter straight out of the back woods. His wife wore a bandanna around her messy hair like a Russian grandmother. When I told him I was in the English department he said mildly, “my wife does creative writing, too.” I was curious about this wife. I introduced myself to her as well and listened to her for a while, as she talked about this and that. It must have been when I heard her casually refer to her conversations with women during a trip to Vietnam that I suddenly had a prickling feeling at the back of my neck and asked her whom I was addressing. “Grace Paley,” she replied matter-of-factly, and I wondered why I hadn’t realized this from the start. Her voice was not loud at all, but it was by no means self-effacing either.

The Lamb, Songs of Innocence and Experience

I had a loud voice as a girl, like my father before me. My parents, bless them, never asked me to tone it down or hush it up. My classmates teased me for it but didn’t ask me to change. My teachers did, though, as evidenced by my earliest report cards. By age 8 I already had a reputation to live up to; it never occurred to me that it was something I might have to live down someday. Passing through England on the way back to India at age 9, I was chosen to recite a poem by William Blake—The Lamb, I think it was—in school assembly. It never crossed my mind for one moment that I might have been chosen as a token “Other”; in fact, I was told the reason was that I was the only child in my class “without an accent.” Ironically, this girl who had grown up outside of England spoke unselfconscious Standard English, or R.P. (Received Pronunciation), as it is called nowadays: the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. A year or two later, my father’s students organized a show in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to raise money for people affected by the drought in Bihar and asked me to be the emcee. What fun it was! I was the only child up on the stage, introducing all the university students’ performances. I was fearless at that age.

Two things happened to my voice as time went on. As a university undergraduate, where I felt like a fish out of water, I lost it for a time. One bad experience of being verbally attacked after having made what I thought was a perfectly innocent remark in class silenced me for years; not at home or among friends, but in the rarefied atmosphere of the classroom. Throughout my twenties I still felt perfectly at ease with public speaking in the outside world, though. And returning for graduate study in my thirties, my girlhood confidence returned and stood me in good stead. I knew who I was and what I wanted to say, and had no hesitation in saying it.

Then came the life of a junior professor, when one is made to learn one’s place. Those years didn’t do any favors to my voice. A decades-long habit of speaking unnecessarily loudly without breathing or hydrating properly made me develop a throat nodule. I had to learn to moderate and modulate my voice in ways that were utterly new to me. It was interesting that the voice class I attended was full of professors, many of them senior faculty, all seeking to recover their authentic voices after years of suppressing, silencing, second-guessing themselves. They–we–had to reach deep inside and learn to trust ourselves again. With these classes and vocal therapy at the UMass Center for Language, Speech, and Hearing, my throat nodule receded, enabling me to lecture and to sing again, but not to speak extemporaneously with the same innocent self-confidence as young Shirley Abramowitz, narrator of the Christmas pageant.

As noted earlier, I have my dear father to thank for my loud voice, my father whose normal speaking voice was a gentle bellow. Saying, “no need to shout” would infuriate him. He’d shout louder: “I’m not shouting; this is my normal voice!” There were only two options when faced with the full-throated power of Dad’s voice: either to lower one’s own, or to raise him one. For better or worse, I must have done the latter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Now I am the one whom people ask to moderate my foghorn. Add to that my increasing deafness, which makes me unaware of the volume at which I’m speaking, and the need to teach wearing a mask, which requires me to project, enunciate, and bellow. After that successful voice therapy 20 years ago, my throat nodule appears to have returned with a vengeance.

Bill Barnacle bellowing in frustration at Henderson Hedgehog, Horticulturer (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding)

What prompted this reflection was listening to Boston Public Radio last week on my way home from work. Margery Eagan and Jim Braude’s daily news program is an enjoyable mix of serious news and analysis, with comic banter and a call-in component that invites the public to join the fun. On this particular day the subject was men’s loud voices. Apparently men are greater COVID-19 spreaders than women because their loud voices spray more virus farther and wider. Then followed some light-hearted banter with a sharp edge to it, with Margery accusing Jim and men in general of using their loud voices to bully others into submission and Jim, quite uncharacteristically, acknowledging this tendency in himself with some shame. They were inviting public comment when, driving into the reception-free flood-zone of the North Quabbin region, I lost the signal. But I continued to think on the subject, and wondered about how much I had silenced the people around me with my loud voice. How much was the negative perception of loudness gendered? If I were a man, would my unnecessarily loud voice be considered appropriately assertive? But why did I feel the need to assert my opinions, already strong, so forcefully? (In graduate school, much to my eternal shame I had a verbal run-in with a famous writer whom I revered and who shall remain unnamed. He used great restraint in the end-of-semester comment he put on my grade: “Inclined to hold strong opinions.”) These were questions to which the answers only generated more questions.

I have always loved singing and taken pride in bursting into song on the slightest pretext. But I have damaged my voice by singing too loud. A singing voice ought not to be harsh and raspy like a portable loudspeaker; it can be soft and sweet. It is much harder to sing high notes softly than to belt them out. I had always prided myself on my ability to hit the high notes–even singing the descant when there was one. Now my voice was cracking less than an octave above middle C. I would have to learn to harmonize and sing the alto part rather than the tune which I had always sung. My whole identity was going down the tubes. What was I to do?

Instead of answering that question, I listened to the 76-year-old Grace Paley reading “The Loudest Voice.” With a broad tolerance and affectionate humor she affirmed that young girl’s confidence. And she didn’t have to shout to blow me away.

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505. My Cup

In Aging, Music, Nature, reading, reflections, Stories on November 11, 2021 at 5:22 pm

   Lu Hersey (Pinterest)

Remembrance Day, 11/11/21. How many dear ones have gone these past few years, and the pace at which they have left has surely picked up, what with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ageing of my generation, and the ageing-out of my parents’ generation. Each one of them a shining light who brought joy to my life. Each one with something for me, a gentle admonition, a pointed joke, a vote of confidence. There is the fear that sitting too long with them risks drowning in a bottomless well of grief. But perhaps there is a different way to think about that well.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the usual busyness of an academic semester, with deadlines advancing toward me in an unending column and the list of unfinished tasks looming ever-longer even as item after item was checked off the top, I was urged to sit for a minute and go inside. How was I feeling? My first response was bewilderment–what a question! I hardly knew, hardly dared to know; even if I wanted to, I didn’t know how. But I gave it a try.

The next thing I knew I was overcome. Everything welled up in me, brimming, and threatening to spill over. Was I about to drown in grief, as I had feared? Dismissing the question, I tried to keep on feeling. This was different, and I wasn’t drowning. As it went on welling up and washing over me, I could only describe it as fullness. Fullness. So much, so rich, this life. So many more that mingle with mine.

This week my class finished reading Toni Morrison’s luminous novel, Beloved, which is ultimately about healing, even from unspeakable grief. (Don’t listen to the haters. This is a novel for the ages.) In it, Baby Suggs, holy, tells the people struggling to reclaim their newly-freed selves, “love your heart. For this is the prize” (86). Not an easy task for people haunted by horrific “rememories” of enslavement (43): for characters like Paul D, who had a “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut”; or Sethe, for whom every morning began anew the “serious work of beating back the past” (86). And they certainly couldn’t do it alone. 

Letting yourself feel, fully, does risk everything welling up. But with the grief also comes unexpected joy, and immense gratitude for the inexhaustible wellsprings of life.

My cup is running over
And I don’t know what to do
                        (My Cup, Bob Marley)

 

[Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Random House, 1987, 2004.]

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496. Dancing in the Street

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2021 at 3:26 am

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dancing is movement and movement is change. Dancing in the street is an inherently liberating idea because it moves from a private, contained space to the public thoroughfare. When people get up and dance, circulation happens, and circulation is anathema to stagnation, segregation, incarceration, a threat to the status quo in any number of ways. Of course, circulation is essential to life, and dancing, more than anything else, is life.  

There are dozens of dance-related idioms in English alone: it takes two to tango, give it a whirl, be or to get in the groove, tread on someone’s toes, step out of line, be footloose and fancy free, light on one’s feet, get off on the wrong foot, sweep someone off their feet, look lively, and strut one’s stuff, just to name a few. None of the above are particularly anachronistic, with the possible exception of in the groove, with its origins in gramophone or phonograph records, which released the sound when the record player’s needle, or stylus, came into contact with the rotating surface of the grooved record (originally shellac, and after the 1940s, vinyl).

How does dancing figure in my personal A-to-Z of anachronidioms?

My mother loved dancing–in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she lived to dance. My father loved music, but far preferred to tap his feet and watch. In post-war London of the late 1940s and early 1950, before she got married, Mum used to go dancing every week with her best friend Lily. They would go to the movies every week as well, or as often as they could afford, to see American films, mostly, with Frank Sinatra and other heartthrobs of the time. Bill, my eldest cousin and eleven years my senior, remembers jiving with his cool Aunt Glad to Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That must have been in 1956, when, if I was two, Bill was turning thirteen. Mum knew loads of different dances and was always learning new ones. Parties in those days always featured music and dancing—in fact, dancing was the whole point of the party as far as she was concerned. When there was no one at home to dance with, Mum would rub two rags in floor polish, attach them to her feet, and dance, polishing the parquet floor as she did so and, in place of a partner, swinging round the column in the middle of the living-room floor.

Three dance-related idioms have a special meaning for me, and are anachronistic in the sense that they take me right back to a bygone time. The first calls up my (non-dancing) father and one of his favorite expressions. I hadn’t thought of it for years until I was brainstorming for today’s entry: to make a song and dance. It means to make an unnecessary fuss about something, to make a production out of it. Dad was characteristically short-tempered, and he used this when he was annoyed with someone who, instead of just getting something done, made a song and dance about it, or—another expression of his—a hoo-ha, a big fuss over nothing. (I never got the impression that Dad approved of Mum’s swooning over the song-and-dance men of the silver screen, He certainly didn’t care for Frank Sinatra, and I can’t help think it had something to do with Mum loving him so much.)

The second of my triad of dance-related anachronidioms: to put on one’s dancing shoes. This means, to get into a positive frame of mind or to get ready to party. For me it will always and forever be associated with the summer of 1963, our third and last summer in Athens, when I was nine years old and my parents took us to an open-air movie screening (not a drive-in, no-one had a car) to see Summer Holiday, starring the British pop singer, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff Richard–the Queen has a soft spot for him). In it, our hero and his boy band rent a red double-decker bus and drive overland to Greece in it, finding romance along the way, of course. Put on Your Dancing Shoes was one of the movie’s many musical number. I cringe as I watch it today—it hasn’t aged well; but back then, it was pure romance.  

My third dance-related anachronidiom, two left feet,  takes me back to 1967 in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the kind of shame that makes one’s cheeks burn. I was just 13, a particularly self-conscious age, and visiting a school friend over a week-long break when her parents invited some young members of the Sikkimese royal family over for the evening. It was embarrassing enough to be introduced to these princelings in my early-teen clumsiness, but the nightmare began when it was suggested that some entertainment was in order, and that entertainment was ballroom dancing. I froze; the only dance I knew how to do was something called the African Twist, that some exchange students from the U.S. to our school in India had taught us. Somebody put on a record, paired us up, and announced a foxtrot.

I won’t dwell on the awful details. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t even fake it. He knew it and I knew he knew it, although he was terribly well brought up and smoothed things over with the utmost finesse. Of course his princely education must have covered ballroom dancing, but that didn’t help; it wasn’t in my repertoire and it takes two to foxtrot. Two left feet on my part, and some treading on toes into the bargain.

Martha and the Vandellas (Photo: Motown/EMI-Hayes Archives)

There is another category of dance-related anachronidioms: song titles. They epitomize a particular moment in time and their very opening notes conjure it up. Some of them resonate deeply, cutting across nations, classes, ages, races, genders, rising to the status of anthems. When the song’s title is also an idiom, it is all the more evocative. For me these songs would have to include two by Bob Marley and the Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up and Lively Up Yourself and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul. But the one I want to pay tribute to today is the Motown hit Dancing in the Street, sung by Martha and the Vandellas, co-written by producer Micky Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, and released in the explosive summer of 1964. Motown was in the business of making hits, not revolution, and they were very good at it. They swore that the song was just about city children in Detroit taking the caps off the fire hydrants during the heat of the summer, and its promotional video featured crowds of young people, almost all white, groovin’ to the beat; but something about the song made it a call to action, despite the best efforts of the record company.

Martha Reeves told the story in an interview during the summer of 2020, when the entire nation was swept by protests following the killings of Armaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Jacob Blake, and too many more. According to music critic Jim Farber, writing in the Guardian:

Right after she recorded the exuberant anthem in July of 1964 as frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas, it became a worldwide smash, selling millions of copies while serving as the song of its summer. At the same time, its lyrical “invitation across the nation … for folks to meet” in the street – matched to a melody and vocal as urgent as a clarion call – soon took on a second, more pointed, meaning. The transformation took place during the long, hot summers of 1964 and 65, “when riots broke out, in every city in the nation”, Reeves recalled. “Just like now, the police brutality and the government trying to control black people, prompted the uprising that was a revolution.”

I first heard Dancing in the Street in 1968, from those American exchange students from Detroit (or was it Chicago?) at our boarding school in India, the same ones who had taught me the African Twist. I had never heard any Motown before that. I had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, either, until his assassination was announced at the school assembly one April morning, and Laura and Joanne burst into tears. It was clear that there was a great ferment taking place back in the United States, a country that I didn’t know I was to migrate to in less than two years. By the time I got to the United States and heard more Motown at parties in college, it was the sound of white nostalgia. Inevitably, at a certain point in the party, usually quite late, someone would put on My Girl, and all the merriment would grind to a halt. There would be an almost religious hush, followed by an ecstatic singalong; and I would just stand there, alienated, because My Girl didn’t mean anything to me. It was just an anachronism; unlike Dancing in the Street, which was part of my history, even if only at second hand.

Did I mention that besides all of the above, dancing in the streets is a dance-related idiom? It means being extremely happy. Fully alive.

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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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492. Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s

In Britain, Family, history, Immigration, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on February 13, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Notting Hill Gate, 1956 (Dave Walker, The Library Time Machine)

One day in the last year or so of his life, Dad told me about digs he’d shared in Notting Hill while he was living in London. I was surprised, because although Notting Hill, a district of West London, was known for its bedsitters, I hadn’t realized until then that Dad had ever lived there. This would have been before the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and well before the start of the Notting Hill Carnivalsound stages, masquerades, revelry—held on the streets defiantly, joyfully, triumphantly, every year since 1966, on August bank holiday weekend.

Notting Hill Carnival: Our History (nhcarnival.org/nhcs)

I knew that the district had been home to many West Indian immigrants after the War, but was not aware that Irish, Asian Indians, and Africans new to England had also found lodgings there. As for my father, I had thought that when he was in England as a young man he had always lived in North London, in and around Belsize Park, near Hampstead, the favorite haunt of my mother and her siblings, and Kentish Town, where Mum was born and lived until she and Dad got married.   

Anyway, Dad’s Notting Hill flatmate was a nice enough fellow, but not someone Dad knew well, not a personal friend and neither a fellow-architect nor a fellow-Indian. He was, however, a heavy drinker. Apparently, no sooner had he finished off one bottle of booze than he would open another, and the empties were all stacked along the walls of the bachelor pad.

One day, Dad invited a friend from work over. As soon as his workmate stepped into the flat, his eyes fell on the enormous pile of empty liquor bottles. He couldn’t help but burst out, in utter astonishment,

“Cor blimey, stone the crows!”

Since Mum was a Londoner, of course I knew the origin of cor blimey, but I had to look up stone the crows. I’m sorry for the eponymous crows, but I think he was just terribly surprised. Sixty years later, and Dad had never forgotten his words. 

I should have asked Dad more about his life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. He was making history, a history which I now study with a more than scholarly passion.

                                     Stone the Crows (phrases.org.uk)

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491. Anticipation, Not Dread

In Aging, Music, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on January 26, 2021 at 2:06 pm

I’m one of those people who can go from zero to sixty in an instant: a human panic button. It doesn’t matter whether the precipitating factor is a trivial matter like the milk for my tea going bad or an enormity like the war on Yemen: in either case I’m on a hair trigger. I’ve always insisted that I’m not really anxious, that it’s just my way of letting off steam; but this has allowed me to dismiss the corrosive effect of my explosive behavior, not only on my own well-being, but also on people around me. It must be exhausting to interact with someone who is perpetually on high alert about one thing or another. And, I’m increasingly recognizing, it can be exhausting to be that person.

“There’s no problem here.” This proposition has presented itself to me two or three times in as many weeks, raised by different people in different settings. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as irresponsibly acquiescent, when vigilance and resistance is required at this time. Of course this world is rife with problems. But as Pete Seeger reminds us in Turn, Turn, Turn, there is a time and a season for everything. And nobody would accuse the author of If I Had a Hammer of acquiescence. 

What would it mean to tell oneself that there was no problem here? Our meditation teacher has asked us to give this question some consideration. Of course there are many problems, internal and external, small and large. But what purpose does it serve to identify with every problem? Perhaps it does nothing but get one’s knickers in a twist. Might it not be better all round to be able to discern whether or not a given situation needs to be considered a problem in the first place, and whether making it a problem does anything but give one an adrenaline rush?

Moving from the impersonal “one” to the first person—me, that is—how might it be different if I pushed a mental pause, rather than a panic, button when each new situation presented itself? It would give me time to think and space to breathe. It would allow me to assess the seriousness and scope of the situation. It would enable me to determine whether it was something I could affect positively by my actions, and if not, to simply set it aside rather than fretting needlessly about it. And if it was something critically important to me, that pause would allow me to consider how I might address it most effectively.

An example that I’m dealing with now. Next week I start teaching again after a semester-long sabbatical leave. During this time my colleagues have been learning how to use videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom to conduct their classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do. I could sound off about it—and believe me, I have—or I could start addressing the situation. Is it a problem? Not necessarily, because I have the time and the tools to deal with it before it becomes a problem. However, my default mode would be to make a tremendous fuss about it and demand that all my friends and my long-suffering spouse make a fuss about it too. Wouldn’t the best course of action simply be to get on with it, asking questions and getting answers, revising my syllabi for the new situation, and reminding myself that my students are likely to be struggling with it much more than I am. It is in the nature of this situation that we will encounter problems—personal, political, psychological, technological—but we are in it  together and we must deal with it together. The trick for me is to look upon my return to teaching not with dread, but with anticipation, and to prepare for it accordingly.

I can’t do anything about the zero-to-sixty phenomenon that seems to have turned me into a Senior Citizen overnight; but I can adjust the hair-trigger 0-60 setting on my fight-or-flight response. In fact I must: it’s unsustainable at my age. What I’ve come to see is that a panic response makes it impossible to deal with any situation optimally. Quite the opposite: it turns every new situation into a problem.

Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s one of my own making.

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490. A Continuation

In Books, Music, Politics, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases on December 31, 2020 at 8:08 pm

A continuance is a request by a party in a criminal case to reschedule a court date. The date can be for a hearing or a trial.

As the year draws to a close, at least for those who measure the passage of time by the Roman calendar, the internet is abuzz with messages bidding 2020 Good Riddance and looking eagerly to 2021 for new beginnings. For my part, I’ll be grateful for the chance of a continuation.

Of course we are desperate to draw a hard cut-off line under the ravages of the past year and celebrate the prospect of a return to life after COVID-19. Most of us realize, though, that we will never return to the old normality; which, in any case, was already unacceptable. Furthermore, metaphorically turning the page on 2020 will not end the pandemic or restore the lives, homes, and livelihoods lost to it. It will not end the endemic violence in our societies and around the world. It will not bring equality under the law regardless of race, class, or creed. It will not repair the fabric of our communities torn apart by greed, hostility, and mistrust. It will not feed hungry children, mend shattered lives, or heal broken hearts.

Those awaiting new political leadership, either in anticipation or in dread, may well find that in fact the new dispensation will not be much more than the old dressed up in a different style. (Here’s how The Who put it in Won’t Get Fooled Again and I must admit the truth in it, though I still resist the political cynicism.) There will be some movement, whether backward or forward, but either way we will just have to keep on pushing if we want to translate those new faces at the top into positive change in ordinary people’s lives.

Of course we all know that the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an arbitrary marker. Every moment of every day is a new beginning, if only the individual and the collective have the will to make it so. But new beginnings are not brought to fruition in a moment. So many people are forced to keep their lives on hold, in hostage to the whims of those in power. They are in limbo, waiting for a court hearing, a judge’s ruling, unable to make long-term plans. But the longed-for ruling, when it comes, may be a hard cut-off, a decree of immediate deportation or a sentence to lifetime imprisonment, whether literally or metaphorically. In  such cases, we may prefer a continuance to a final ruling, because it allows more time for us to work for change.

In U.S. law, when a court grants a continuance it means that the court date is temporarily suspended or postponed. When work is permitted a continuation, it means that the process underway can continue. It may not be completed, but at least it has not been terminated. There is still hope.

Progress is like that, moving in fits and starts. We continue to work as long as we can, and often a continuance is the best we can hope for. Those of us who are still here can celebrate that fact and recommit ourselves to preventing disaster capitalism from hi-jacking catastrophe yet again.

The prospect of a continuation is a positive one because it allows us more time not only to restore balance after a crisis, but to set things to rights, to set ourselves on a sustainable path, to heal divisions rather than merely to win.

In Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, three siblings whose family was broken apart and dispersed in the wake of Partition have become even further estranged over the years, by their different circumstances, their different personalities, and a series of misunderstandings and long-held grudges. When one sister, Tara, now living in the U.S. returned for a visit to her sister Bim in India, they finally began to make a breakthrough, but only when it was nearly time for them to part again. Tara begged Bim, who was ready to dismiss their precarious new understanding, to recognize that they had made progress. Said Bim, with her characteristic impatience:

‘Don’t be so silly, Tara—it was all so long ago.’

‘Yes, but’, cried Tara desperately (and with one of my favorite lines of all time):  ‘but it’s never over. Nothing’s over, ever.’

‘No,’ Bim agreed, growing gentler. . . Nothing’s over. . .Ever’.*

Tara seemed comforted to have Bim’s corroboration. . .  At least they had agreed to a continuation. *

Nothing’s over, ever; even this terrible year. And yet, as we remember Auld Lang Syne all over again, we are right to put 2020 behind us and to welcome 2021. Our struggles will not be over, not by a long shot, but we have been granted a continuation. Happy New Year!

*A confession: when discussing this passage in my book, Colonial Karma, I actually misquoted it, using the word ‘continuance’ rather than ‘continuation.’ Setting it right here, more than 15 years later, proves that it’s never too late to correct one’s mistakes.

The quote above is from Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Harper and Row, 1980, page 174.

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487. Virtual RUSH II (post-election playlist)

In culture, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, singing, Stories on November 11, 2020 at 3:24 am

Back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck and we were sheltering in place at home, our monthly meeting of Rise Up Singing in Harmony, or RUSH (described here in TMA #331, No Rush), was one of the first casualties. It was quickly discovered that group singing was a highly contagious activity, since it releases aerosolized droplets with tremendous force; and furthermore, many of us in the group were of a particularly vulnerable age. That month I consoled myself by compiling and circulating a list of songs for A Virtual RUSH, never imagining that eight months later, there would still be no end in sight. Since the November 3rd presidential election I have found myself missing RUSH like anything, and wondering what people would choose to sing to mark the occasion if we were going to be meeting as usual this month. Here, then, is Virtual RUSH II.

The songs below are organized by book and page number, since we use two songbooks (both compiled by Annie Patterson and Peter Blood), Rise Up Singing and Rise Again. (For those of you who don’t have copies of either of the books, you can order them here, find indexes here, and learn the songs here.) Clicking on the titles will take you to renditions of the song on Youtube. Of course the choices here are all mine, when the great pleasure of RUSH is going round the circle in turn and singing the song that each person chooses. Please do share what your choice would be for a post-election song.

 

 



From Rise Up Singing
(the old blue book):
America the Beautiful (p.1)
Ray Charles leads here with one of its lesser-known verses of this song, which is arguably sung more than the official national anthem:
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife 
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life 
America, America, May God thy gold refine 
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine
.

This Land is Your Land (p. 5)
In January, 2009, Pete Seeger led the singing of this Woody Guthrie favorite at President Obama’s inauguration. If I had my druthers it would be the national anthem.

How Can I Keep from Singing? (p. 43)
Singing has always sustained people in times of great hardship and oppression. This song is no exception, and Enya gives a haunting rendition here. It started out as a hymn, but Doris Plenn added the following verse in 1950.  
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On) (p. 60)
This anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, sung here by Sweet Honey in the Rock, never gets old.

Lean on Me (p. 66)
This song, released back in 1972, has always been deeply comforting. Its writer, Bill Withers, passed away in March 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he left us this song, among many others. Here it is again, in a global performance by Playing for Change.

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms (p. 149)
A simple love song (sung here by Doc and Merle Watson) in which nothing else matters:
Ain’t gonna work on the railroad
Ain’t gonna work on the farm

Gonna lay round the shack till the mail train comes back
And roll in my sweet baby’s arms.

Paradise (p. 149)
An elegy to the destruction wreaked by coal stripmining, this song was on the first album by John Prine, whom we lost to COVID-19 in April 2020.

Banks of Marble (p. 180)
A union favorite, sung here by Pete Seeger.

By the Rivers of Babylon (p. 193)
This song was written and recorded by The Melodians in 1970, and was made world-famous on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come.

 

 


From Rise Again
(the new brown book):
Redemption Song (p. 80)
On the last album Bob Marley released before he died.
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Siyahamba (We Are Marching) (p. 80)
This song, performed here by the Mwamba Children’s Choir,  originated in South Africa and was sung around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, as part of the global solidarity movement against the hateful Apartheid regime. I learned it, along with other South African freedom songs, from Jim Levinson, who directed our a cappella group The Noonday Singers back in the late 1980s, while Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island.

Dear Abby (p. 90)
Another song from John Prine’s first album, reminding us to pull ourselves together: “stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood.” (And yes, it’s a repeat from my first Virtual RUSH playlist).

Many Rivers to Cross (p. 136)
Jimmy Cliff sings this song in the movie The Harder They Come, when the hero is between a rock and a hard place. (Another repeat from my first virtual playlist! But then, RUSH members are noted for requesting their favorites month after month, and their favorites become our own.)

Shelter from the Storm (p. 138)
This song, released by Bob Dylan in 1975, was one of my mother’s favorites.
Come in, she said, I’ll give ya
Shelter from the storm.

I Can See Clearly Now (p. 193)
Johnny Nash, who released this song in 1972, is another of the artists we lost this year, October 2020. I’ve always been intrigued by these words:
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way

He celebrates not having cleared the obstacles in his way, but having cleared his mind so that he can see them for what they are.

Monster Mash (p. 233)
This was always a favorite in our RUSH group, and I hope it will continue to be a favorite when it is safe to sing together in person again. Sung by Bobby “Boris” Pickett with The Crypt-Kickers.

Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key (p. 255)
The lyrics of this song are by Woody Guthrie, the tune by Billy Bragg, who sings it here with the band Wilco.

Route 66 (p.280)
Oh, for a long road trip! This song was written by Bobby Troup, and famously covered by Nat King Cole, but my favorite version is this one by the Rolling Stones.

Pressure Drop
Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, was another beloved artist whom we lost to COVID-19 this year, in September 2020. They first recorded this song in 1969, and it has been covered by many different artists since then. (Pressure Drop is not in either of the Rise Up books, but if we had been meeting in September I might have brought copies of the lyrics with me and taught it to the group.)

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