My son Thomas, age eight, has been taking piano lessons long enough to start studying Beethoven, but his younger sister Jane is new to that instrument, and currently practicing from Keyboard Talent Hunt, Book One. The book is part of a program from John W. Schaum Publishing for the “early childhood beginner,” and the copyright on it dates back to 1967.
The folk tune “Aunt Rhody” is among the pieces Jane is learning. To my consternation, however, the piano teaching junta behind Keyboard Talent Hunt has tamed Rhody’s lyrics. This is the Schaum version:p> em>Go tell Aunt Rhody! br> Go tell Aunt Rhody! br> Go tell Aunt Rhody, br> We’re waiting in the car. /em> /p>
Whoa, doggy. Waiting in the car?!
You must understand that my brother and I grew up listening to vinyl records just as the “New Folk” movement was taking off. Dad was short on Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, both of whom were displaced for sentimental reasons by the Andrews Sisters. He was, however, big on Peter, Paul, and Mary. His record collection also included Up With People, Dusty Springfield, and Mitch Miller. One consequence of this musical taste is that while other people were starting to holler about the Beatles and the British Invasion, my brother and I learned to appreciate music by waiting out the folk acts until we could persuade dad to play Irish tunes enough to make us spin ourselves dizzy on the orange shag that covered our living room tile (an album by David Curry called “My Ireland” seemed made for that sort of thing).
While waiting out the folk singers, we heard a lot of them. We respected Mitch Miller and his orchestra more than most of his contemporaries, partly because Miller, who never tried to hide his bald spot, looked more like a barber than a conductor. Miller was forever inviting people to sing along with the cornball tunes his chorale performed so well, and his status as a frequent guest on the family turntable made me remember that cars do not exist in the original version of “Aunt Rhody.” What people are trying to tell the woman is not that they’re waiting for her, but that her old gray goose is dead.
A subsequent verse in the song has the blunt force of a detective two-fingering a police report on a manual typewriter: The goose “died in the mill pond, standing on her head.”
Irony, finality, pathos, black humor: it’s all there, next to a Lucky Strike, a snap-brim fedora, and a stale cup of coffee on some farmer’s porch. And yet my daughter, ostensibly learning the same tune, knows nothing of the anserine drama that I grew up with, presumably because “you of tender years / can’t know the fears / that your elders grew by.”
Young as they are, Jane and Thomas don’t mind singing about death, as long as it comes with a catchy beat. Motoring home from the grocery store, all three of us have joined Willie Nelson and Ray Charles on the verses to “Seven Spanish Angels” (“There were seven Spanish angels / At the altar of the sun / They were praying for the lovers / In the Valley of the Gun”).