Chester Martin Remembers Some Popular Music From Way Back

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 - by Chester Martin

When we marched to chapel at Anna B. Lacey grammar school in 1941, Principal Mrs. Ethel Stroud played the marches of John Philip Sousa on an ancient acoustic "Victrola." When we "danced the Maypole" at our Mayday festivals we performed our dances to Swedish folk music played by the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. In 4th grade, we learned some songs of World War 1, such as, "When the Caissons go Rolling Along", and "K-k- k-Katy." We also learned all the "Service" songs, of Army, Navy, Marines, and Army Air Corps.

We were taught to appreciate the music of Stephen Collins Foster, and the black "Spirituals" as well, which could be hauntingly beautiful when performed correctly.

"Popular" music was very different from all of the above, and we had "jitterbug" shirts and "zoot-suits" to match the new jazzy style of music which "the boys" of war went for. Jazz had long been popular in the night clubs of New Orleans, Chicago and New York - it had originated in New Orleans and spread rapidly up the Mississippi before being dispersed to all other parts of the country. It even took Western Europe by storm, although frowned upon in Eastern Europe. Bobby-soxer girls swooned over Frank (Frankeee) Sinatra and his songs. Glenn Miller, Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw had "big bands." In the 1950's when I was at the University of Chattanooga some of those big bands came to town at different times and played for Pan-Hellenic dances at the Patten Hotel. I have seen those musicians get so carried away with their music that the dancers stopped to watch them in fascination! Probably the single most memorable piece of music of the 1940's was Doris Day's "Sentimental Journey" - with the Les Brown band. That one song captured the hearts and minds of our boys returning from war like no other.

The National Barn Dance was a weekly one-hour program which originated in Chicago, and featured such acts as "Lulu Belle and Scotty", "The Hoosier Hot-shots", Pat Buttram, etc. Its "country" origins in 1924 led to the start of the Tennessee "Grand Ole Opry" in 1925. I enjoyed the music of the "Sons of the Pioneers", also, and especially their "Tumbling Tumbleweed" song. Eddy Arnold was a highly popular Country and Western singer of the 1940's, with songs like  "Cattle Call." He issued release after release, and I loved to hear his melodious voice singing, "Molly Darling", "Bouquet of Roses" and "Tennessee Stud." Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely did many popular duets, and much was made over the fact that Hank Williams' big Country hit, "Your Cheatin' Heart" was the first Country song to bridge the gap into standard Popular culture. Burl Ives was not a Country singer, per se, but called himself a "Folk" artist. He remains one of my all-time faves! He is probably best known for the animated Christmas TV show, "Frosty the Snowman", which he immortalized.

"As Time Goes By" is perhaps second only to "Sentimental Journey" as the longest-lasting hit of the 1940's. But the kids all loved "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", and Spike Jones' zany, "Der Fuehrer's Face". Try to watch the Disney version of that on You Tube. I always personally liked the quirky, non-standard "novelty"songs like, "Mairzy Doats"! Check that one out as well! Arthur Godfrey also did some quirkiness with comic songs such as"Teterboro Tower", and "I want to go back" ( to my little grass shack...).

Bing Crosby's recordings were so common that you could rarely turn a radio on that he was not singing. In my opinion he was at his best in the movie titled "Bells of St. Mary's" with a very young Ingrid Bergman as co-star. A song of the 1940's I could never get out of my head was "My Dreams are Getting Better all the Time." (I remember fragments of all these songs and sometimes hum them to myself even yet).

In the early 1950's I happened across some 1940's Cuban music that was brought from the night -clubs of pre-Castro Havana to New York. I have always liked Latin rhythms, and so I fell for the music of such performers as Don Azpiazu. My favorite of his was called, "The Peanut  Vender", (El manisero). I recommend this on You Tube if you do not already know it. (It's in black and white, but worth the watch). Disney also promoted Latin music with his animated character, "Joe Carioca".  "Ahhh...Bahia", he would say, sighing over the city in Brazil).

During WW2 there were a lot of patriotic songs written especially for the "war effort" - songs to encourage the fighting boys in battle, as well as to reassure the home folk. One of these was called, "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer." ("Though there's one motor gone, we will still carry on; - coming in on a wing and a prayer").

After 4th grade I switched from Lacey to Sunnyside grammar school. In sixth grade our teacher, Ms. Josephine Hill Collette, taught us to sing chorally. She was a great accompanist, and knew how to get the most out of her students vocally. We were grouped according to whether we sang soprano or alto. (No tenors yet at our young age!), and she had us memorize all the stanzas of the "Blue Danube Waltz" - and there are quite a few. She also taught us the famous old song of Sir Arthur Sullivan from at least 50 years earlier, called "The Lost Chord." These two songs made an excellent springboard for what Mrs. Annalee Huffaker would be teaching us the next year in 7th grade at Brainerd Junior HS. By then, the boys' voices would have "changed", and some tenors would have emerged to sing the low notes - maybe even a baritone or two. In her orchestra we played the "Russian Sailors' Dance" and other lively tunes. While at Brainerd Junior High there was at least one popular song that rocked the entire school: "Open the Door, Richard", which got featured in poster contests, practical jokes, and every way possible. It had a catchy rhythm and everybody loved it.

But there was one truly great American musician/songwriter who dominated all fields of music. He was a little Russian-born American Jewish guy by the name of Israel Isidore Baline, who wrote many of our most memorable songs. These included,"White Christmas", and "Easter Parade", but he also wrote many patriotic songs, such as, "This is the Army", and "God Bless America" - sung originally by Kate Smith. Israel Baline was better known to us by his stage-name, which was Irving Berlin! And another Jewish composer of about that same time was Aaron Copland, who gave us ballets such as "Appalachian Spring." I was working as an Engraver at the U.S. Mint when a colleague was assigned to create his "Congressional Gold Medal." I both designed and sculptured the reverse side of Harry Chapin's (Cat's in the Cradle") medal, and did work on the George and Ira Gershwin medal.

And this is where it ends for me! Did you notice there is not ONE mention of "Rock"? All my tastes in music were set well in advance of the tide of Rock Music. Elvis and I are only a few months apart in age; he got bit by the new bug, and I did not. Oh, yes, I enjoy hearing Rap and music from other cultures, but I just never got the "hang" of Rock. My old USAF buddy, Norman Powell, said it had an "El Putwango" sound, and I laughingly agreed.  No apologies!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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