High Five for the Hifi

When I was a kid, my parents had a hifi in the living room.   It was a heavy mahogany lift-top console with a turn table that held stacks of records and automatically released a fresh platter after one had finished.  By inserting a larger cylinder, forty-fives could be played the same way.  I can still hear the plop of a new record hitting the turn table and the scratch of the needle as it caught the dust at the beginning of the first song.

Our hifi was in continuous use.  My father played country western and jazz.  My mother played opera and show tunes.  By the time I was five, I knew all the words to West Side Story, Lil Abner, South Pacific and Flower Drum Song.  I hummed the melodies from La boheme and Madame Butterfly.  I recognized Billy Butterfield’s trumpet, and sang hymns with Mahalia Jackson.  

45s were the most exciting records.  The first I remember had “Volare” on one side and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” on the other.   My older sister and I bought 45s at the five and dime in stacks of 10 for a dollar.  They were mostly cut outs and outdated songs, but we played them all.  I still can hear my brother Scott, belting out “Last Kiss” and dancing to “White Silver Sands” before he was old enough to tie his own shoes.

One Christmas, my father decorated a wooden box to look like a Christmas gift.  He wired a speaker to the old HiFi, put it inside the box, and placed it in our front yard so people could hear Christmas carols while they walked to church on Sunday morning.  Nothing was so exciting as playing in the snow while the Ray Conniff Singers performed “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.”

The first record album I owned was The Beatles “Yesterday and Today.”  I had the version with Paul sitting inside the trunk and I kept it for at least twenty years .  It broke my heart to trash it but the sound had become gravely and it skipped during “Yesterday.”

I was given my first stereo while I was in high school.  My parents got it by subscribing to a record club.  It came with headphones that looked like giant brown mushrooms, and I would go to sleep at night listening to George Gershwin and Roberta Flack.

Music has been the back drop for the different phases of my life.  Scenes in my memory are punctuated by the songs that ran through my head at the time;   Splashing in the ocean while to strains of “June is Busting Out All Over” as a six year old.    Harmonizing to “Sweet Baby James” while painting with watercolors in a high school art class.   Lugging a back pack and guitar to Idaho to “Dust in the Wind” as a VISTA volunteer.     “Yellow Submarine” as I tucked young children into bed.  Dave Matthews Band echoing “Crash into Me” at the skating rink with my seventh grader.  And long stretches of cello music the week of my father’s last sunset when he faded from this life to the next.

Like most parents, we encouraged our children to make music important in their own lives. We paid for piano lessons, drum lessons, band camps, vocal lessons.  We went to concerts and performances.  We bought stereos, instruments, and IPods.  We listened to their music. They listened to ours.  Often times, strained relationships between parent and child can be bridged by sharing a favorite song, or going to a concert together.  And when the noise of the budding rock star turns to notes of the accomplished musician, it is truly music to our ears.  When we give our children music, we give them beauty.  We give them expression.  We set them free to sing, to dance, to fly.  I’m sure my parents had no idea how important that old hifi was.  Or perhaps they did.

Farewell to Mary

A few weeks ago, I woke to the morning news announcing the passing of Mary Travers. Like many other people from my generation, I immediately felt the sting of loss.  Mary Travers was like an older sister to me.  She was beautiful- with silky blond hair and a clear, pure alto voice that wove itself between those of Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey.

If there were to be a soundtrack to the film of my life, it would be songs from Peter Paul and Mary.  The first concert I ever attended was in the late sixties.  I was visiting my cousins who lived outside of Washington D.C. and was granted the rare opportunity to attend this outdoor event with them.  Gordon Lightfoot, virtually unknown at the time, opened.  I scarcely remembered what he sang- I was so excited to hear the headliners. 

They performed with no accompanying orchestra.  There were no fireworks, no stunts, no running around the stage. Just three singers backed by two guitars.  They stood together, singing of peace, forgiveness, unity.  They engaged the audience in a way I have rarely seen before or after, charging us to take up the cause and continue the fight.  I will never forget how these three unassuming people led an audience of hundreds to sing “Day is Done,” as if we had rehearsed for weeks.  I am still brought to tears, remembering how our voices melded into one, drifting toward our nation’s capitol, singing our prayer for an end to war and injustice.

I often tell people that when my children were little, their friends listened to Madonna sing “Material World” while they heard strains of “No Easy Walk to Freedom.”  I still have a mental picture of a two year old Elizabeth sitting alone in the “way back” of our old station wagon, belting out, “Keep on walkin’ and you shall be free.  That’s how we’re gonna make history…” 

Because of this song, my kids knew who Winnie and Nelson Mandella were. They understood the evils of apartheid.  Music with a social consciousness sparks long talks about racism, war and peaceful demonstrations.  It is the catalyst for change, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of those we teach. 

Life will be a little less beautiful without Mary Travers’ voice to echo through the winds.  But I think…no,  I believe… our world can be just a little more beautiful because of her.

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