By Dag W. Walker
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So wrote Leslie Poles Hartley in The Go-between, in 1953.
As a traveler for the past 50 years, every country I have been to is a foreign country. As an old guy, one who lives in the past, even my home country is a foreign country. I travel back to my childhood home fairly often, my mind returning to the joys of childhood, much of it musical. In that foreign country of the past, I am no longer a stranger adrift in a world I don’t understand. I am home again. I am not alone and bewildered by the mysteries of the world spinning out of control. I am happy. “Baby, it’s you.”
My grandparents married close to 100 years ago, and when they married, the family pitched in to buy the new couple a radio. The solid oak cabinet was as tall as my grandfather, and it was as wide as my grandmother when she was 90. My grandparents had the radio in the living room where they plugged it in, waited for the huge vacuum tubes to warm up, and then they carefully adjusted the dial till the magic came– MUSIC. They held each other and danced till one of them noticed motion on the sidewalk. They looked out the window to see a crowd: people dancing on the street to the music coming from my grandparent’s home.
By the time I was a boy, radios had shrunk to half the size of me as a ten year old, though televisions, a rare thing in my hometown, were the size of old radios. My family didn’t have a television, but we did have radio. We had music. Now, I have memories to take me home to that foreign place of the past.
The year is 1961. While my dog and I were catching grasshoppers to use as bait to catch trout in the mountain streams, Liberian president William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman helped found the African Union, called the OAU in those days, following a Pan-African conference held in Liberia. I was listening to a piece of music that enthralls me, a girl group from Passaic, New Jersey, a song from 1961, by the Shirelles.
In 1961, President Eisenhower cut relations with Cuba and J. F. Kennedy became President. Patrice Lumumba of the Republic of Congo was assassinated. Jomo Kenyatta was released from prison in Kenya. A lot happened in the greater world, but I was interested in the music of the day. Planet earth was my little town and the mountains; me and my dog.
Outside that small life, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Closer to home, U.S. Freedom Riders began to fight for Civil Rights in America. A Freedom Riders bus was fire-bombed near Anniston, Alabama, and civil rights protestors were beaten by the Ku Klux Klan. While I was being a boy, the East German Communist Party was building the Berlin Wall. But, the music played on.
Ex-president Charles D. B. King died that year. To many, real or not, he had been extremely popular in his day. “According to an official statement, King had received 234,000 votes; however, at the time Liberia had only 15,000 registered voters. This won King the dubious achievement of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records 1932 for the most fraudulent election reported in history.” I have fewer than half that many imaginary friends. I am sad. I promise to try to be a nicer person.
Back in the real world, back to 1961, schoolmates, 16 and 17 years old, Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris, and Beverly Lee were known collectively to the music-loving public as The Shirelles. They founded their group for a highschool talent show in 1957. Their first hit came in 1958, “I met him on a Sunday.” Within a few years, the girls had seven top twenty hits. In time, Dionne Warwick replaced Owens and Coley, According to Wikipedia, The Shirelles were “inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and named one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone in 2004. Two of their songs, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Tonight’s the Night“, were selected by Rolling Stone on its list of the greatest songs of all time.”
How good were they? “The Shirelles were the first African-American singing group and second all-girl band to have a number one single.” Yes, public acclaim and the accolades of professionals matters. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide, the naive listener who doesn’t know or even care about the finer points of musical criticism, just how good the music really is. Some of us would be quite happy to trade all the politicians of the day for a few more songs from gifted singers, four teenage girls from New Jersey, who transformed the earthly language of man into the heavenly sounds of angels.
Dag Walker is an American writer
Main Photo: Tunedfind.com
The Shirelles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8clnxViHdp8
Music is untiversal. Wherever I go, I am a foreigner. I am never really one of the nation. However, not being native to the land means little: I am one of us because we become friends. We are all of us strangers in a strange land, and we are in it together, no matter how foreign the country or how long ago, because, well, Baby, It’s You.