Back when we lived in California’s Central Valley and my nieces and nephews were still in middle school, each time they’d come to visit us I’d be appalled by their tastes in music. For the most part, it consisted of pop and rap. At face value, it was the violence and profanity that got to me. On a deeper level, however, I detected a profound lack of understanding on my part of a cultural ethos in which those closest to me had become embroiled. How could they buy into so much anger that glorified murder, gangbanging and blatant misogyny? “Teenagers!” I’d shake my head and sigh, much as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have done since the dawn of time.
In response, and as something of an antidote, I attempted to introduce my nephews and nieces to country music. Now, country certainly has its unlovely moments, too. For one thing, there is plenty of celebration of the joys of alcohol. I think of “José Cuervo,” both the Shelly West classic from the early ‘80s (as in “you’re a friend of mine”) and the Tracy Byrd hit from 2002 (as in “ten rounds with”). As a general rule, however, the country genre eschews the practice of permeating each verse with a liberal sprinkling of epithets that have to be bleeped out on commercial radio. As Hank Williams, Jr. sings, “in country music, you just don’t use the F-word.”
After treating my nephews and nieces to a liberal dose of country radio for several days, I was rather surprised to learn that, on the way home, they were blasting country in the car and singing along. “What have you done to my children?!” asked my incredulous sister-in-law. That one brought a smile to my face.
What surprised me even more, however, was when I discovered a couple of years ago that my nieces and nephews were getting into “oldies.” My nephew, who is a singer of some considerable talent, was working his way through the Frank Sinatra catalogue. And my niece had fallen head over heels for the likes of Dion, Paul Anka and the Frankies (Lymon and Avalon). I tried to explain that there were great girl groups, too — you know, The Shirelles, The Chantels, The Chiffons (do-lang, do-lang) — but she seems to prefer the guys for some reason.
I felt compelled to admit to them that, yes, there was a period when I, too, was into that stuff. I am slightly embarrassed to say that, when I lived in New York in my twenties, I used to run around the Tri-State area to hit all the oldies shows. But no, I had to explain to my nephews and nieces, I did not grow up with that music. Most of it is now so old that it was popular even before my time. (And I know you think I’m ancient, my dears.)
And yet, I was a bit taken aback one evening recently, when I found myself having a conversation with my 17 year old niece at the kitchen table. As we worked our way through some fresh celery stalks (cream cheese for her, hummus for me), she confided that she wished life could be simple and uncomplicated, the way it was “back then.” I knew right away that she was being influenced by those black-and-white YouTube videos of performances circa 1958, featuring handsome young men in jackets and ties singing doo-wop ditties about pining away for their true loves.
I sighed. Despite the image, things were not simple and uncomplicated back then, I explained. We just covered it over better. We whitewashed the exterior. We didn’t air our dirty laundry in public. But just because we didn’t talk about certain things doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.
For example, what do you think happened when a teenage girl got pregnant back then? I asked. I knew my niece could relate to this one, as she has an almost two year old daughter. The girl would “go away” for nine months, I explained, usually to a relative’s home in another city or state, and then would return alone, left to put on a brave face and pretend that nothing had happened. Isn’t it wonderful that Great-Aunt Beulah is feeling so much better? Meanwhile, the baby would have been put up for adoption. And the teenager would have to suffer with this for the rest of her life. The baby would always wonder who her mom and dad were. Child support? What’s that?
“Do you really want to return to those days?” I asked.
Those were the not so good old days, my dear, and there are more than a few reasons that I do not wish their return. For example:
- If you criticized the government in any way, you were a Communist. That alone could get you blacklisted at work and run out of town.
- Many buildings had little yellow signs featuring the Civil Defense logo attached to their façades. This meant that there was a fallout shelter in the basement where you could go if the Russians dropped the atomic bomb on us. Every kid in school knew how to do the “duck and cover” drill.
- There were drugs and crime and mental illness and child abuse. No one ever talked about it, though. Well, maybe you could whisper it to your spouse after the kids were in bed.
- If you were an alcoholic or homeless or unemployed, you were beyond help. You were a “bum.”
- Novels containing profanity were banned. Books that appealed to the prurient interest or that might inappropriately influence minors were culled from public libraries.
- A teenage boy might wear a leather jacket and sport a duck tail, but no one of either gender could streak their hair green, blue and purple or shave it to resemble a topiary lizard. Also, you couldn’t pierce your tongue, your nose, your navel or, uh, you know, “down there.”
- If you were a man who had a tattoo, it meant you were in the Navy or the Marines. You had to cover it up before you could go apply for a job. If you were a woman and had a tattoo, it meant you were in a circus freak show.
- You couldn’t wear your pants halfway down your ass, show your butt crack when you bent over or go in public without a bra. Come to think of it, you couldn’t say “ass,” “butt crack” or “bra.”
- There was no internet. Yes, my dear, I realize that you can’t imagine this, but there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no SnapChat and (heavens to Betsy) no YouTube.
- There weren’t even any computers. We did, however, have a black cast iron thing called a “typewriter.” Most people didn’t know how to use it. Those who did developed strength in their fingers by pounding hard on manual Remingtons and Underwoods.
- There weren’t any calculators. You had to learn your times tables and how to do long division. In high school, you might get to learn to use a slide rule.
- There weren’t any photocopiers. A few weeks ago, my dear, I used the word “mimeograph” and you had no idea what I was talking about. That’s how teachers duplicated tests and assignments. You had to crank the handle and got purple ink all over your hands.
- There was no texting. There were no iPhones. There were no cell phones. There were no phones with push buttons. All telephones had rotary dials, and there were plenty of public ones around called “pay phones.” To use one, you entered a tiny space called a “phone booth” and creaked the door closed. The booth had a little seat and a local phone directory hanging by a cord. A local call cost a nickel. Until they raised it to a dime.
- If you lived in a big city, your TV might pull in six or seven channels. All shows were in black and white. There was no such thing as a remote control. You got up and turned the dial a click or two to change the station.
- No one had air conditioning. Everyone had fans. Except the schools, that is. If it was the end of May and 95 degrees in the classroom, the teacher used the window pole to open the window. You did your best to stay awake because if you didn’t, you would be sent to the principal’s office and your parents would be called. Then your dad would take you over his knee and spank you, even if you were bigger than he was. And there was nothing you could do about it.
- If you were a boy and a bully took your lunch money or a mean kid threw a snowball at you or someone snuck up behind you and pulled down your pants and everyone laughed, no one got in trouble. If you complained, you were told to be a man. If you cried, you were ridiculed as a kindergarten baby.
- If you were a girl, you got engaged in your senior year of high school and got married a few days after graduation. Girls didn’t go to college like you do, my dear. Very few boys did, either.
- If you weren’t married by the time you were 21, there was “something wrong with you.”
- If you were married and didn’t have any kids, there was “something wrong with you.”
- If you got divorced — oh my God, don’t even say that word!
- No one talked about sex in public, but people did it a lot more often. That’s because there wasn’t anything else to do.
So, my dear niece, do you still want to go back to 1958?