Thanksgiving 2013 is in our rearview window now and we are on the slippery slope to the Christmas holiday. But I prefer to linger in the Thanksgiving mode because there is so much for which I am thankful. An example is some endearing music from my youth.
When I was a child during the 1950s my godmother, Nel, had a terrific collection of phonograph records and the songs that I learned from those records have stayed with me for the whole of my life. The heavy vinyl 78s were my first “medium” and Nel had the very latest technology on which to play them. It was a sleek and modern victrola, about the height of a coffee table. You slid back the wooden top and there was the turntable and controls. I loved that machine and Nel would let me endlessly play the phonograph records, nearly all of which were Broadway musicals, while I colored or played with my toys. So in those formative years of 4 to 9 I was continually exposed to the music of Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. And there was the wonderful singing of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner.
Accessing those original soundtracks today is a simple task thanks to the internet. Recently I’ve been traveling down memory lane, listening again to songs that shaped my youth. In particular I’ve been enjoying South Pacific with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. For Baby Boomers like me Mary Martin is a childhood legend thanks to her enchanting televised performance of Peter Pan in 1955. I would have been seven or eight years-old at the time and I remember it very well. I would go around singing “I’ve Gotta Crow” at the top of my lungs and imagine flying with Peter to that place that wasn’t on any chart but I found it in my heart, NeverNeverLand.
For later generations Martin is better known as the mother of Larry Hagman.
In her role as Nellie Forbush in the Broadway musical South Pacific she sang the delightful song, “I’m Only a Cock-eyed Optimist” and it was that song that popped into my head and prompted this journey down memory lane. If you’ve never heard it just click on the link and give yourself a treat.
Listening to the soundtrack of South Pacific got me to thinking about how innovative and trend-setting that musical was in 1949. Like many of Rogers & Hammerstein‘s musicals the plot line has a distinct dark-side. In the case of South Pacific it is interracial relationships. Nellie falls for a Frenchman who is older and has fathered two children by his first wife, a Polynesian. Nellie struggles with this fact and nearly throws away the love of her life because he has “been with” a woman of color. The sub-plot in South Pacific is a similar theme and has the young Lt. Cable singing the powerful “Carefully Taught.” According to Wikipedia, the plot was so controversial that theaters in the South would not allow the touring production to perform. In Northern theaters Rogers and Hammerstein, in several instances, had to threaten to withdraw the show if segregated seating was not allowed. This was dramatic and culturally altering stuff in the 1950s. Doctoral dissertations have been written about the role of Rogers and Hammerstein in the integration of America. We owe them a profound debt.
But from a strictly personal point-of-view I just wanted to say thank you to Richard, Oscar and Mary for creating such a wonderfully uplifting song as “I’m Only a Cock-eyed Optimist.” I can recall singing along with that song as a young tyke, having no idea what the words meant, responding instead to an emotion that is conveyed by the tempo and the remarkable vocal qualities of Mary Martin. As I got older and understood the words I wonder if I didn’t subconsciously begin to pattern my own life around the outlook and optimism of Nellie Forbush. Similarly I would get chills hearing “Climb Every Mountain,” (from Sound of Music, again with Mary Martin) and there are mornings when I will break into “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” (from Oklahoma). I can’t help but feel that this music helped chart my course, giving me a fallback point of optimism, hope, and appreciation of life. It has served me well. So thank you Richard, Oscar and Mary. We could use a few more like you. ❧