With all my father’s skills and gifts, a positive pitch was not one of them, but that didn’t stop him from singing when he thought he was alone in the barn or the hayfield. His regulars were O How I hate to get up in the Morning, Over There, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, or his favorites, K-K-K Katy, and The Ballad of Casey Jones. He more than made up in gusto for whatever may have been lacking in pitch and meter.
My mother’s fine soprano voice was ever-present in the home of my youth, most often singing old love songs such as Take me Home Again Kathleen, In the Gloaming, or often the show music of Victor Herbert, or from movies starring Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald or Deanna Durbin. As a family we often sang in three-part harmony when traveling on the road.
In 1938 a skinny young Italian kid from neighboring Hoboken began to make a name for himself as a singing waiter at a roadhouse known as “The Rustic Cabin” in Englewood Cliffs, a few miles from our family home, on the New Jersey Palisades. His name was Frank Sinatra, and along with Big Band names like Glen Miller, Jimmy & Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Sammy Kay ushered in the “Swing” era and a popular music movement which would vibrate for more than a decade, including the WWII years; years which brought about many melodic changes and a period of sentimentalism which colored both lyrics and genre. Music suddenly became the very heart and soul of America’s ability to cope with the challenge of a world-wide conflict touching every corner of daily life.
The first American G.I.s to go to Europe were men of the U.S. Army Air Corps, landing in a
Britain already knee deep in war for three years, where they were singing songs like Goodnight Mother,
White Cliffs of Dover, The Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square and I Left my Heart at the Stage
Door Canteen. American Band leaders Sammy Kaye and Glen Miller and singers Kate Smith and Lena
Horne soon joined the musical contingent which linked the two nations in a musical “cousinhood” which
straddled the Atlantic and more.
In 1942 the country faced an unknowable stretch of total war against an implacable enemy, and a
generation of Americans were saying uncertain “good-bys” that touched their music: Don’t Sit Under the
Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me, I’ll be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places, and Mary
Martin’s sad and sonorous I’ll Walk Alone. The beautifully harmonized Ink Spots gave us Don’t Get
Around Much Anymore, and Peggy Lee We’ll Meet Again, while there was something sadly final in the
words to I’ll Never Smile Again. Music caused us to smile, and laugh, and often to cry a little; old and
young; it made us “human” and that is no small thing.
In the years immediately following VE Day and VJ Day popular music took wing, and Frank
Sinatra (old blue eyes) was bigger than ever. I was a Junior in a small Vermont High School where I was
invited to help organize a dance band we named “Six Hits and a Miss” for obvious “sexist” reasons.
Ed Brown played alto Sax, “Tink” Camp tenor, Jack Soule was our drummer and his younger brother
Ronnie played trumpet. Our Clarinetist was young David Dillingham and Jean Brigham – the only true
Miss-- among us played the piano and kept us in key (and reasonably civilized.) My job as leader was to
walk around in front, my violin tucked under one arm while the other reminded the band of roughly what
line we were on. At appropriate times I would play and even sing vocals. Jean and I chose numbers and
set practice times. Our bi-weekly gig was the dance night at the North Randolph Grange Hall where in
addition to the modest emolument it gave me an excuse for not dancing.
Our theme song was Blue Moon, but I think we brought much of our youthful volume and
enthusiasm to Ghost Riders in the Sky made famous by the full-throated Vaughn Monroe. Mona Lisa,
Goodnight Irene, and Harbor Lights were audience pleasers. A Tree in the Meadow as sung by Margaret
Whiting became my personal “signature song” as I too left for a faraway war with a deeply sentimental
attachment to all that I left behind and for the love songs I grew up with taking on a whole new
When asked late in life why so many of his ballads had become enduring hits, Frank Sinatra
explained: “I don’t sing the notes, I sing the words.”
Looking back at the thousands of words I have written about the people of the “greatest generation,” I find myself hoping that I have really written about the “music” of their passing.
Note: By my shaky calculations, only three of the high school-age “Hits” of 1950 are still with us.