By Larry Whitler, Dec 30 2016 10:43PM
Before I write about how songwriters shaped our world, I wanted to offer an essay on how songwriters shaped my personal world.
In 1960 I was five years old and living with my family in Levittown, New York. Levittown is located on Long Island, in Nassau County. It is about nine miles from the south shore of the island and about 22 miles east of New York City (as the crow flies).
My father was a New York City policeman and my mother was a wife, housekeeper, and of course a mother. I had four siblings. Two older brothers, one younger brother, and a younger sister.
My mother loved music. As a teenager growing up in the Bronx in the 1930s she and her friends would ride the subway to Manhattan to see many of the musical stars of her day. Frank Sinatra, of course, is the one name that I heard the most about. She would see shows at the Paramount, at Radio City Music Hall, and probably venues I don't even know about.
As a result of her love for music my mother would expose us kids to music. I remember going to Radio City Music Hall a lot. On Long Island she took us to Westbury Music Fair. But the biggest influence were the 33 and 1/3 rpm vinyl records that she had accumulated over the years. Titles like "The Sound Of Music," "My Fair Lady," and artists like Mario Lanza, Doris Day, and Robert Goulet filled the cheap music rack that sat beside the record player.
My grandfather, whom we all called ‘Poppa,’ loved to take home movies. The film in his camera was the old 8mm format and the home movies he made with it were all silent. One of the shots my grandfather took, one wintry day, was of me walking down the sidewalk toward him and his camera. In the shot you can clearly see my little mouth moving as if I was saying “bop-bop-bop-bop-bop.”
We’ll never know exactly what I was saying but, chances are, I was not saying anything. Chances are I was singing. I can make this statement with confidence because music and songs have always been a part of my very being. Music has been a part of my soul and the very core of who I am. By the way, I’m sure I was not saying, ‘Poppa-Poppa-Poppa.’ You’ll just have to trust me on this.
Anyway, I’m trying to point out that, for whatever reason, I have always been fascinated by music and by songs and songwriting. “Fascinated” is not strong enough of a word. I was, and still am, absolutely passionate about music. Yes. “Passionate” is a much better word.
Music has always moved me. I remember early in life watching movies and falling in love with the idea of actually being in a movie as an actor. But as my awareness evolved I realized that the actors were only acting. It wasn't real. And if it wasn't real then, I decided, it wasn't for me.
It was the MUSIC in the movies, however, that WAS real. Suddenly I made the connection between the emotions I felt while watching a movie and the music that was part of it. THAT is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the one making music.
There were two types of music in movies. Instrumental scores and songs, in other words "words and music," that were sung either behind the scenes or by the actors and actresses on the screen. Either way, I loved them all. Then, when I discovered West Side Story I was truly in awe of the way a story could be told with words and music. The songwriting bug had finally taken hold.
I gravitated toward records, toward musical instruments, toward the radio, and toward television shows that showed musical groups and singers.
At the church where I attended Sunday School I would always go to an old upright piano that was used for the classes. When nobody else was sitting at that piano I would walk up to it and place my hands on the black and white keys and just make stuff up. Accidentally playing a random pattern of notes could mesmerize me. Two or three notes played at the same time followed by another set of notes, or what I would later call a 'chord progression,' was like witnessing an audible miracle. I am not over exaggerating. Fifty five years later and I’m still just as attracted to music as I was back then.
I would place vinyl records on the family record player and stare at the revolving label as the record spun around and around while the needle traveled through the grooves of the record delivering pure magic in the form of music through the stereo speakers.
I wanted to make music so badly. It was an obsession. I begged my parents for piano lessons.
At the age of seven, in the summer of 1962, my family moved to North Merrick about four miles south of Levittown. Around the corner from our new home was the Bolognese School of Music. They did not teach piano there but they taught guitar and accordion. My mother spoke to the owner, Lou Bolognese, who told her that if I learned to play the accordion I would be able to play the piano.
It is not really true, by the way. Learning to play the accordion does not automatically give you the skills and knowledge to play the piano.
But, okay, maybe it’s sort of true. The right hand keyboard of the accordion is, of course, piano like. The left hand of the accordion, however, is completely different. I’ll tell you more about the importance of learning the left hand of the accordion later on. But, for now, let me just say that there is some truth that learning to play the accordion at that young age definitely gave me the tools to understand the piano.
My mother signed me up for accordion lessons and I was excited. I remember sitting in the music school while my mother spoke to Mr. Bolognese. The wallpaper was designed with artwork depicting flowing musical staffs and music notes. I looked at the designs on the wall and said to myself, “One day I’ll be able to play this wall.”
My music teacher was named Carl. Carl was from Italy. I never knew his last name. Looking back at what I remember from those early music lessons with Carl I realize that he was a very smart teacher. He would not have me playing scales and memorizing music theory. Not in the beginning, anyway. In the beginning it was all about learning songs. Yes, SONGS!
In fact he had a very large "fake" book that contained simplified versions of popular songs. He would ask me what song I wanted to learn to play and, together, we would flip through the book until I found something I liked. There were no photo copy machines back then so, once I decided on a song I wanted to learn, Carl would use a pencil and a blank piece of manuscript paper and he would write out the notes and chords for me.
My job was to then take that paper home with me and practice the song. One week later I would return to Carl to play the song for him. He would show me where I was making mistakes and, little by little, I would perfect that song. By the time I was eight years old I probably had a repertoire of twenty or thirty songs. Some of the titles I remember to this day are "Climb Every Mountain," from The Sound Of Music, "Lara's Theme," from Doctor Zhivago, and "The Impossible Dream," from Man of La Mancha.
Missing from the repertoire were songs that my classmates would be listening to on the radio in those days. I remember Carl asking me if I wanted to learn a Beatles song or a Dave Clark Five song and saying "no." Not that I didn't like those groups. In fact later on in life I became a huge fan of the more contemporary stuff. But in my young accordion days I was more interested in learning songs from musicals. I'm not sure why. Maybe the chord changes were more attractive to me. Maybe the words to the songs from musicals told a story better than the top-40 songs of the day.
The elementary school I attended was called Park Avenue Elementary School. In the 1960s, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, it was a school that included a well rounded variety of cultural things that would nurture all of the young minds anxious to follow paths that led toward a love for music, sports, art, literature, and even dance. It was truly a school with teachers that understood the importance of all the arts.
When I was about eleven years old, in fifth grade, the music teacher, whom knew I was taking accordion lessons, drafted me to be one of the performers in a talent show at the school. I was just one of many of the kids who were on the roster to play that day. I remember one girl sang the song, "Sunrise, Sunset," from Fiddler On The Roof. I loved it. It was, and still is, such a beautiful melody, beautiful chord progression, and beautiful lyric. It expresses the heart wrenching sentiment of watching children grow up.
Four of the boys from my class had a rock band. I remember they played the song, "For What It's Worth," by Buffalo Springfield. Again, I was in awe. Even at that young age I knew that the words, combined with the music, were sending a powerful social message. That particular song, written by Stephen Stills, expresses the turmoil the United States was going through at that time with our involvement in the Vietnam War, with civil rights, and with a truly revolutionary music form moving in to replace the popular music of our parents' generation.
Musically speaking, I was living at the perfect time to appreciate two completely different musical worlds. The music of musicals from my parents' era and the music of the ever-evolving rock-and-roll era. I never dissed one for the other. Instead, I loved them both. This was completely unlike the attitudes of my peers and my elders.
My peers were not interested in the songs I was learning on the accordion. And my elders were not interested in this "new" music of the so-called "hippie" generation. But, again, I would like to emphasize that I truly liked the music from both sides.
I became a song "junkie." I ate it up like candy. Give me a good melody, a good chord progression, and a good lyric and I am in heaven. And it didn't matter if it fit into any specific genre. It didn't matter if it was old or new. It didn't even matter if the singer had a great voice or not. I could always hear a great song for what it was.
I eventually went on to become a songwriter, myself. I continue to write songs to this day. But this writing is not about my own songwriting. It is about the other songwriters who have influenced us in some way.
There is probably an epidemic of delusion among songwriters (and writers in general) that any writing at all could possibly change the world. We could argue that some writing clearly has changed the world and we'll explore the contributions songwriters have made to that end as we add chapters.
What I think is more true than changing the world, however, is that songwriters have SHAPED the world. Sometimes the entire planet. Sometimes one social group. Maybe even sometimes our own personal worlds. So while the songs, and the songwriters who penned them, may not have changed anything at all I think it is safe to say that the fruit of their labors have contributed to the ebb and flow of sentiment. It is that affect on sentiment that may have subtly molded our thinking to be kinder, maybe more accepting of differences, maybe more vigilant in our actions to do whatever we believe is the right thing, or maybe to simply give us a dose of an emotional sedative to help us deal better with life.
I invite you to join me as I ponder the works of great songwriters I have come to love. Names like Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Carole King, Dolly Parton, Janice Ian, Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, Sia, and even Kanye West, Stephen Foster, and King Solomon.
These are just some of the songwriters who have shaped our world.
© 2017 Larry Whitler