Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Those Were the Days, My Friend

I think that was the first song I learned to play on the guitar. Play and sing all the verses to. I could actually perform Those Were the Days and did so once in duet with Nancy Farabee in front of the school assembly. Two little flat chested girls with braids singing a woeful tune of glasses raised in taverns of days gone by.

The first actual tune I learned to play, i.e. the first 3 chords I learned were “Gloria” (E-D-A) by who I don’t remember, that rockus number, everyone knows it, or did then. GLOH-OH-OH-OH-OH-OH-RIA / G-L-O-R-I-A / GLOH-OH-OH-OH-OH-OH-RIA / G-L-O-R-I-A /… and so on. If there were more words to that song we never knew them. That was when I was in sixth grade, age 11, at Linden Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was the height of the cold war, Nixon was in Vietnam, and Oak Ridge was developing improvments on the atomic bomb. Everyone’s father and a few mothers worked in the nuclear power plants. Grown-ups weren’t allowed to talk to their families or friends about what they did at work.

It was in that hopeful period of United States history, before the country had turned age 200, in other words in the days of infant idealism, that folk music took over the minds of the young. Every generation gets its basic morality, politics and philosophy from its own particular breed of popular songs. Ours were Blowing in the Wind, If I had a Hammer, Day is Done, What Did You Learn in School Today, Early in the Morning. The voices that taught us how to sing (for every generation sings in its own style too, just listen to The Voice then turn on Grand Prix Junior and you’ll see what I mean) were Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, James Tayler, Judy Collins and Joan Baez. Heavy rock versions of the tradition were found in Don McClean, Donovan, Seals & Crofts. Our idea of a beautiful musical experience required no more than an acoustic guitar and a wooden straight back chair. We seriously appraised each other’s guitar picks.

Who is “we”? All of us. Most 11 year olds I knew wanted a guitar as much as they wanted a horse, and I was one of the lucky ones who got both. Eventually. I was thirteen before I got my horse, but at age eleven I got my second guitar, a good quality acoustic guitar that replaced the good quality but plastic one I had fallen in love with at the corner pharmacy in Clinton, Tennessee and convinced my parents to buy me when I was seven. At age twelve I got a teal green electric guitar and portable amplifier. But that was a deviation from the norm. The norm was nylon string acoustic.

I don’t remember why or with what means my parents managed it, but when I was sixteen or seventeen I got my Sigma, a steel string acoustic guitar my mother insisted was the prime specimen among all the acoustic guitars for sale in Madison, Wisconsin. It was also the most expensive. Although not a hand-made guitar it was made by Martin, the premier maker of handmade guitars, and my mother was right. It did have a great sound. It must have been my father’s executive privileges with the Chase Manhattan Bank that provided the funds. For while our family life was marked by constant money worries, somehow my parents got me that guitar.

I was in my born-again-Christian phase and morally opposed to all forms of material ownership. I seriously believed it was in the best interest of anyone not wanting to be found lukewarm and spewn out of God’s mouth to own no earthly possessions. Yet I allowed myself to own two things. The maple rocking chair given to me by my mother that had belonged to her father, and the Sigma.

The church believed it was wrong to use instrumental music to praise God, so my guitar playing was the demarcation line of my eventual decline back into worldliness. I remember my sights were set on mastering If I were a Carpenter. For my eighteenth birthday my boyfriend, Dick Church, gave me Judy Collin’s songbook containing gems like Mr. Tambourine Man, Maid of Constant Sorrow, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Judy Collins taught me to sing.

This was the 1970s and I went off to France to study, my guitar in tow. Europe was full of young people crossing from country to country and town to town with a backpack and a guitar. One of those was the man I would marry. There is no doubt that the guitar playing was part of how and why we fell in love with each other. He sang Der Ute Der Inne and I thought it was the most perfectly written song I had ever heard. I sang my rendition of Fire and Rain and he said, Oh… her voice is like her eyes. I didn’t need to know exactly what he meant to take it as a compliment. In our wedding the only song sung was by us, a Norwegian folk tune. He accompanied us on his nylon string acoustic because I couldn’t trust my hands to not shake with nervousness, especially with a frayed B string that could have snapped at any moment.

It is one of the great ironies of that now ended marriage that after some 25 years of life together our children never heard us play the guitar together and sing. During the first ten years of our marriage we played and sang all the time. We were an item, our performance requested regularly in the living rooms of friends and relatives. We made appearances at the Sons of Norway lodges around Wisconsin and churches and retirement homes in Norway singing our folk songs. Once we sang for an audience of 1000 at an international festival at the University of Wisconsin in Superior. Dressed in Sami bunad (don’t tell!) borrowed from a little old man and little old lady, Samis who emigrated to Wisconsin in possession of the costume of their forefathers. We sang songs like Byssan Lull and Kjerringa med Staven.

One of our signature numbers was The Troll Song, in which a troll is trying to confound a farmer he meets on the road. He tells the farmer bad news about his farm having burned down, his wife dying in childbirth and so on, but the farmer keeps outwitting the troll until sunrise, at which point the troll turns to stone (accounting for yet another magnificent North-Norwegian mountain) and the man returns home to find out that none of it was true. I sang the part of the farmer and Trond was the troll. I used to imagine singing that for little children and making them laugh, but we never did. I remember him saying once that after seven years you either should get better or quit. He thought we were stagnating musically, and quit. I didn’t get better but I kept on a bit. I did a few gigs on my own at the Wild Hog in the Woods coffeehouse in Madison. It was a laid back place with a velvet hat in the back of the room near the tea pot where the audience could put in donations for the players. Once I got a sizeable chunk of money, twenty-five dollars which the wannabe beatniks running the coffeehouse said was the most they’d ever seen in the hat. I used it to invest in the luxury of an electric tuner.

I taught French in those days, and playing the guitar to accompany myself and the students singing French folk songs was another staple ingredient in my life. Yet, I remember clearly the transition that happened during the 80s and into the 90s: there came a time when my students no longer knew how to play the guitar.  While being able to play a few chords on the guitar and sing along was as common among me and my peers as knowing how to swing a yo-yo, this new generation watched me play the guitar as if I were conjuring magic. They didn’t play the guitar themselves, nor did they want to. They played Nintendo. The electric keyboard was the instrument du jour.

Since the turn of the century music performance has returned to the daily lives of young people, but now it is in the form of singstar and guitar hero. Karaoke in one form or another has replaced the protest songs of my youth. I see a fundamental difference. We didn’t play and sing because we were particularly good at it, it was because we were in love with the songs we sang, we believed the lyrics were literally expressing the meaning of, well, life. Singing and playing the guitar was our most human activity, a form of communion. These days when kids get together at each other’s houses, they sing in order to see who is best. Who can imitate the pop stars and make the red and blue blinking lights mount the highest. Singing is about winning Best Talent or Melodi Grand Prix. The essential components for making music are not a 6-string and chair, but a microphone and computer.

During this transitional period, this first decade of the new century, I have lived in Norway and my guitar has been more or less tucked away in the bedroom. I don’t know why I got it out this winter, but seeing me play it a few times induced Veronica to give me a significant gift for Christmas: a stand, so the guitar could be out in the living room, out of its fiberglass case, available for playing. I don’t know if she knows how significant and even symbolic that gesture was. It is the essential opposite of being told to either get better or quit. It said to me: just play, make some sound, have fun, enjoy.

I’ve been doing that. I sit down with the guitar and two hours can go by before I notice it, engaged in the valuable but much underrated-by-me activity of wasting time. I’ve been reviving some old songs, remembering some chords. Last night I took the guitar along to Linda’s birthday party where there was going to be an open mic. I sang two songs; sure enough, the hand was shaking and the guitar playing fairly weak, but it didn’t matter. I told them about the tradition I was coming from. A half dozen chords and a notebook scrawled full of lyrics. Afterwards it was nice to hear several people comment that it brought back faded memories of when Joan Baez was in Norway. One man, slightly balding and wearing a suit, stopped by my table. Balancing his cake and coffee cup he leaned down and told me he turned fifty this year and he and his buddies in Norway used to hang out with guitars singing one of the songs I had just sung. It was I Gave My Love a Cherry.

I don’t know, there’s just something awfully sweet about that. I suppose thirty years from now today’s youth will similarly reminisce about the karaoke tracks of their day.  But I know one thing, while they will laugh about the clunky digital boxes and wired gizmos their musical performances required, they won’t have the physical memory of making music that we do. For we carried those song books and guitars everywhere we went, pasting stickers of the towns we passed through onto our guitar cases. We were anti-war and pro-folksong. Wherever we went in America or Europe we found others of our kind. We were part of an international brotherhood of young idealists meeting on street corners and in university campuses. We recognized each other by the physical marks of our fellowship: clipped nails and callouses on the fingertips of our left hand, long nails for picking on the right.

3 comments on “Those Were the Days, My Friend

  1. Sheila

    Rasma, I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I think I will print it and share it with the 'older' cadre, as I think they will like it, too. Its funny how divergent our youths were, and what a surprise to see the photo at Wild Hog in the Woods! You are an enjoyable writer…. Sheila

  2. Thanks! Stop by the Wild Hog and have a drink for me. I think they are still around?

  3. keith.rupp

    Rasma, I just saw this wonderful essay. Thank you for writing and sharing it. I'm happy to see music has returned returned to your life, recalling what a profound presence it had been. (I recall your wedding and many of the living room performances vividly.)

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