Friday, February 12, 2010

Memories of old songs


By chance, this movie was on Turner Classic Movies the other night and I watched it. Despite starring Tyrone Power, who performed with all the ardor of a cigar store Indian (but I don't want to insult Native Americans), it was well worth watching. It featured several songs by Irving Berlin, most of them winners.

Also featured was a young and very svelte Ethel Merman. I always remember her as looking as if she had a bolster stuffed into her girdle, but in this film she was quite slim. I only recognized her because of her voice, which even in her youth, apparently, provided tough competition for the trombones, not to mention the trumpets. No orchestra ever drowned her out.

It was a fun trip down memory lane. What made it unusual for me is the fact that I could remember the lyrics to all the songs, songs which were written before I was born. I not only know the tunes but the lyrics. In fact, whenever an old movie musical is shown I know the words to all the music.

I seem to know the words to all the songs in what Mark Steyn calls the Great American Songbook, but I knew them before there was a Great American Songbook. I learned these songs in my teen years, which I spent traveling all over Columbus, OH on buses to attend every revival of a musical ever made. Many of them were quite forgettable as films, but the music was usually very singable. And the stories all had happy endings. In those days, there were lots of second and third run movie theaters, some in seedy neighborhoods, and I knew the names and locations of all of them.

I made these bus trips as a teen because I was a miserable high school student who was younger than my classmates and unhappy in school. The thought of buckling down to my schoolwork and acing the SATs never occurred to me. Seeing all these movies was a way of getting the hell out of central Ohio for an evening. Getting better grades as a way out was a possibility I never considered.

I have a retentive memory for poems, especially when they are set to music, and what are lyrics if not poems?

So I developed this phenomenal memory bank which nobody knew about or would have valued if they had. I never made a nickel out of it nor did I get into the selective college of my father's choice. But I am pleasantly surprised when I hear these songs and remember their words, which have stayed with me all these years.

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