Music was simply part of the natural surroundings during my childhood in the late fifties and early sixties, as much of a presence as the towering trees around the house or the rumbling murmur of the Alouette River outside the kitchen door. My personal soundtrack of those years ranged from songs like the Ballad of Davy Crockett playing on the radio, to my parent’s extensive and eclectic record collection, and even live music when on Sundays the earnestly amateur voices of the church choir were raised together to lift the collective spirit. Perhaps the absence of a television in our house during my early years contributed to my appreciation of music, and even to the spoken word, through lp’s such as the Count of Monte Cristo or the Lone Ranger. We’d even listen to the rolling lilt of Dylan Thomas reciting his boozy poetry while puzzling over his odd appearance on the album cover.
It was a time of folk singers and many of those albums worked just as well for toddlers as for the parents, after all what kid wouldn’t want to sing along with Ed McCurdy and “The Big Rocky Candy Mountain” or Pete Seeger doing “Wimoweh” or even the more mainstream Mitch Miller with some kind of a Hootenany. Quite early on, at least as I recall, I was able to recognize that a song like “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” had a certain kind of message, and that it wasn’t just about melodies and rhymes for some songs. Of course, for the folk artists of the day, it really was as much about the message as it was about the music, at least until Joni Mitchell came along some years later. I used to cherish an album by Josh White Junior, Live at Carnegie Hall, but sadly lent it to someone…and it went away.
Other standout musical memories from that time include some of the old English Music Hall standards, maybe Stanley Holloway with chestnuts like “Where Did You Get That Hat?”. For some linguistic balance we also listened to francophone artists such as Maurice Chevalier although his records were generally English with just a veneer of a french accent. More authentic was Edith Piaf singing La Vie En Rose, or Gilbert Becaud and Jacques Brel records that seemed really quite exotic – you could almost see curls of thick gray smoke rising from the Gitanes cigarettes on those album covers.
On the radio, in those years, came the repetitive chorus of ads. I’ll always remember “Don’t Buy a Car, Buy a Merceds Benz”, “Honest Nat’s Department Store at 48th and Fraser” even though I never went there, “Dollar 49 Day, Woodwards”, and “I Like the Girl at Checkout Number 3”.
Of course the classical side wasn’t neglected and was made somewhat more approachable through pieces like St Saen’s Carnival of the Animals or Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf.
At some point, when I was about 6 years old, I made the mistake of showing some interest in the violin and thus was sentenced to some years of rather painful instruction by Mrs. Nelson, supplemented by the dubious distinction of being a member of the Vancouver Junior Philharmonic String Orchestra. Anyone who has suffered through music lessons can commiserate although I have to say it made me a much better audience member for the effort.