I’ve had a lot of fun thinking about this soundtrack-of-your-life exercise. I kept changing the focus as I went on, and I’m sure I’m breaking several rules in putting the list together. I also imposed rules on myself that seemed fitting.
In contrast to my initial post on the subject, I found that many of the threads of one’s life do not disappear as much as they join together. There are not 8,000 threads that narrow down to a dozen; most of them braid together to become ropes. Each thread that makes it into a rope can’t have its own song – that would be artistically unwieldy. So one thread in each rope has to be made the representative for all.
1. O Little Town Of Bethlehem. Something has to be playing when the movie starts. Anachronism isn’t necessarily a problem. If a song perfectly described my early years but hadn’t been written in 1953, I wouldn’t have hesitated to use it. None occurred to me. I did know from even my rough draft that at least one Christmas carol would make the final cut. I chose this particular carol because it re-emerges in other later years. My mother and her family were very big on Christmas carols, and one of the fondest memories of my childhood was riding back from the yearly party at my cousins’ in Massachusetts. My mother, grandmother, and Aunt Sal would sing carols on the way home. They had lovely voices, sang in harmony, and knew all the verses by heart, though they did stumble a bit on the later verses of such things as Bring A Torch, Jeannette Isabella or Once In Royal David’s City. I sang as best as I could; my younger brother fell asleep. I recall the event happening every year, but it must have been only a few. Perhaps we didn’t sing every year. Perhaps I was irritable some year and didn’t participate. Perhaps it never happened exactly as I remember it even one year. But beautiful voices, in the dark, in a VW bug, at Christmas – what could be better? When youth groups come around to carol me at the nursing home, BTW, and ask for requests, I'm going to ask for Once In Royal David's City. That'll fix the little smartmouths.
Aunt Sal, my grandmother’s unmarried sister who was called aunt by everyone but actually was related to us, knew a sixth verse I have never seen anywhere else. It is thus probably added on later by someone other than the original lyricist. But she had learned it at Straw School around 1912 and not forgotten it.
Where children pure and lowly
Pray to the Holy Child
Where misery cries out to Thee
Son of the mother mild
Where charity stands watching
And hope holds wide the door
The glad dawn breaks, the glory wakes
And Christmas comes once more.
Christmas carols show up again at William & Mary when I met my wife, who shared my love of them. Her mother still doesn’t like to hear her say she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, and Tracy and I formed a family that was fanatical about Christmas. We no longer start singing carols in September, but we’re still well out on the bell curve. As new Christians together in the late 70’s, we were pleased to note how spiritually solid the lyrics of the obscurer verses of carols were, and this was always our strongest example.
I considered putting the Swedish hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father” (Tryggare Kann Ingen Vara) in this slot, as it also re-echoes through later years, though I didn’t learn it as a child. My mother’s family was Swedish, but we were much of the sort that insisted “We’re in America now,” and only a few traditions were passed down – a table grace, some Dala horses, and a tendency to put creamed soups in any casserole. I was spared herring, thankfully. I also toyed with the idea of putting the song “Davy Crockett” in at the beginning, even though it breaks Ben’s rule about TV theme songs. Theme songs had many verses then, and I sang that one loudly. Often.
2. The Ash Grove. I didn’t learn the song until church camp in 1965, but I remember my Aunt Sal mentioning it before then. It has a descant harmony which one of the women taught the girls to sing and I just loved hearing it. I wanted a song here that captured all those camp and school songs, and this one reprises powerfully later in my life. When Jonathan was two weeks old and had to go back into the hospital, near death, he was set up with many tubes and alarms. Tracy and I couldn’t touch him, because it would set the alarms off. But he was our new son, he hovered near death, and we sang softly to him. We sang this most often, which made the nurses cry.
The song has the added advantage of being a folk song from the British Isles, a strong theme in my singing and reading, and of being the tune for several hymns we sing. However, those are secondary considerations.
3. David’s OCD Song. This is a tuneless, rhythmic, soft whistle to those who hear it, but I hear the notes in my head when I do it. I break into it when moving alone from one place to another, or one thought to another. My use of it increases when I miss doses of Prozac – it’s any early warning sign. As the music draws heavily on the bass opening to John Sebastian’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1966), with echoes of the opening of Frank Sinatra’s French Foreign Legion (from his 1961 album) in it, it suggests that my OCD symptoms go back a long way. This song probably shouldn’t get its own cut, but just bop into the soundtrack at odd moments throughout. Tu- dududu, dududoot. doot. do. titu tu…