Friday, October 19, 2012


People didn’t travel a lot when I was young. They had little reason. Most had their families nearby. There was no Disneyland. No Branson, Missouri. Vacations were usually spent at home, fixing up the house, taking day trips to the beach, or just lying around in the shade. But we had a new house that needed little fixing, lived at the lake, and Daddy was never one to “lay about.” So we did road trips and camped.
            My sister Mary Ann and I had the backseat. Mother and Daddy in front. About an hour into a trip (before the “are we almost there” began), Mary Ann and I started the sibling thing. “She’s got her foot on my side.” “She’s looking out my window.” Daddy once tried piling the luggage between us. Didn’t help. And so we sang and the squabbling ended. I don’t recall if Mother sang. She might have, but Daddy was the star.
            In his high quavering tenor he always began (in a German accent): “Oh, Dunderbach, oh Dunderbach, how could you be so mean. To ever haf invented that wonderful machine. Where dogs and cats and mice and rats would never more be seen. They’d all be ground to sausage meat in Dunderbach’s machine. One day there something happened, and the machine she would not go. So Dunderbach, he climbed inside the reason for to know. His wife was having nightmares and was walking in her sleep. She gave the crank an awful yank, and Dunderbach was meat!”
            I’m sure Mother shuddered. Not Mary Ann, nor I. We begged for another and Daddy always had more. College songs, drawing-room melodies, songs he ‘d learned as a boy. One of his favorites was: “One evening when the sun went down and the jungle fires were burning. Down the tracks came a hobo hiking and he said, ‘Boys, I am yearning. I’m heading for a land that’s far away beside the crystal fountains, so come with me and we’ll all go see the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there’s a land that’s fair and bright. Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night. Where the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day, on the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, on the lemonade springs where the blue birds sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
            Second verse, worse than the first: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs. The bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs. Where the brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind. Oh, I want to go where there ain’t no snow, where the rain don’t rainy, and the wind don’t blow in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
            And can you believe it? Another verse: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks. And little streams of alcohol come atrickling down the rocks. Where the farmers’ trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay. There’s a lake of stew and a gin lake too, you can paddle all around it in a big canoe in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” A true song for the Great Depression.
Another favorite was Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. Thirteen verses! He sang them all. It began: “The sons of the prophet were brave men and bold and quite unaccustomed to fear. But the bravest by far in the ranks of the shah was Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. The heroes were plenty and well known to fame in the troops that were led by the Czar. But the bravest of these was a man by the name of Ivan Skavinski Skivar.”
The last verses: “A tomb rises up where the blue Danube rolls engraved there in characters clear. Oh, Stranger, in passing, please pray for the soul of Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. And a Muscovite maiden, her lone vigil keeps ‘neath the light of a pale Polar Star and the name that she murmurs so soft as she weeps is Ivan Skavinski Skivar.” Always brought tears to my eye.
When daddy was a boy, his family sang. They gathered in the living room, Grandma played the piano, and they sang songs of the Victorian era: “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Bicycle Built for Two,” and “After the Ball was Over.” Of course, the boys weren’t content to sing the proper words. When alone they sang, “After the ball was over, Katie took out her glass eye, hung her peg leg in the corner, hung out her wig to dry, put her false teeth on the mantel, took off her bustle and all. Not much was left of Katie after the ball.”
A singing game my sister and I played was to count to three and then start a song. Our challenge was to sing our song all the way through in time and on key (in the style of Charles Ives). However, we often started with the same song and then dissolved in giggles. Long trips were boring so Mary Ann and I invited other ways to sing. One rainy trip, we sang “Bicycle Built for Two,” by singing one word each time the windshield wiper hit the dashboard. “Daisy…Daisy…give…me…your…answer…do…” Drove our parents crazy. We finally told the secret, and then Daddy joined in.
Mary Ann and I sang while we did the dishes. (You can’t argue while you’re singing.) We took turns doing the alto parts. One of my favorites (one sung years later by granddaughter Sarah when she was in high school): “I heard a bird at break of day, sing from the autumn trees, a song so mystical and calm, so full of certainties. No man I think could listen long, except upon his knees. Yet, this was but a simple bird, alone among dead trees.” Still brings tears to my eyes.
With Daddy, we sang love songs (Bendemeer Stream, Danny Boy), sentimental songs (My Ole Kentucky Home, Beautiful Ohio), and crazy songs (My Old Shanghai Rooster, St. Olaf fight songs). Our most vigorous singing was on a return trip one summer from camping at Rice Lake, Wisconsin. A fire had started deep in the woods and by the time we packed and left, it was blazing. Our escape route was a narrow rutted dirt road through the forest. I remember my father’s back hunched over the steering wheel, my mother’s handkerchief clenched in her fist. At one point I looked out the back window and saw a tall pine flare up in seconds. Daddy had us sing every song we knew, all the verses. Our car was covered in ashes, our faces too, but we were safe. I smile when I think of how I knew that Daddy would never let anything bad happen to us.
Often, when Daddy heard my sister and me arguing, he made us face each other and sing. Didn’t take long before the giggles started. I think everyone should sing. If countries got together and sang, there would be no wars.
I’m sure you have your own songs. So, with your loved ones, find any excuse and sing.


  1. We did a lot of singing on road trips when I was a child, too. My mother was a music major in college, so she particularly looked for songs that were not too difficult to sing. One of the first was, "Twas just an old beer bottle, floating on the foam. 'Twas just an old beer bottle, many miles from home, and in it was this message, these words were written on: whoever finds this bottle, will find the beer all gone." Imagine her dismay when my sister's first grade teacher told her Beth had sung it for Show and Tell.
    We sang Bill Grogan's Goat, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and Johnny Verbeck--another version of the same sad tale (which we loved!) that ends with backing into the sausage machine and being turned to sausages.

  2. Ruth, I agree! And I think the song the world should sing together is "I Believe in Music."
    Music is the universal language
    And love is the key
    To brotherhood and peace
    And understanding and livin' in harmony
    So take your brother by the hand
    And sing along with me

    One we used to sing at the top of our lungs was "Take Me Home Country Roads." I always thought it was funny when we got to the chorus, since we were usually on some back road in Utah or Colorado, and none of us had ever been to West Virginia.

    "Country Roads, take me home To the place I belong
    West Virginia, mountain momma Take me home, country roads"

    The goofiest one, however, was "Snoopy vs the Bloody Red Baron." It is a terrible song, but like a good mother I taught it to my children, and they now sing it loud and proud.

    "After the turn of the century
    In the clear blue skies over Germany
    Came a roar and a thunder men had never heard
    Like the scream and the sound of a big war bird

    Up in the sky, a man in a plane
    Baron von Richthofin was his name
    Eighty men tried, and eighty men died
    Now they're buried together on the countryside

    Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more
    The Bloody Red Baron was rollin' out the score
    Eighty men died tryin' to end that spree
    Of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany."

    May the embarrassing traditions continue.