You know how cool you are by the music you listen to. Man, when I was a kid, I was not cool! (I’m not cool now either. If I was, I would have said, “Dude, when I was a kid, I was so not cool!”)
Kids’ music tastes come first from their parents. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger and the Clancy Brothers, Judy Collins and Harry Belafonte. My father was a history professor — one of the family’s favorite albums was the Election Songs sung by Oscar Brand, a collection of election propaganda from the 19th century on. You can learn a lot about history by singing (to the tune of “My Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work), “His grandfather’s hat is too big for his head, but Ben tries it on just the same.” Can you guess the president? I also learned all the presidents in order: “George Washington, first president, by Adams was succeeded, Thomas Jefferson was next, the people’s cause he pleaded.” The song ends, “Until the GOP came back, and won with Eisenhower,” just so you know how old it was. These are the songs that are imprinted in my memory from childhood. Way not cool.
We also listened to Broadway show tunes when I was a kid. My mother saw Julie Andrews in “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, for goodness sake. How could I not spend my days listening to “The Sound of Music” and “Camelot?” When I got a little older, old enough to purchase my own records, I opted for John Denver and the Carpenters. Still not cool.
Now I’m a parent, with the awesome responsibility of indoctrinating my kids in their music choices and preferences. Actually, my job is nearly done — you have to get to kids when they’re young and impressionable (or defenseless, as the case may be). My kids cut their teeth on Raffi, a gentle soul if there ever was one. He’s a modern-day Pete Seeger for the under-five set. The kids also endured bagpipe music at a tender age. I’ll never forget the Scottish Games in Whitehorse, with the baby in the stroller, so over stimulated by the intense blare of Dad’s bagpipes that he had no choice but to fall asleep in defense. I had to marvel at the peacefully sleeping baby in the midst of all that noise, uh, music.
When they got a little older, we did our duty by them as parents, and introduced The Beatles. Thus began a Beatlemania renaissance in the Barnhill household that lasted for years. I learned so much about The Beatles! My parents missed The Beatles (remember the folk music motif), so I didn’t know many songs beyond “Yesterday.” Today I can not only recognize and name any Beatles song on the radio, but I can tell which Beatle is singing by the sound of his voice.
We still like The Beatles, and some of us enjoy their goofy counterparts, The Monkees. And we’ve moved on to more contemporary groups, like Bruce Springsteen and U2 (what, both ‘80s groups, you say? Aging rockers, indeed!)
Now we’ve moved into a new era of music influence, when our kids introduce us to the latest groups. Is that the definition of “over the hill” — when you listen to your kids’ music instead of them listening to yours? You gotta love groups like Bon Jovi that span the generations (although Jon Bon Jovi probably does qualify as an aging rocker — yeah, he’s my age). So the kids laugh at me when I say I like Pink or Katy Perry. It’s probably ‘cause they think they’re cooler than me. Still, sometimes I can impress them by my unexpected ability to hear a song on the radio and go on to pull it up on YouTube for positive identification. That’s the historian’s influence — I want to place the song into an identifiable context.
Speaking of history — the song ends “But it don’t fit, even a little bit, on Benjamin Harrison’s brain.” I guess the hat did fit well enough, since Benjamin Harrison served as president for a full four years, while his grandfather William Henry Harrison only lasted one month. But that’s another story.
• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring children’s author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.