Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I Was a Pint-sized Communist

          Way back in the Dim Mists of Time, when I was in sixth grade, our elementary school music teacher, in a fit of expansiveness that she later came to regret deeply, proclaimed every Friday a "Bring Your Own Music" day.
          "Woo hoo!" we said, and brought in Jimmy Osmond's "Killer Joe."

          (I still have nightmares about this one.)

          And then we brought in "The Loco-Motion." But not the Little Eva version. This was the Rockin'! 70s! and so we brought in the Grand Funk Railroad cover.*

          We also brought in enough Sonny and Cher to violate the Geneva Conventions on torture.

          Mrs. B, who thought Lawrence Welk was The Greatest Musician Living, was horrified, but she knew that if she abolished Bring Your Own Music Fridays, she'd have a rebellion on her hands. So Friday after Friday she listened to the schlockiest music 1973 had to offer and repented fully of ever, ever wanting to be a "cool" teacher** and make music "relevant" to us.

          We had reached the point in the term when Sonny and Cher were in heavy rotation with Grand Funk Railroad and Hot Butter***, and Mrs. B was looking like she was a very short walk from a breakdown, when I brought in a record—my first offering. Because I couldn't stand to listen to "Half-Breed" one more time.

          When I handed her the album (Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits), Mrs. B shot me a look of pure gratitude. She didn't know who Pete Seeger was, but the album cover just had a simple picture of a normal-looking guy with a banjo sitting in a chair. No scary guys in tight pants and huge hair, no Sonny and Cher, no weird psychedelic illustrations. I told her I wanted to play "Talking Union," and she dropped the needle on the track.

          My classmates knew better than to expect coolness from me, so they weren't entirely unprepared to hear a guy start picking his banjo**** and rapping, "Now you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do. You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you."

          It's a very appealing little song about workers banding together and organizing a union so that they can have a living wage, better working conditions, yearly vacations—you know, the American Dream. It had simply not occurred to me that anyone would think that workers shouldn't unionize in order to insure that they got those things. Especially anyone who belonged to the National Education Association (a teachers' union), but alas, this was the case with Mrs. B. She was also anti-communist and anti-swearing, as I learned some two minutes and change later, when Pete sang:

Now, boy, you've come to the hardest time;
The boss will try to bust your picket line.
He'll call out the police, the National Guard;
They'll tell you it's a crime to have a union card.
They'll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.
Call every one of you a goddamn Red -
Unpatriotic - Moscow agents -
Bomb throwers, even the kids.

          I don't know whether it was a cumulative thing—listening to a song that told a bunch of sixth-graders how to unionize—or whether it was the reference to Communism or the naughty word that broke the camel's back, but I do know that it was at that point in the song when Mrs. B snatched the needle off the record and yelled at me for bringing Communism and profanity and unions into her classroom.

          And, seizing her chance, she killed Bring Your Own Record Fridays. "You ruined it for everyone," she yelled at me. "I can't allow anyone to bring in records if this is what's going to happen."

          It truly wasn't my intention to ruin it for everyone. I barely knew what a union was. I just thought it was a cool song with a catchy banjo line. I liked banjos. And I was really sick of listening to "Half-Breed."

          The funny thing is, even though I killed Bring Your Own Record Fridays, no one held it against me. I had brought in a record with a naughty word on it! I had promulgated Communism in the very heart of America! I had given a teacher an apoplectic fit! I was a folk hero.

          Just like Pete Seeger.

*Please feel free not to listen to these two songs. I have included them only for the horror factor.
 **Here's a tip, Mrs. B: If you're trying to be cool, you are by definition never going to be cool. 
***Oh, don't say you don't remember the unfortunately hooky "Popcorn." I've been trying to get it out of my head for almost 40 years.
****The version I was able to find on YouTube uses a guitar for accompaniment. I'm sorry that I couldn't find the banjo version, which is delightful.

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