“And the Wolf sat out in the rain” I sang to my kindergarten substitute teacher and the class. She was a black woman who I remember as being unusual; I didn’t see many black women when I was a child in the Thomas F. Lean School, or the neighborhood in the early 1950’s.
“Oh, sit down, you can’t sing,” she said dismissively.
“Yes I can,” I thought. I didn’t say anything. But, I didn’t believe her. I thought I could sing.
I guess that’s the only incident I can remember from kindergarten in 1955. I can not remember my teacher’s name or face, or anything that happened. But I clearly remember the time a teacher told me I couldn’t sing.
I remember the Thomas F. Lean School; the building was only a couple of blocks from my family home and I had occasion to visit the school yard with friends. The building was turned into condos. I drive by every once in a while and think back to my first public singing performance – and bad review.
(The Thomas F. Leen School Building – now private residences)
After my first year in public school kindergarten I left and went to Saint Gregory’s Elementary School to begin First Grade. The Catholic school did not have a kindergarten because young children were supposed to be home with their stay-at-home mothers feeding the domestic hearth. Working mothers were rare in that 1950’s world, and single mothers were unknown to me and my world. The school even encouraged students to go home for lunch in order to emphasize the importance of a mother at home. So my sister and I would walk about a mile to our house to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then march back to school on Dorchester Avenue. My friend Sandy could not go home because his mother worked and when he got kicked out of the lunch room for talking he had to come home with Mary, my older sister, and I. Thinking back on the walk, it was probably a good idea and gave us some exercise and movement in the physical world to break up our sitting in class.
When I was leaving school at the end of the day I got my first taste of the music played on the schools outdoor sound system as the pupils filed out. I still remember the sound of the patriotic songs – The Star Spangled Banner, As The Caissons Go Rolling Along, and other marching band standards.
Franny Weymouth , my next-door neighbor who had been going to St. Greg’s for a year already, said to me as we stood in one of the lines going to Dorchester Ave heading north, “See, Catholic school is better than public school. You didn’t have music at the Leen school, did you?”
He was right. The tiny Leen school only had a half dozen classrooms, maybe a couple of hundred kids. They were all primary school students getting picked up by parents or who lived very close. St. Greg’s had at least a thousand or more students and four lines at dismissal time. I guess the marching music was a way to give the kids a little musical kitsch education while standing in an orderly line.
One song was ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ by John Philip Sousa – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-7XWhyvIpE
This has the complete flavor of the parade music I remember – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trZlvpLihHk
The songs were standards, and they were old. As I grew older I began to think the songs were out of date and corny. It was a long trip doing nine years at St. Greg’s, and I think they played the same music the whole time. I know those songs. Repetitio studorium est mater – or repetitio mater studorium est? We heard Latin words and phrases every day as we continued the Official Religion of the Roman Empire. I still remember parts of the Roman Catholic Mass — in Latin. Quo vadis?
In the second grade I sang a song at the front of the class during a Christmas ‘talent show.’ It was not a big audience, just my second grade class at Saint Gregory’s Elementary School. That was fifty-two kids. Five rows of ten seats each. Two odd seats were to the side, or, sometimes one next to the teacher for a disruptive student. Sometimes I was up in a desk next to the teacher. I remember turning to say some witty remark to the boys around me – but – I was alone next to the nun. I said to myself, “How did I get here?”
(Saint Gregory’s Elementary School – now Saint John Paul II Catholic Academy)
I went to the front of the class wearing my white shirt and navy blue tie and dress pants. A novelty act had just come out called ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ with the radio hit song ‘My Friend the Witch Doctor.’ I sang “Ooh-ee-ooh-aha- ting tang wall-a-walla bing bang” in imitation of the radio songs exaggerated helium pitched pronunciation.
The nun at her desk beside me in her black habit and head covering said, “Shaun, you have a good voice, don’t ruin it with that rock-and-roll.”
“Okay,” I thought, “she doesn’t like the song, but how can singing rock-and-roll ruin a person’s voice?
Again, this is one of the few experiences I remember from the second grade.
There was a supermarket just about across Dorchester Avenue from St. Greg’s. Perhaps they had a problem with kids stealing candy after school because the nun told my class that there were people watching us through holes in the ceiling of the store. We should not shop lift because we were being watched. Even as a little kid I did not think that was practical, or that the store would pay people to watch kids through holes in the ceiling. I think now of the Paul Simon song “My Little Town.”
“In my little town, I grew up believing, God keeps his eye on us all….”
I saw an interview on television news where a Southern Christian elected official wanted the Ten Commandments to be placed in each courthouse. The interviewer asked the sanctimonious politician, “What are the Ten Commandments?”
The man did not know more than two or three of the commandments he insisted be written in stone for all to see because they were so important.
I wondered how many of the Ten Commandments I knew. What I reviewed in my head was a song I learned in Catholic school around second grade.
I was taught to sing, “First, I must honor God, Second, honor his name, Third, honor his Day, keep holy this shall be my aim, Fourth, I must be obedient, Fifth, be kind and true…”
I decided to look online for the song and found an audio of two young girls singing the song. I made a copy and put the song as a sound track with religious pictures from Mormon artist John McNaughton.
( The Ten Commandment Song – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3b03JW-NPA ) Later I found out that the Old Testament – Jewish Torah – actually has 613 commandments. Christians simply adopted a Readers Digest condensed version of the Judaic Law. The song would have been much longer if it was true to the Bible.
When I was in the third grade I realized that there was a ‘smart class’ and that I wasn’t in it. There were three sections of each grade with fifty-two kids in each class. We saw each other in the playground, but all of our classes were with the same kids. One day my class got to hear the smart kids class sing the song “Oh, Susanna.” When the smart kids got to the second part of the song they laughed as they sang, “It rained all night the day I left, the weather, it was dry.” My class watched stoned faced. No one laughed or moved. We had been taught, I had been taught, not to laugh at what we saw was funny, and to keep our comments and observations to ourselves. In fact, it was better not to even form any opinions on what was going on. I had learned to day dream and look out the window through the wiggly glass at the airplanes flying overhead. The nuns would tell us what to say, and what to think. Just repeat. Repetitio mater studorium est!
After listening to the smart kids sing, and laugh at the funny part of a song we went back to our home room to be alone with our nun. She taught us all subjects and we were with her for just about the whole school day.
She was not happy about our lack of laughter. In my head I was thinking that she and the whole system had taught us not to laugh. We weren’t the ‘smart class’ we didn’t know when we could get away with it.
She called us “dolts.” That was the first time I heard that word, but, I got the word in context. But, hadn’t we learned the lesson from the nuns?
We knew that when the fifty voices of the ‘smart class’ where gleefully singing “Sun so hot I froze to death,” we should be an impassive audience. I had learned to relax my face and facial muscles when faced with trying situations. I guess the nun gave me a strong emotional connection to the song by Stephen Foster. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSIj17xbAyk
Aslo on Hooktube – https://www.hooktube.com/watch?v=qSIj17xbAyk
I was connected to the pioneer life I saw on many television shows from circa 1960 like ‘Gunsmoke’ ‘The Rifleman’ ‘Bonanza’ and ‘Wagon Train’ when I drew a large mural on the back of a stretched out roll of unused wall paper my father gave me. One half of the blackboard, one side of the room was covered with my large drawing of a number of covered wagons and horses in front of each of the wagons and drivers. One of my noted accomplishments was a stylized recognizable horse head. I had copied that from pictures I saw of Ancient Babylonian statues with the pronounced letter ‘c’ cheekbone of a horses head. Other boys in class used to hand me their paper to draw a horse for them during art class so they could color the outline in and claim the work as their own. I can’t picture exactly what my Third Grade picture of a wagon train looked like. I can remember standing on the other side of the room and looking across the desks in rows and seeing my drawing stretching for many feet. I was impressed with my own accomplishment. But, I can’t picture the individual wagons or horses.
I looked up some online examples with the search term ‘covered wagon line drawing.’
I think my drawing was something like this straight on two dimensional representation.
not as detailed as this 2D drawing.
I’m sure I had not started to represent depth and perspective as in these
This series of black and white line drawings begins to give the feeling of the parade of wagons in my drawing from the Third Grade at Saint Gregory’s Elementary School more that fifty years ago.
I remember walking home from school one day when the subject of Western television shows came up.
Stevie Crispo, who lived next door, said that his nun said, “Too many Westerns is bad for you.”
I could not understand her reasoning. I thought that every Western I had seen was clearly on the side of good and moral conduct. What could her objection possibly be? I did not consider at the time that she might have been against the constant portrayal of gun violence. I suppose there was some kind of shoot-out in just about every episode.
When I was in Boy Scouts, during the Sixth Grade, I loved to sing the songs we learned at camp or sang at weekly meetings. The scouts song selections had a patriotic flair, but also seemed less sanctimonious. At scouts I met some of the few kids in the neighborhood who were Protestant. Some of the leaders were Protestant, also. I learned something from them, including songs.
One song that has come into my head lately had these lines: “The sweetest girl I ever saw was sipping cider through a straw…” I remember enthusiastically belting that song out as a kid and even gave a special performance with some of the other scouts at one meeting. I felt the scout masters were giving me approval. I was encouraged. But, I wondered what the song meant? Why did the man think it was so unusual to see a young woman using a straw to drink a beverage.
I looked the song up on Youtube and found an interesting folk music style rendition from the early 1960’s. A duo called Nina and Frederick performed the song – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwVL_UNsAug (Or to avoid Youtube use Hooktube https://www.hooktube.com/watch?v=EwVL_UNsAug )
In the Seventh Grade I remember standing in the schoolyard in bright sunshine and telling the black clad nun that I liked the song “Up on the Roof.”
The song seemed to offer gentle observations about life while making no commands. The live and let live feeling of some pop songs seemed more attractive than the strict Catholic philosophy and religion I was taught at St. Gregory’s.
I saw wisdom about society as it currently was in pop music and rock and roll. The video below has a sound track of ‘Five Second Clips of Billboard Top Songs – Circa 1962-1963. The pictures of young women drinking are from a later era. But the sound track gives a real flavor of the songs of the time that were on the radio.
When I was in the 8th Grade at St Greg’s I was put in a special section for boys whose voices had changed. I was a little 5’6 shrimp next to my bean pole tall friend and two beefy bullies sitting in the deep base section. I survived. I can’t remember any of the songs we sang. The position brought me back to my deep voiced kindergarten song about the wolf sitting out in the rain.
We sang “Holy, Holy,Holy” emphasizing the Three Person God. What’s up with that? Why bother with a cluttered narrative? Fun to sing in a deep voice, though.
I do remember a song by the leader of the parish Monsignor McNulty. Father McNulty was a big rotund man who dressed in the priest long black satiny hassock with red trim. “The happiest day of your life,” he said many times, “is the day you die.” Because you were going to heaven after all the pain of living. Father McNulty also advised the youth of the parish not to go to Boston College High’s Friday Night Dances. The catholic school opened the gym to play records for young teens to dance to. There would be three fast uptempo songs, and then three slow dance songs where boy touches girl. Father McNulty said that the dances were, “near occasions of sin.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, or, maybe I did.
I sang along with him in church as I sat in the pews with the rest of the 8th grade class and Father McNulty was in the aisle swaying back and forth with his big belly and buttons up and down the front. He wrote the song. I can remember that.
“I kneel before my savior,
Who is raised above on high,
And I offer reparations,
To those who pass him by,
Thanksgivings too I offer,
As I humbly obey
There will be holy hours in heaven
When I reach my journey’s end…
I can remember him singing in St. Gregory’s Church, but, I can’t quite remember myself singing. I had the song book in front of me, and I know the words today, so I must have been singing. The nuns were strict and would have been watching to see who was singing. I liked singing anyway, so I must have been singing. I was happy to hear one nun say that, “singing is praying twice.” I like singing much better than I liked praying.
As I got older I heard about Monsignor McNulty’s owning a lot of property up and down Dorchester Avenue and throughout the Lower Mills parish. Old people would die and they would leave their property to the church as a kind of bribe to get into heaven and have their sins forgiven. But Father McNulty managed to have the property be given “to the Church” by giving it to Monseigneur McNulty. People could call up the parish office to find out about renting an apartment. People could call up the parish if they didn’t want to advertise an apartment to any one who wasn’t Catholic. They could avoid the general public and the newspaper advertising.
When I heard about all the Earthly Possessions that this holy man was acquiring I thought he should be singing a different song. He might have looked like Robin Hoods Friar Tuck, but he was acting more like a feudal landlord Talk about near occasions of sin?
A friend who worked in Carney hospital as a teen orderly told me the last words I heard of Monsignor McNulty. After hearing some bad reports Father McNulty grabbed my friends arm, “I’m not going to die? Am I?” So ends my story of the holy man who said, “The happiest day of your life is the day you die.”
I went to a technical high school, and there was no singing. But, I was in a rock band. “I’m on the highway to hell…” is a line I have sung. I hope I’m not dying in a hospital and grabbing a youth’s arm and crying that I didn’t want what was in my songs. They don’t teach all the songs at school.
Or to avoid Youtube using Hooktube