I was recently going through an old box of books and came across something I had bought many, many years ago and barely used. It’s The Autobiography Box by Brian Bouldrey. It comes with a little “Owner’s Manual” and a stack of cards designed to prompt you to help write your autobiography. It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s a little kitschy – but as I was going through the box, I can across one card that immediately jumped out at me.
Is there a piece of music that reminds you of a particular time and place in your life?
It’s funny because my family is not a particularly musically inclined family, but there are certain songs, albums, bands that defined my childhood. It’s also a rather odd collection of artists, which may account for my rather wide-ranging taste in music today.
1. John Denver
I can still sing every word of Take Me Home, Country Roads by heart. My mother loved John Denver and she played his music all the time. In fact she even had an album of duets by John Denver and Placido Domingo that met a very untimely death on a California freeway. My father swears to this day it was an accident, but my mother always maintained that it was music homicide… Hearing a John Denver song on the radio, or in a store, brings back such strong emotional memories of my mother that it will stop me in my tracks and bring me to tears. Perhaps my personal favorite of John Denver’s songs was Grandma’s Feather Bed, because the image of a bed “nine feet high and six feet wide” filled with “eight kids, four hound dogs and a piggy we stole from the shed” made me giggle.
It was nine feet high and six feet wide
Soft as a downy chick
It was made from the feathers of forty’leven geese
Took a whole bolt of cloth for the tick
It’d hold eight kids, four hound dogs
And a piggy we stole from the shed
We didn’t get much sleep but we had a lot of fun
On Grandma’s feather bed
2. Juice Newton
I remember listening to Juice Newton every time we went on a long car ride. The Queen of Hearts was my favorite song as a child and I would insist on listening to it – much to the dismay of my three brothers. Other favorites of mine was Angel of the Morning, Shot Full of Love, All I Have to Do is Dream, and The Sweetest Thing I’ve Ever Known. I still love the sound of her music. One of my most poignant memories combined her music with John Denver’s to bring back memories at a very emotionally vulnerable time. We were in Hawaii for my little brother’s wedding. It was the first big family event after my mother had passed away. During our week there, we explored the island, Maui. On one outing, we went in to a restaurant and heard John Denver playing on the radio. A couple of day’s later, we drove the road to Hana, and as we are driving through the little town, I heard Juice Newton playing on someone’s radio in the park at the center of the town. It really made me feel like our mother was there with us – two little signs of her during a time when her absence was heartbreaking.
Specifically, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I really remember being confused about what Dirty Deeds were, but I loved the alliteration of the song. My dad used to play this album when he was on his way to run in races – as a way to get himself pumped up. I remember distinctly the album cover, with the black boxes over everyone’s eyes, and being fascinated by that cover art.
There is no other song than The Battle of New Orleans that will bring back my childhood faster. We had this old record that my dad had bought when he was overseas in the Navy. The vinyl was a translucent red color, and I think it was only supposed to last a few times on the turntable. We must have listened to that album thousands of times. Johnny Horton was another song writer whose lyrics amused me. When I met my husband and first introduced him to my family, he got a taste of that song. He was at my parents’ house for dinner and my brothers were all there. Suddenly, out of nowhere the song came up in conversation, and in perfect unison, my entire family including my mother started singing the song together. I think my husband was slightly horrified. Once, when I was in college at NYU, I was taking a class on the history of the American media, and we were studying the time period of the War of 1812, and the fact that the Battle of New Orleans took place after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Professor Mitchell Stephens asked if anyone knew of the song, and I was the only person to raise my hand. He asked me to sing it for the class, which I politely refused, not wanting to inflict pain on the ears of my classmates, but I offered to bring the CD I had back in my dorm in the next day to class. I ended up reciting the lyrics.
Yeah, they ran through the briars
And they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes
Where a rabbit couldn’t go
They ran so fast
That the hounds couldn’t catch ’em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
We fired our cannon ’til the barrel melted down
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round
We filled his head with cannon balls, and powdered his behind
And when we touched the powder off the gator lost his mind
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they begin to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico
5. The Go Gos
The first album I ever owned was Vacation by the Go Gos, which was a hand-me-down from my oldest brother. I loved listening to the album exactly because it was poppy, fun, upbeat and I could dance to it.
6. Billy Joel
Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl was one of my favorite songs when I was young – I loved the video. I loved the shots of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley dancing at the gas station together. She was elegant, in her fancy car and black hat. And their video love story appealed to my young girl’s heart. My oldest brother one Christmas gave me a mixed copy of Billy Joel’s album on cassette and he had recorded Uptown Girl on it about five or six times, so I could listen to it over and over again. I’m sure it’s another one of those songs that I eventually drove my brothers nuts with because I listened to it so much.
7. The Eagles
From Hotel California to Desparado, the Eagles were another band that I remember listening to in the car on road trips. My personal favorite was Take it Easy – there was something about the lyrics that really appealed to me, especially the line about “standing on the corner, in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see”. Every time I listen to the song, I still gear up to belt out this line at the top of my voice.
Well, I’m a standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my lord
In a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me
8. Last, but not least – Buddy Holly
Probably no other single recording artist could be described as the soundtrack of my childhood other than Buddy Holly. A perennial favorite of my father’s, he would put on one of his many albums and listen to his music. As a very young girl, we would dance in the living room to Buddy, Richie Valens, Linda Ronstadt and others. But, it always came back to Buddy Holly.