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Tunes from My Father

By Sandra Clark

The other day in the car I heard a segment from a series that NPR’s All Things Considered is running throughout the summer: “Remembering Mom and Dad’s Record Collection.” It got me thinking about the melodies of my childhood that still play through my memories. The soundtrack of my childhood is an eclectic mix of all sorts of things.  But there are a few songs that really stand out, things I listen to and instantly think of my mother, but more often my father.

My dad’s music tastes were more pronounced. He didn’t sing us traditional lullabies. Instead we  his often humorous yet, sweet strains of The Beatles, Jim Croce, and Billy Joel, among many others.. I am the oldest child, so I often had the enjoyment of watching my dad sing those same songs to each of my siblings, as babies, nestled into the crook of his leg, being sung “Jerimiah was a bullfrog…” Rocking out in the corner recliner, my dad’s take on Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” soothed each one of us into contentment.  

Often the songs that he sang most frequently merged together, that even now it seems hard to sing one without another. I guess how that’s how I got started singing them to my own children. Last year we took our seven and three year old to a sixties’ style laser show set to Pink Floyd.  As the lights dimmed and tracks from The Dark Side of the Moon piped in, I instantly thought of my dad. Memories of riding in my dad’s car as he played his cassette tapes, or thumbing through his old records stashed in a wooden crate under his nightstand, and all of the snatches of old songs he would sing to me and my siblings. I began to sink comfortably into a playlist from my past. I began singing all of my dad’s standards to my own kids.

They soaked up the “Piano Man,” “Benny and the Jets.” My son began requesting “Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” so bedtime and they both join in when I start into “Hey Jude.” Whenever I break out into the vintage, the kids clamor to listen. They’ve become a rapt audience; hungry for this piece of grandpa and the sounds that filled my ears at their age. I grew up knowing who all these musicians were, not because my dad was a musician, he wasn’t. He didn’t sing outside of our house. Dad solemnly swore his first and only church solo was Rod Steward’s “If You Want My Body,” suggesting it as a possibility for musical number evasion should I want to keep my vocal talents unrequested as well. My dad loves music like he loves a good joke. The music was often the conduit for his wit, evidenced by his frequent rendition of “More Platitudes Give Me,” to the more common hymn, especial to Sundays.

I was shocked when I realized my husband didn’t know all this old music too. He couldn’t belt a single Elton John song, or burst into strains of Queen at will.  He didn’t grow up giggling as his dad deliberately messed up the words to “Raspberry Beret” for the upteenth time. It was then I started to recognize  my dad’s gift.  The music he gave me. Those tuneful memories are sweet ones; funny clips of my dad I am passing on to my children. A less than holy legacy, but my family history none the less. They’re some of the memories of my dad I love best: watching him happily holding the smallest child propped on his knee, looking into their eyes, smiling, singing, “I’m a straight shootin’ son of a gun.”

What were the songs your parents gave you? Or how did your parents’ taste in music shape your own?

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

15 thoughts on “Tunes from My Father”

  1. I love music! I cannot live without music constantly playing softly in the background. To me, music is life. The emotions, the pictures they produce…oh a good song, is an awesome song. I listen to all genres…..rap…well, not so much. My mom instilled in all of us a love of music and to LISTEN to the messages of both the lyrics and the notes. We would spend hours in the car, listening for the different instruments and sharing the pictures each song brought to our minds. We all learned some instrument or another. For me it was the piano, then the flute and because of the listening my mom taught me to do, I learned the French horn…my favorite one to listen for. I taught myself the trumpet and trying the guitar.

    I don't have any memories of my dad and music. It is all my mom and her love of music as well. I have in turned, taught my boys to love music. We learn about the groups, the songs, and listen to the layers of sounds created by the instruments. We sing everything and it is often common to find one of us bursting out in song at any given moment. I direct cub scout camps and one of our areas is singing songs. We sing at camp and have a blast doing so. Music brings everyone together.

  2. It's fascinating how a simple strain of music can evoke powerful memories from bygone eras. One of the ways I keep the memory of my own father alive since his passing are the silly little ditties he would sing to us as children at bedtime or in the car, while my mom would roll her eyes. We loved it and I cherish the memories even more as the years and decades roll by.

    Thanks to you for bringing back all those memories!

  3. I'm part of your dad's generation, I'm guessing from the playlist he sang to you, but my dad also loved to make up new, silly lyrics to church songs. He'd sing little snippets while we were working together on our farm. But, the problem is…when that hymn would come into rotation at church then my sisters and I could hardly sing it straight. We'd sometimes start giggling. Not cool to our mother…I'm not sure she'd heard the new versions either. "Were you ever burdened by a teddy-bear? When what you really wanted was a doll with curly hair? Coooount your blessings….!!!"

  4. I grew up surrounded by folk music, with a mom who played guitar, dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, and a dad who played banjo, recorder, bass, trumpet. My mother favored death and dying songs, and my favorite musical memory is of her listening over and over to Barrett's Privateers — the chorus starts "God Damn them all!", and all of us little people just piping in and singing with her.

    My Dad would make up all kinds of ridiculous words to tunes sacred or secular, and sometimes just brand new songs entirely out of thin air. I did that for kid #1, with songs about Darwin and Mendel and Einstein (okay I'm a science nerd).

  5. Songs my parents gave me: The Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, Abba, all of Motown's greatest, and my southern California mom, of course, gave us The Beach Boys. Then my grandmother gave me a love for the American Songbook: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, etc.

    Music was always playing in our house and cars. Maybe the best musical gift my parents gave me was that when I was a teen and got into The Cure, The Smiths, Violent Femmes and all that "not-on-the-radio" music, they didn't persecute my musical choices. Still don't.

    And I'm glad to see we're not the only family with a history of hymn-changing. 🙂

  6. Dad is a big Beach Boys fan and some of my fondest memories are dancing with my family to the Beach Boys at DC on the Mall fireworks or at concerts or just around the house. It's really the only way to loosen up my very buttoned down, tightly wound mother, so that music is very powerful to me. My dad's music tastes are pretty eclectic. I grew up on CCR, BTO–typical 70s classic rock. But I wasn't surprised at all to come home from my mission and find how much my dad was enamored with Sheryl Crow. And the fastest way to make him cry is find almost any Mack Wilberg arrangement that the MoTab sings (we come from a long line of unabashed weepers).

    I sing a lot to my children, but it is usually crazy songs of my own making, to drag them out of doldrums or tantrums, or scat because it's fun to sing and anyone can do it. That is not something my parents ever did, but it's become part of my mom persona. It embarrasses my 13yo and makes my little ones laugh, so I figure it's about on target for what they need.

  7. i've been thinking about this a lot lately, so this is a timely post. some of my very favorite memories from my childhood come from time spent in the car as a family, belting out music with the radio and until i was in junior high, i didn't realize there was any radio station other than the oldies station. the first CD i purchased was a beach boys album and i used to play "name that tune," with my junior high math teacher before class. the other kids thought i was strange, but i could usually beat my teacher.

    as we drove around, my dad would quiz us on who was singing and what instruments we were hearing, and i still think of my dad whenever i hear oldies. we recently moved and the produce stand that i shop at plays oldies. i find that i can't help myself from singing along as i pick out fruit.

    i've been a little lazy about what i expose my children to as far as music goes. mostly they get whatever children's music they request, but i think that it's time to start exposing them to something more. thanks for the inspiration.

  8. I tell my husband all his family issues are because his mama don't dance and his daddy don't rock n roll. I grew up with classic rock, and he just doesn't get it. And i also have a dad that makes up verses to songs, including Follow the prophet he's on a Honda. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have told my primary kids that one.

  9. Mom went to Sweet Adelines to sing bass in a barbershop chorus every Wednesday night, so we learned all the words to a lot of OLD oldies–esp. the bass lines. While she was gone, Dad played Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on the stereo.

    My kids went through a serious REO Speedwagon phase, till they decided Mom and Dad's old tunes were too geeky. Now I'm trying to develop an appreciation for their alt-rock: Hollywood Undead, Muse, and My Chemical Romance. I'm good with it, except for the screaming, and the kids know it and apologize in advance.

  10. My Dad exposed me to classic rock, it seemed like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd were always playing in his car while he quietly sang along. Once I went to my uncle's mechanic job with him, "Let It Be" by the Beetles came on and he sang it like a Sesame Street tune, "Letter B." I still smile and think of him when I hear it. The song that reminds me of my Dad? "The Day the Music Died" it ties me up in knots, can't even listen to the whole thing without getting teary. His choice of music taught me to unabashedly love what I love, to be myself, to be creative.

    My Mom loves country. We watched the Dolly Parton show so often that I was offended when Whitney Houston thought she could steal Dolly's signature song, "I Will Always Love You." My brother and I used to lie on my parents' bed and listen to 8 track tapes in their huge box of an alarm clock. The song I remember most from those days is "Sneaky Snake." I don't have a clue who sings it and haven't heard it in years. While I'm not a country music fan now, that music was so full of feeling that I can't stand a half-hearted performance of any type now.

  11. As 7th in a family of 8 kids, I only knew old parent who listened to the beatiful music chanel. Still that music brings back memories of hot homemade bread. While the good music I liked best came from the radios of my older brothers and sisters. Teens who were enjoying bellbottom pants bangless long hair, yes, even my brothers (before their missions). My favorite chanels on the radio are the late 60 and 70 music. I wished I had parent who liked cool music, the best one they sang was 'King of the road' and since my dad was a truck driver they changed the words to descibe their life. I never knew the real words to that song until I tried to find them for their 50th anniversary.

  12. My dad was almost 60 and my mom in her early 40s when I showed up, rather by surprise. I grew up listening to the Big Band Sounds of Lawrence Welk and his Orchestra on Saturday nights, which I think was a little unusual for my generation (I'm in my 30s). I don't listen to big band much these days, but every so often a track of Michael Buble will transport me back to childhood.

  13. Ah, music.

    I, too, am a child of a classic rock man. Our favorite radio station growing up were the classic rock stations and the "best mix of the 80s and 90s" – but classic rock still holds a special place in my heart because it reminds me of my dad.

    My mom is a pianist and made sure we all have a love of classical music. My music library is… varied.

    One night when I was rocking my 3 year old to sleep I started putting all our activities that day to song, "This morning we woke up and then we ate breakfast… " etc. Now she asks for me to sing "The song about our day" just about every night. I enjoy making up a tune and the words and sometimes we get silly, and usually by the end of our day's recap, she's ready for bed.

    Music is powerful. I believe that with all my heart.

  14. Thanks Sandra, this was an enjoyable little reflection to start the day off. one of my few memories of my Dad is him playing his guitar and singing. I've continued this tradition with my two daughters with the songs I remember hearing: "Mr Bojangles" as done by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young, and "Danny's Song" by Loggins & Messina to name the ones I especially remember. I couldn't be more proud the day my 5 year old proclaimed from the back seat: "I only like Bob Dylan's 'folk stuff.' If I would have been at the [1965 Newport Jazz] festival I would have 'boo-ed' too'" (I couldn't stop laughing!). She's more a purist than I am, but I love to see the tradition of song and music being passed along. Thanks again for this Sandra!


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