I suppose there are such things as classic pop songs. A random selection might include White Christmas, Tie My Kangaroo Down Sport, and The Carnival is Over, but probably not Mark Dinning’s Teen Angel or the 1968 Honey (I Miss You), sung by a hairy young Bobby Goldsboro. In only two generations these chart toppers seem to have been forgotten, along with Ricky Valence’s Tell Laura I Love Her, despite their having been icons of the ‘treacle tragic’ genre.
While we might enjoy a wallow in sentimental syrup on rainy days and Mondays, by Saturday night we’re feeling that they’re fair game for a send-up. Marianne Spellman has done a Hindenburg on Honey, and I admit that I laughed (but not till I cried): http://www.popthomology.com/2011/12/deconstructing-bobby-goldsboros-honey.html.
Back in the 1950s there were a few teen weepies about dead lovers, and many more in the 1970–’80s — maybe from the fallout from the Vietnam war and the start of the AIDS pandemic — but they’ve all been outlasted by the more upbeat songs of lost love generally, like Johnny Ray’s Walkin’ in the Rain, Guy Mitchell’s Singin’ the Blues, and Ray Charles’ Bye Bye Love. Perhaps that offers a clue about what makes a classic.
Apart from the English marching songs of World War I, and those now in the Australian canon of folksongs – A Brown Slouch Hat, The Old Bark Hut, and Where the Dog Sits on The Tuckerbox being just three of dozens – I couldn’t say what songs were popular in my grandparents’ time. That’s probably because wax cylinders, pianolas and the very popular community singing sessions didn’t last the distance, but I well remember my mother’s 78rpm records of the 1940s. I will always love Bing Crosby, The Inkspots and the Andrew Sisters. Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River was the saddest disc, and Ravel’s orchestral Pavane for a Dead Princess was a sombre second.
We had plenty to cry about, but most World War II songs had the ‘chin up and carry on’ sentiment of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Gather Lilacs, Gracie Fields’ Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye and Crosby’s classic I’ll Be Seeing You, with its nod to Mahler’s Third Symphony. The 1950s were full of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Peggy Lee, sputnikspeak and jokey space monsters like the Flying Purple People Eater.
Many of the jaunty numbers blasted out on unreliable equipment in seniors’ exercise classes these days were originally 45rpm singles first heard in the 1960s on milk bar juke boxes by pony-tailed teenagers and Brylcreemed Teddy boys. Most of my 45s are long forgotten and rightly so.
However, there are songs from opera and operetta, and early film and stage musicals that have withstood the technological trek from wind-up turntable to WiFi tablet. Possibly the rapid evolution of broadcasting technology, combined with the evasion of the copyright police by digital pirates, and tertiary courses in different genres of music and media have kept them alive. Similarly, the classic novels of Charles Dickens, R L Stevenson, Jane Austen, C S Lewis et al are unlikely to be forgotten as long as they are read in schools and regularly adapted for film and television.
I don’t know whether tertiary students of art or music are expected to know much about the classics of literature or of media other than their own. From what I observe, the creative arts in the 21st century seems to be nearly as compartmentalised as they were in my youth.
At my English primary school in the 1950s we learned to read and sing music with books and a schools radio program. At my ‘secular’ all-girls high school we sang a daily hymn while the Jewish students went to their own assembly, but we all heard records of ‘good’ music and lieder and performances by visiting musicians. We learnt English ballads in music class, and in language classes we sang French and German folksongs.
Literature and music were in good supply but classical art and sculpture got little coverage. Maybe lack of coverage was the problem: all that marble nudity may have been deemed inappropriate for young minds at a time when sex was unmentionable in newspapers and polite conversation, and bewhiskered worthies on regional committees governed education.
Schools are more enlightened these days, and destined to be even more so as students outstrip their teachers in digital skill. The technology now available to create multimedia ‘books’ that include audiovisual content will inevitably open wide the windows between the creative arts. Thanks to YouTube we can look forward to innovative cross-fertilisation, and maybe a rekindled appreciation of the still-relevant lyrics of pop songs of the past. But that’ll be the day – no, that will never be the day — when you hear me say, ‘Honey, I miss you.’