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Reflections of a North Country Girl At Heart - The Music

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EDITOR’S NOTE:The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

The Music

No rap…no twerking

But we did have the “one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater” and the Peppermint Lounge twist…although not at the same time.

The 1960s are largely regarded as an evolutionary time for pop music and pop music culture. There was no smooth transition from the crooners and big band era of the 1940s and classic hard rock of our college years. I am very familiar with the music of the 1940s as my mother often put on Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman or Glen Miller and danced around our living room to the old hi-fi (which stood for high fidelity—a big box with a fabric front screen through which can the sounds of those old 33 1/3 RPM vinyl discs). Mom was a “bobby soxer,” part of the World War II generation that swooned over “old blue eyes” (that would be Frank), and jitter bugged to the Andrews Sisters singing the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. Hard to believe, but Frank was the Elvis of his day, causing great crowds of teenagers, Mother included, to scream. In fact, it was Frank Sinatra that is credited as one of the first singers to cause the phenomenon known as “fan hysteria.”

As the time of the big orchestras transitioned to individual singers, we were probably too young to notice the change. Singers such as Patti Page, Nat “King” Cole, Perry Como and Tony Bennett all seemed pretty tame as we approached puberty. Our elementary and junior high days were spent listening to such novelty songs as the infamous purple people eater, Bobby Vinton’s Splish Splash (I was taking a bath…), Pat Boone, Connie Francis and Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife—also all pretty tame in hindsight. More than one junior high dance ended with the girls always wanting to take a spin on the dance floor to the romantic strains of Blue Velvet and April Love.

But, the times—they were a’ changing…and had been for most of the 1950s. In 1951, a Cleveland, Ohio, disc jockey began playing music, rooted in rhythm and blues for an ethnically diverse audience, and, for the first time, used the term “rock and roll”. (Appropriately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is today located in Cleveland.) The undisputed king of this era was, of course, Elvis Presley, whom my grandmother called, not so affectionately, “Elvis the Pelvis.” My father also added when Elvis was inducted into the Army, “When he gets out he’ll be forgotten!” Fueled by Dick Clark’s American Bandstand going national in 1957, a new era was upon us.

American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show were the key promoters of the new vocalists of the 1950s and 1960s. Clark’s program, which he hosted until 1989, featured as least one live act that lip-synced (true!) the latest hit record. The number of performers who appeared on Dick Clark fills over 15 pages, single spaced. What we all probably remember most is rushing home to watch the couples dance to the new pop and rock records. We all had our favorite couples, and anxiously watched their every move, hoping to detect a possible break-up that would somehow make us feel as if we had a chance with the new single man. Sad to say that Dick Clark is probably remembered by most people today as the man who hosted the dropping of the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve until his death in 2012, but to our generation he was the penultimate disc jockey.

Ed Sullivan, like Dick Clark, featured the hottest new acts around. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was immediate affirmation that you had made it in the entertainment world. As we gathered around the television on Sunday nights, the best musical acts in the world came into our homes—in black and white of course. Ed famously hosted Elvis, who according to television myth was only shown from the waist up (not true); brought the Beatles into our lives for the first time; and promoted the new Motown acts (my favorites), the Beach Boys, the Jackson 5, The Mamas and the Papas, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin…the list is endless.

Thousands of words have been written about the Beatles who, like the Stones, influenced popular music for decades. Their appearance on the Sullivan show, reportedly viewed by over73 million viewers, marked the beginning of the “The British Invasion” and their first American number one single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” spent over 15 weeks at the top of Billboard’s Top 100. But, honestly, I was a Motown devotee. I think I had every record ever put out by Detroit during this era—a collection I jettisoned when my first husband preferred opera. As I read about Motown today, I am sure that I never knew that Motown music was to later be credited with helping to break racial barriers during the volatile civil rights atmosphere of the ‘60s. I will admit to having the sound track from “Dream Girls” on my IPod today.

As we entered college and the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement escalated, many of the folk singers of the day carried the torch of social commentary and political activism. Did any of us really understand that Puff the Magic Dragon was really about the loss of childhood innocence (although widely regarded as a song about marijuana), or that other Peter, Paul and Mary hits like If I Had a Hammer were linked to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington? Probably not.

A review of the top Billboard hits for the decade, from Percy Faith’s Theme from a Summer Place in 1960 to the 5th Dimension’s Aqiarious in 1969 might suggest that the music of the 1960s was generic—nothing could be further from the truth.

Author’s notes: A fact that we are indeed getting old—The media recently announced that Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame is soon to be a great-grandfather—yes, great! However, true to the vigor of our generation, he begins another world tour in Australia in 2014. As a resident of Rhode Island I must also include a reference to what Rolling Stone Magazine called one of the most notable events in music history—the day that Bob Dylan plugged in his acoustical guitar during the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival—and was booed by his fans. Another measure that I in particular am aging—my music preference today is country—not Taylor Swift country—Alan Jackson country.

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