Running errands to Target yesterday, I heard a little Christmas music. I heard a lot of Christmas music, actually. For some reason, this time it took me back, to eighth-grade choir practice. Our teacher was demanding and a little crazy, as the best choir teachers frequently are. We were having our first run-through of “The Holly and the Ivy,” one of my favorite old English carols, not as well known then as it is today, and the lyrics even less so. Many of us were reading them for the first time:
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
The rising of the sun
and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir
We got to the last line, and it became evident many of my classmates had never seen the word “choir” on the page. About 80 percent of the chorus sang kwire, but the rest sang choyre. I thought Mr. Yenser was going to go insane, but that would come later, on “O, Holy Night,” when we were lectured over and over on the correct pronunciation of divine. Short i, people, short i! Di-vine, not dee-vine. He was also painstaking in his conducting, insisting we not start belting too early. It’s a long song that requires a slow build, and if we dared to bring it before “fall on your knees,” there was hell to pay. Even then, we had to keep it dialed down a notch, so as to really cut loose on the last three lines:
Oh hoooooly night
Oh night DI-vine….
I tell you, Mariah Carey could learn a thing or three from him. I was strictly another face in the crowd in choir, no solos for me, although I would have my chance to disappoint him face-to-face later that season. He had an idea that would call for someone who lived close to school to carry out; would I be interested? I was only half a block away, so I said sure, and this was the idea: To welcome students to school with the sounds of Christmas music playing from speakers on the third floor. I’d have to arrive about 30 minutes early, and I’d be given access to a closed room at the top of the building, where I’d set up the record player, open the window, put the speaker on the ledge and let loose with some “Sleigh Ride” and other Christmas classics until the first bell. He had a few records to choose from, but left the mix up to me, and as I considered myself a natural DJ at the time, I was flattered. I even brought some of my parents’ albums from home and added some oddities — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Mahalia Jackson, a little Gregorian chant.
The gig was for two weeks, and by the second week, I was pretty sick of “Jingle Bells,” so I threw in “Sunshine of Your Love” as my final cut, when everyone was rushing to get through the doors and my audience was biggest. This got me some awrights from my classmates in homeroom, and that was all the encouragement I needed. The next day’s set consisted of Led Zeppelin, some early Stones and Jefferson Airplane. And this was before it was trendy for rock ‘n’ rollers to put out Christmas records. It was just “Born to be Wild” and “Somebody to Love” and to hell with Christmas. This is the devil’s music.
It might have gone on all week, until another teacher asked Mr. Yenser, who traveled between schools and arrived later in the day, why the Vanilla Fudge was being played from the third floor before school. And I’d stupidly left a few LPs in the room, so as not to have to haul them back and forth. The jig was up, and he expressed his profound, deep disappointment while I clutched “Disraeli Gears” to my chest and looked at the floor.
“But why this music? This?” he pleaded. I spluttered, and tried to explain that I just wanted to hear some cool tunes right before school, but this was clearly a violation of our agreement. I didn’t tell him people had liked it a lot better than “Joy to the World.” He couldn’t hear that at all; it was clear he was not one of those adults who secretly appreciated the Beatles. It was all noise and long hair to him. “I think you’re not right for this job,” he said, and I agreed. The last two days before vacation I slunk to school with everyone else, under the closed, silent window, covered in shame.
It’s funny — I think of Mr. Yenser whenever I hear Johnny Mathis sing oh night DEEvine, but I hadn’t even thought of this darkly comic chapter until today.
When I Google his name, I see he had many students who remember him fondly. I also see he was quite the square — taking his best students to a Fred Waring concert? Even in the early ’60s, that was pretty lame. I also see others disappointed him, too.
As culture-war skirmishes go, this one hardly counts. But I carry a wound, obviously.
And I’m sorry, Mr. Yenser, but the world will remember Eric Clapton a lot longer than they will Fred Waring. If you couldn’t see it then, I hope you saw it eventually.
So, a wee bit of bloggage?
I know we have many Civil War fans here, so for you — a period map of the slave-holding states, showing the concentrations of slave ownership by county, based on the 1860 census. I love maps, and I love this one. So did A. Lincoln.
“I loves me some me” — now pay Mr. Owens to say that.
Finally, a sad story from the WashPost — told mainly in Facebook status updates.
Where did this week go? I hope the ending is something to look forward to. Have a good one, all.