This weekend, at a mid-high Episcopal Mass, the opening hymn was "My Country 'Tis of Thee." An unfortunate series of associations immediately followed that resulted in my singing, briefly, to a different tune:
My country tis of thee.
We mean it man.
It ain't no human bean.
God save her.
And then I couldn't remember the words. Isn't learning "My Country Tis of Thee" the curriculum of about half the Kindergarten year? Mrs. Nixon, my kindergarten teacher, would be so ashamed of me now. Especially since I can't remember the song we spent the other half of the year learning.
That song was No. 1 on the charts for something like forever, and was the biggest selling song of the year. To this day I cannot listen to the song — 34 years later and I'm STILL sick of it. In the Platonic realm, this song is the exact polar opposite Platonic ideal of the punk anthem that I recalled in church Sunday. Need a hint?
I was in Kindergarten in 1969-70. The song was featured prominently in a movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The song itself was written by a man who later collaborated with Elvis Costello.
For the record, 1970 was a great year for music. And if Mrs. Nixon wanted to teach us a song, she should've taught us the hit by the Five Stairsteps ("Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier ..."). At least the song had some class and contained the same message as said unnamed-song, except this message was delivered in the correct point of view (second v. first), contained believable warmth and pathos, and didn't torture all the life out of a piss-poor metaphor while mixing up hamfisted tongue-twisters.
Alas, relief was not to be visited upon us younglings in our tender first year of public enseignement. We were subject to what felt like 60 years of gulag hard labor learning the song, though without the death and starvation. And cold. Still, the conditions were brutal. We had to sit upright, in hard wooden chairs, and recite this song ad nauseam. Most of us bore our sorrows like men and women, but under the repetitions even the strongest of us began to crack.
Some students took the coward's way out and became publicly incontinent. You can get away with such things at that age. Others began to pick their noses and play with their shoes. The passive aggressive among us took to pretending to sing, as if their silence equating genuine protest.
I didn't join my fellows in these subversive behaviors. No, I protested the song by singing it as loudly and often as possible*. When the teacher called my name, I sang it. When told to line up for the water fountain, I sang it. While in the washroom, I sang it and proclaimed myself produced by Phil Spector. I frequently announced to the teacher that it the greatest song in human history, and certainly a new cornerstone of Western civilization, replacing the letters of Paul of Tarsus, and the writings of Augustine of Hippo, Dante, Aquinas, Luther and Einstein. No, I gave them what they want in such quantities that even they couldn't fail to see the point ... that in my feral heart was their future, and that if they didn't abandon these bourgeois sentiments in exchange for something better, they would be looking into a heart of immense darkness.
My methods didn't work. The elders missed the point completely. At age six they can always say, "Whatever he's going through, he'll outgrow it." And they did. And I did. And eventually the song itself passed from the public consciousness and the popular culture, leaving only us Class of 1970 to essay forgetting the horror.
* OK, I may have made this part up.