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With the advent of another war looming on our horizon I wonder if American music will respond with
a new wave of music. It seems to me that some of the best American music was spawned by hard times
in our country. Some of the best music ever created in America originated in the 1930's in the middle
of the Great Depression. Band leaders like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie
rose to stardom and gave birth to swing music. The music was hard driving with a good beat and could even
be danced to.
In those days music provided an escape to the doldrums that everyone was experiencing. In a way you could say that the harder the times the better the music. Glen Miller became America's most popular band leader ever during World War II when he mixed patriotic tunes with the standard swing tunes of the era.
After the war the country became prosperous again and everyone was busy building homes and starting
families and staying away from the dance halls in droves. The big bands folded and were replaced
with some of the worst music every created. Back in the early 1950's we were listening to the likes of
Patti Page singing "How much is that doggie in the window" and Debbie Reynolds singing "Abba Dabba Honeymoon",
a song about monkeys getting married. Or how about "I'm my own grandpa" by someone I thankfully forgot. In fact, during that period one of the biggest
stars was an accordian player! Dick Contino's rendition of "Lady of Spain" made him a hot item until he ungraciously
tried to avoid the draft during the Korean Conflict and quickly dropped out of sight.
Also during that time there was a guy by the name of Spike Jones who played "anti-music". His band did a parody
on the popular tunes of the time with instruments like an "ooga horn" and whistles.
During my high school days Elvis Presley became the rage but he eventually became a ballad singer and lost his original country roots. I thought Elvis's best records were his first hits like "That's alright mama" and "Good rockin tonite" which were definitely country.
I was the only one of my friends who liked country music when I was in high school. That was when musicians like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Kitty Wells and Ernest Tubb were stars of the Grand Ole Opry. One time my friend Mike Gross and I were in a restaurant in Eureka where there was a bunch of college students hanging out. I went to the juke box and played "He's in the jailhouse now" by nasal-voiced Webb Pierce who was about as hillbilly as you can get. My friend Mike immediately got flushed and blurted out in anger and embarrassment, "What the hell did you play that for" as the college students started to snicker and yell "yahoo". After the song finished we both slunk out of the restaurant.
In those days it was pretty hard to find country music on the radio during the day. Most of the time we would have to tune in at night into
250,000 watt station XERF in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico which would play 3 minutes of country music followed by 5 minutes of advertisement for baby chicks.
To add to my eclectic taste in music, I also listened to rythm and blues. Even in those days kids would ride around at night listening to the car radio. However, all of the radio stations were AM, not FM, and at night only the powerful stations could be pulled in. One of those stations was WLAC in Nashville. It played rythm and blues music by black musicans such as Howling Wolf, Lightning Slim and Muddy Waters. It was a revelation for us white kids to discover music that was so different, music that we had never heard before. We also heard products advertised at 3:00 a.m. that we never heard of before and probably weren't supposed to hear of either. The music started around 11:00 p.m. and stayed on until 3:00 a.m. We couldn't pull the stations in on our radio in the house so we would pile into the car and listen to the car radio because it could pull in long distance stations with the antenna.
That is one reason why my friends and I would stay out late at night - so that we could listen to the blues music on the car radio although I would never tell my mother that because I knew she wouldn't believe me.
Other than a short spurt in the late 60's and early 70's with groups like The Moody Blues, and The Doors and Crosby, Stills and Nash, most music since then has left me cold. Country music now sounds like popular music and, in my opinion, has declined in quality since the early 1950's. Any big band playing today doesn't begin to compare to the great swing bands of the 30's and 40's.
Not only has music changed for the worse since then, I think the way we listen also has worsened. In the 30's and 40's people went to dance halls to listen and dance to music. Places like Indian Acres in Streator, Les Buzz Ballroom in Spring Valley, The Hub in Edelstein. It was a social experience. Streator was really the swinging town in the 50's and 60's. Every weekend there were at least 4 bars in Streator that would have a live band.
Music was fun and happy and often romantic. Today when I see kids at one of those huge
rock concerts they all look like they are having nervous breakdowns.
Listening to music today is more isolated and personal. Kids carry around portable CD players or radios with them everywhere. When I was in high school my group of friends would have dance parties in someone's basement at least once a month during the school year. Also, there would be a sock hop in the American Legion Hall on south main street once a month. Music doesn't seem to bring people together like it used. Rather it seems to isolate people into their own world.
When I heard that the Fieldcrest homecoming dance was to feature a disk jockey instead of a live band, I thought how times have changed since I was in high school. In the 1950's the homecoming dance always featured a live dance band that you could dance to. Not only students attended the dance, but also the adults. Minonk had a lot of real good dancers who took dancing seriously. I still remember Glen and Eva Davis as being one of the best dance teams around. I also remember how we all dressed up for the occassion.
I really feel sorry for kids today because they don't have good music to enjoy. I hope that we don't need hard times to produce good music again.