Songs to keep me warm

I was the girl without a coat. I never needed one until in my forties I began to feel the bite of winter. Before then my age or the fact that I spent most times outside in a car where a coat was redundant, left me layered.

And singlets, what was the use of them? A thin line of insulation that invariably rode up people’s backs. And created a draft. 

Besides I disliked the look of a man in an otherwise crisp shirt when underneath you could see the thin outline of his singlet straps. To me it looked clumsy as if such a man belonged with his mother cosseted because he could not handle life. 

My prejudices from my youth embarrass me now. Even as I tried hard as an adolescent not to go with the mainstream.

When I resisted the Beatle mania that ran through most girls at my convent school like a rash. When I refused to listen to the Rolling Stones and could not for the life of me see what all the fuss was about when large groups of young women and girls screamed at airports after the Monkees’ plane landed on the tarmac.

How they carried on as though their lives depended on a brief encounter with these pretty young men with dark near shoulder length hair who carried guitars and sang into microphones as though they were eating ice creams.

Not for me such savage idolatry. I preferred to listen to Mozart or embrace the sad tones of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. 

When Marilyn came to say in our house in Camberwell when I was still not wearing bras but aware my turn would soon come, she wore her dark hair long and straight. It hung around her face like the folk singing females coming out of America.

Marilyn played a guitar seated on the bed I had vacated to make room for her in my sister’s bedroom. I went back to share a room with two younger sisters. I don’t remember objecting to this move.

I was glad I did not need to sleep alone in a room. That would have distressed me then as a child. Besides no longer sharing a room with my older sister meant my father was far less likely to visit in the night. Maybe too he might stop visiting my older sister given a complete stranger had taken up residence in our house for one entire year. 

Marilyn came from Queensland where she lived with her father. She had met one of my older brothers while he was travelling through and he brought her home to Melbourne, at first under the guise of being his girlfriend. But in almost no time he had met another woman, three years older, who held more allure. She fell pregnant to my brother and the two arranged to marry.

Marilyn was stuck in Melbourne therefore without a boyfriend but my father agreed to let her stay with us for the year so she could complete her final year of school at Canterbury Girls High, a few streets away from us. The reason she’d come to Melbourne in the first place.

When you’re one of the young ones in a family, things happen between your parents and among your older siblings that make little sense.

Still, you take it for granted as a given.

No one asks your opinion on such activities or asks if it bothers you. It’s a done deal, as was the fact that Marilyn moved into the bed that was once mine in the room I had shared with my older sister and I was back with the younger ones. 

Marilyn brought folk music into our house, music that my older sister was already beginning to embrace but Marilyn’s voice was alto deep while my sister’s was soprano high.

There was a depth to Marilyn’s voice and her sorrow that somehow eclipsed my sister’s and everyone I knew. She matched the songs she sang and few of them had religious over tones.

My sister went for God fuelled songs:

To everything turn turn turn, Kumbayah, songs she learned with the church choir, but Marilyn introduced the songs of the civil rights movement. Old songs straight out of America and the civil war, out of the UK and its long history, Scottish ballads: 

The river is wide I cannot cross over. 

Nor do I have light wings to fly. 

Give me a boat that will carry to and boats will bring my love and I.

The Birmingham five, the dead women in Ohio.

This music spoke to me. And despite my wish to avoid the mainstream when The Seekers came into vogue in Australia, I sat alongside other people in my desperate desire to become another Judith Durham.

She also of the long straight shiny hair that flanked both sides of her face. Her voice was like an angel’s and always accompanied by the three young men at her side who sang in harmony and strummed their instruments as though they were all part of a whole. 

The music of those times held me tight. I did not need coats or singlets when I could be held tight in my mind under the thick embrace of the words that floated over the notes, I sang out loud out of earshot of all people but in my imagination, I sang to the clouds who were my audience and imagined myself a great voice, the voice of a songbird on the wing or settled on a branch.

Ready to stop the world with her sound. 

My folk singer self.

4 thoughts on “Songs to keep me warm”

  1. The soundtrack to my life… Christ! As I’ve said before there we no books in my parents’ house other than bibles and religious publications. No records either although we had an old radiogram and there was, of course, the TV. I suppose my first exposure to music must’ve been my mum and dad singing—he reckoned he sounded like Bing Crosby, she, Gracie Fields—but I had no idea what was going on in the world of popular music until I went to school and the other kids started talking about it. I was, of course, only wee when the Beatles gained popularity and so Beatlemania went right over my head. And even when I did hear them I had no idea how revolutionary they were. It wasn’t until the seventies both music and writing because important to me and the odd thing was I developed my devotion to classical music alongside my passion for pop music. I could be happily listening to Beethoven, stop to tune into that week’s Top Twenty on the radio and then go right back. I loved Gary Glitter, bought all his records and had the sheet music too. Upset me no end when he fell from grace because I can’t divorce his music in my mind from happy memories. I didn’t have much exposure to folk music other than the traditional (mainly) Scottish songs we sang at school and maybe a bit of Bob Dylan or whatever was on the telly, Julie Felix or Val Doonican, that kind of thing. The same with jazz. About all I knew for years were Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. I absolutely adored the French chanteuse Mireille Mathieu—she had a regular guest spot on The John Davidson Show which I watched faithfully—but I was never especially passionate about musicals; I didn’t hate them but I didn’t love them either apart from ‘Oliver!’ And, of course, while all this’s happening I was devouring everything classical I could lay my hands on from plainchant on. Rachmaninov and Bartók were early favourites but as soon as I heard the name of a composer that was unfamiliar to me I wanted to hear something by them. I’m still the same to this day. Still struggle with most opera though and the same goes for rap, Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ aside. I’m afraid can’t carry a tune to save myself. My music teacher said I always came in a semitone below everyone else. Go figure. I did used to enjoy singing though and, surrounded by a congregation or a choir, no one could ever tell if I was fractionally off.

    1. I’m into musicals, Jim, even as I often wondered as a child that people could break into song as they do in musicals. and I too love singing in groups. It’s so uplifting. I used to be able to sing but as I age, it’s harder to get to the top notes which saddens me. If only I’d kept up my practice it wouldn’t be so hard but you can’t do everything, can you? I love your ecumenical approach to most music. Thanks, Jim.

  2. Another girl growing up in 1960s Melbourne who thought the screaming hysterics of the crowds of girls swooning over the Beatles outside the Southern Cross Hotel and the Monkees were just silly. The world seemed on the edge of so many social revolutions and so many battles that we are still fighting.

    I too was a girl with long straight hair tied up in pigtails or plaits for school with hats and gloves on as we travelled to and from school. I so wanted to be someone like Joan Baez and sing the world to a better place. (Slight problem there as I can’t sing for love or money!) My other favourites were Peter, Paul & Mary singing I Have a Hammer among other rousing and poignant songs. I still have my treasured double PP&M in Concert double album. And Cat Stevens’ singing Where do the Children Play?

    I once read that cynics are disappointed idealists or maybe we just grow up.

  3. Lovely to meet a meet a kindred spirit here, April. Were our doubts about the idealisation of the pop stars a sign of cynicism or something else? Maybe a sign of wanting something deeper. It’s an interesting question. I admire the work of the Beatles today, especially as they matured. Maybe our tastes mature. Thanks April.

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