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.