Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us: Happy Mother's Day 2015

Yoko & Isoko Ono; Ellen & Betty O'Neill

One of the great delights for me is stumbling upon a touchstone, and if it's one that has been long forgotten, all the better.

This one starts with a news article back in January that recordings of "lost" Desert Island Discs had recently been discovered by the BBC.

What is a Desert Island Disc? It is a unique interview show on BBC 4 that has been on the air since its first episode on January 29, 1942. That's 73 years and counting.

Each week a distinguished "Castaway" chooses 8 pieces of music that they would want on their desert island, along with one book, and a luxury item--nothing that can help them escape, but something that will improve their life.  They are also given the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Mrs. Peel Is Found

In January, one of the missing Castaway recordings for Diana Rigg was found, which is why the series caught my attention. (The others found were Louis Armstrong, first Doctor Who "Doctor" William Hartnell, and creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, Rev. W. Awdry.)

I first heard about the radio program at a Tallis Scholars Summer Workshop, where Patrick Craig played the interviewer and Jan Coxwell was the castaway. That was loads of fun, and wherein I learned the song Puppet on a String, one of England's Eurovision song winners.

But it was the "lost" news announcement that brought me to the wonderful BBC website and the Castaway Archive, for which I am eternally grateful. The archive lets you search by Castaway name, or specific piece of music or artist (to see how many Bob Dylan songs are among the choices, for instance) or a specific book, etc.

That search function brings you so easily to the intimacy of the human voice. The voice of a loved one is one of the most precious aspects of the human condition. And then there are the distinctive voices of beloved public figures: Michael Caine's cockney-inflected accent; David Tenant's Scottishness; Alec Guiness's uber English clip. It is a delight to hear their stories about their choices in those voices that are so familiar.

Yoko Ono and Her Mother

One of the stories that I found profoundly touching was from Yoko Ono, recorded Friday, June 15, 2007, when she was 73 years old. 

It was for her selection of the song "When I Grow to Too Old Dream." Here is the story she tells of why she chose it.  Her distinctive, slight voice somehow made the story even more poignant and resonant:

Yoko:  "This is a very personal memory for me.

One day I just felt I wanted to call my mother.

The way she said "Oh Yoko" I thought there was something strange.

And then she said "I just fell in the kitchen," or something like that.

And I thought, this is serious and I thought I had to do something, but I was in New York and she was in Japan.

So I said, "Ok Mommy, let's sing that song, remember that song you used to sing."

and I started "When I grow too old to dream."

[And my mother started to sing back very weak and very haltingly.]

Ok. Let's start again, "When I grow too old to dream. . ." 

I kept repeating it and repeating it and she finally sang the whole line.

I was so choked up. And my assistant called to Tokyo, to the hospital and got the ambulance to go to my mother, and she was saved."

And that is how Yoko Ono kept her mother calm and alert while her assistant telephoned Japan and got her mother help.

"When I Grow Too Old to Dream" is a song with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1934. (Yoko Ono was born in 1933). It is one of those extremely special tunes, like Amazing Grace and Danny Boy, that strikes a chord deep within many, many people.

The terrible scenario of an elderly loved one who has fallen is one that every family has known.  Keeping her mother calm and alert was absolutely the thing to do, very quick thinking on Yoko's part. And of ALL the songs in ALL the world she could use, what pops into her head in that desperate moment is a song in English that her mother sang to her as a child.  Isoko of course sang songs to Yoko in Japanese, but "When I Grow" has a tune that can connect soul to soul very deeply. Perhaps that is why it popped into her head in that stressful moment.

I hadn't thought of the song in years, but my mother, who was born the same year as Yoko, sang it to me too when I was a child. 

What makes my mom's rendition so special is that she cannot "carry a tune."  My mother can hear distinctive notes in a song, and can recognize songs, but she struggles to re-create differing pitches of any kind. Her notes often come out as a monotone. And yet, her love of songs and desire to share was so strong that I did hear "tunes" come through that monotone. And this song in particular, which I have known practically since birth.

Yoko tells her story beautifully, and sings the first line through twice. I hope you will click over to the Desert Island Discs website and listen to it, and all of her song selections, which of course include John Lennon.

Stumbling onto Yoko's story brought me an unexpected connection to the whole beautiful, shared notion of mothers & daughters, a choral connection across cultures and decades. Amazing.

When I grow too old to dream
I'll have you to remember
When I grow too old to dream
Your love will live in my heart
So, kiss me my sweet
And so let us part
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart
And when I grow too old to dream
That kiss will live in my heart

The song was used in the 1935 film The Night Is Young, starring Ramon Navarro and sung by English light opera actress Evelyn Layne.

Leonard Maltin is not fan of the film: "Novarro, wretchedly miscast and mugging mercilessly, brings his 10-year MGM career to a pitiful end playing a Viennese archduke who spurns his royal fiancee for a fling with ballerina Laye. Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg score, including "When I Grow Too Old to Dream,'' is an insufficient saving grace."

Gracie Fields and Nelson Edy had early hits with it, followed by Nat King Cole and Doris Day. Yoko used the Gracie version for her Desert Island Disc. That is not my favorite, because it's too operatic for such a gentle tune (although it does have the nice intro verse).  Here is Linda Ronstadt in a lovely duet with Kermit & Muppet chorus, also with the intro verse.