Three beautiful voices from the wondrous 1970s
A lovely aural start to your day, with some maudlin reminiscence by a melancholic middle-aged dude thrown in for good measure
I’ve been listening a lot to the Schoolhouse Rock songs of late. Anyone in my generation (early X) will not need to read another word to have melodies and lyrics immediately appear in their heads, perhaps for the first time in decades, because all of us heard these songs for the entirety of our youth during commercial breaks while watching Saturday morning cartoons. (I can see the carpet on the living room floor that I lay on while viewing as I write this…).
I bought a DVD with the whole collection, ostensibly to introduce them to my 6 year old, but also to listen to them again myself. (To my great satisfaction, she has already memorized much of “Conjunction Junction” and “Unpack Your Adjectives”).
I have a feeling I’m not going to be able to keep myself from writing something longish on the Schoolhouse Rock phenomenon. I’ve started making detailed notes—on the songs themselves, on the culture that could produce such a thing for young kids to see and hear on Saturday morning television (a culture that quite clearly is not the one we now have), on the distance between the world that made those songs for kids and our present world. I’ll likely put at least some of it up here as it gets written.
There are two wonderful voices on these songs that imprinted themselves on my consciousness so firmly that the first time I put the DVD on to play and the relevant songs began, I anticipated just about every lyric and every little vocal modulation and melodic improvisation. Without hearing them for years, they had maintained a space in my brain, ready for instant recall. I only just learned (nearly a half century after hearing them for the first time) the names of the two singers and looked up some other biographical details.
Essra Mohawk is the owner of the soulful voice in “Interjections!” She was born Sandra Elayne Hurvitz in Philadelphia. She was living in New York City in 1967 when she met Frank Zappa (some online sources suggest they were lovers at some point around this time) and briefly became a member of The Mothers of Invention. In a bit of arcane Zappa/Mothers history, she claims she was given the moniker “Uncle Meat,” which was also the title of a 1969 Mothers double album. Here is an interview where she discusses her career, especially the stint with the Mothers.
[Aside: that Uncle Meat album contains “King Kong,” which has one of the longest and most complicated riffs in a rock song that you are likely to have heard or to ever hear. It is heavy as the core of the Earth, and yet somehow lilting and graceful, in that way that is so incredibly difficult to pull off but of which abundant examples somehow came into existence during just the few years between about 1968 and 1974.]
Hurvitz/Mohawk/Uncle Meat released a bunch of albums that I only just discovered, which contain some wonderful vocal stylings. She also wrote songs for Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner, among others. As I listened for the first time to her music beyond the Schoolhouse Rock material, her voice seemed always intimately familiar, as though I’ve been hearing her my whole life. Which I have, in the subterranean storehouse of my youth.
Were I to characterize her voice by comparison, I might say a little Joni Mitchell, a little Carole King, a little Tanya Tucker. (Perhaps there are more contemporary singers who sound like her—what would I know, contemporary pop culturally illiterate dinosaur that I am…)
The second voice from Schoolhouse Rock comes from “The Preamble,” which is one of the first encounters I had with anything to do with patriotism and the American civil religion. Earlier generations had Parson Weems’ Fable and Wood’s splendid depiction of it; we in the ‘70s had this. It is deep enough in my consciousness that I find it near impossible to read or hear the Preamble recited without simultaneously hearing this melody. Long before I had studied it or the political philosophy from which it emerged seriously, I could recite it verbatim so long as I sang it to this tune, with the phrasing parsed just as it is here. And that phrasing is kind of genius in its way. Not at all a simple thing to get it to fit into a structure with rhyme schemes (“liberty” and “posterity,” and somehow “defense” and “welfare and…” also work). Amazingly catchy, in my unapologetically biased perspective.
Lynn Ahrens is the folky voice of “The Preamble.” She won a Tony Award and has written a bunch of musicals, so quite a career. But this is the work for which her voice will have a place in my heart until that heart no longer beats.
The last of my three voices is the only one not associated with Schoolyard Rock, to my knowledge at least. Barbara Mauritz wrote and sang the pristine and haunting theme song to a movie I saw at some point in my youth that marked me in the unconscious way such things will sometimes do. The film (which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube) had to do with a family in the wilds of Appalachia in which the mother has died young and the father too becomes ill and passes away a short time later, leaving a brood of siblings to be raised by the oldest daughter. My family has roots in Appalachia, and I still speak fairly fluent hillbilly. The movie was wistfully, dreamily memorable to me in some way I cannot very well describe. I see now that it was based on a novel for teens, and I may have to have a look at that.
Above all, Mauritz’s vocal delivery in the theme just shot through me. For decades, I remembered it, or the ghost of it. At some point five or six or seven years ago, something triggered the memory and I looked for the movie and the song and found them and just sat there listening to the song over and over and over again for a few days straight, bewitched.
I learned in my recent research operation for this little piece that Mauritz was in a ‘60s band called Lamb, an avant-garde group that mingled a number of seemingly incongruous genres into a fascinatingly unique blend. So there’s something else to put on my infinitely long list of things to carefully listen to before I’m dead.