A Tougher, Better Time

PBS had an abbreviated telethon of sorts over the past two evenings during which a session devoted to Glenn Miller Music was presented on one channel the first evening and repeated on another channel the second. I made it a point not to miss the first performance, but determined not to watch it the second time. I did, anyway…couldn't resist - marvelous music…marvelous lyrics…great performance by the "Glenn Miller Orchestra" and singing quintet (remember the Modernaires?) under the direction of trombonist Larry O'Brien.

It occurred to me that the so-called "big-band" music, deriving from the 1920s through the early 50s, came at times that were harsh and bloody, marked by the "Great Depression" and World War II, respectively. The music, featuring civilized and un-vulgar lyrics meshed with recognizable melodies, spoke of love, sadness, hope, and joy. The melodies have never left my consciousness from the days when it first came on line and I was among the first to hear it. Hearing it again took me back to other days, days when youth was in flower and when the society was reflected by its music and not badgered by it, as is often the case today.

The 30s were grim, with unemployment reaching 25 percent and people actually going hungry in the country; the 40s were unbelievably sad, as more than 405,000 American GIs died in that terrible conflict, with another 37,000 dying just five-seven short years later in the Korean Conflict, both wars oceans and continents away, but marked by whole countries saved through the participation of this nation.

The society has become much coarser since that time. Compare the big-band style and substance of its day with that of most of the garbage passing for popular music today, and the difference becomes one of refinement/sensitivity replaced by vulgarity - everything from the "heavy metal" slop to the "drug enhancement/fornication" ecstasies to "rap," a synonym for pseudo-artistic bestiality. The music of 50-80 years ago was designed to make people dance and enjoy each other; the music today is designed to make people writhe and seduce each other, with perversions of every type glorified.

Perhaps the societal conflicts of those days (seems like only yesterday, though) were sort of marked by Glenn Miller himself. He, along with a handful of other bandleaders, ruled the roost with outfits that were outstanding, but there were many such bands. During WWII, Miller formed a band of top musicians who became a part of the U.S. Army, and they toured the battle areas, raising the morale of troops everywhere. Then in December 1944, Miller was lost in a plane crash in the English Channel and his body was never recovered. Just as did all of his comrades, he came from the Great Depression era into that of the most horrible war that has ever been fought, and died in the process of doing good. It was a different time.

It Is the Music

It is the music…big-band stuff
From forty, fifty years ago,
And seldom played now - not enough -
Just heard on public radio;
He played the disks once…loved the sound
And thought how bittersweet the years -
Those teens plus some…of shaky ground…
Now, memories…that could bring tears;
It is that music…seldom sounds
- Just Saturdays on radio -
No longer does he play those sounds,
Too much to do, somewhere to go;
It is the feeling…sweet caress,
So palpable it seems to fill
A strong cocoon-like, warm recess -
A shivery twinge, an inward thrill;
It is the sound…of times long spent,
When youth meant life was always there,
But now the sound…marks strong lament,
When age means life is soon nowhere;
And so, he listens…thinks - too late -
Of all the things he might have done…
It is the music…out of date…
That warms…but mocks those dreams, undone;
And yet…that sound…so civilized…
Of love, of wars, and all that jazz
Is still the song, now realized,
Of joy…when age is all one has.