February 11, 2015
One of the things that struck me when reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life was the music that was always playing in the background.
In his memoir, Wolff tells of his itinerant childhood in the 1950s. At the beginning of his story Wolff, about eleven years old, and his mother ran from her abusive boyfriend in Florida. Arriving in Salt Lake City, but finding no work, they drove on. Wolff writes, “As we drove, we sang – Irish ballads, folk songs, big-band blue. I was hooked on ‘Mood Indigo.’ Again and again I world-wearily crooned, ‘You ain’t been blue, no, no, no’ while my mother eyed the temperature gauge and babied the engine. Then my throat dried up on me and left me croaking.”
Settling in Seattle his mother remarried. Following a Thanksgiving dinner with his rather dysfunctional family, they sang. “We sang ‘Harvest Moon,’ ‘Side by Side,’ ‘Moonlight Bay,’ ‘Birmingham Jail,’ and ‘High above Cayuga’s Waters,’” Wolff recalled, adding, “I got compliments for knowing all the words.”
Wolff’s stepfather, Dwight Hansen, was determined to teach the rebellious boy some life lessons, believing no pain, no gain. Relating a particularly ugly argument whereby Dwight beat him up, Wolff notes, “I learned a couple of lessons. I learned that a punch in the throat does not always stop the other fellow. And I learned that it’s a bad idea to curse when you’re in trouble, but a good idea to sing, if you can.”
At the end of the story, Wolff looks back to a time when he was sixteen years old, riding around with his friend Chuck Bolger, who had just found out that he wouldn’t be sent to jail. “Finally he turned off the radio, and we sang Buddy Holly songs for a while. When we got tired of those, we sang hymns. First we sang ‘I Walk to the Garden Alone’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ and a few other quiet ones, just to find our range and get in the spirit. Then we sang the roofraisers. We sang them with respect and we sang them hard, swaying from side to side and dipping our shoulders in counterpoint. Between hymns we drank from the bottle. Our voices were strong,” he recounts. “It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.”
Are you writing your memoir or life history? What music rocks your world?
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved