Facing the Music


Back during the '50s, Dad would usher in the holiday season by playing selections from the family cache of Christmas records. Only later, of course, did we realize that not one of those tunes was politically correct.

Dad played Perry Como's "White Christmas," Handel's "Messiah" conducted by Otto Klemperer, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," by a lady whose name I forget.

Later in the decade, I believe, we also got a heretical little ditty called "Jingle Bell Rock."

These antediluvian entertainments emerged from a three-speed turntable that sat atop our black-and-white TV and played through speakers concealed behind a grill at the bottom of the cabinet.

Years later I described this gizmo to a younger cousin, whose eyes widened with the same incredulous gaze I succumbed to when Grandpap told me how they finally got electricity down on the farm.

Still, we were permitted such naivete in the '50s because everybody realized that listening to "The Messiah" and "Jingle Bell Rock" just might take our minds off the possibility of being vaporized by the Russians if President Eisenhower napped too long after a round of golf.

Kids today don't believe we actually were taught to crawl under our desks in case of nuclear attack. But we were. No wonder they used to allow prayer in schools, which now, of course, is politically incorrect.

The '50s came before the era of political correctness. They were the Stone Age of pop culture. You could turn on your black-and-white TV and watch high dramas by Paddy Chayevsky, or flip channels and chuckle along with Groucho Marx.

If you were a boy, you could demand a six-gun from Santa and he actually had to pay attention. If you were a girl, you could ask for Barbie, and your parents would get you one even though you would never look like her in a million years.

You could see Elvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show," also Nat "King" Cole and Yehudi Menuhin. You could see Beethoven performed live by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic or Liberace in his cape playing the "Moonlight Sonata."

And they all sounded just dandy in comparison to the eerie white silence that occurs in the nanosecond before an exploding H-bomb turns every living thing within 50 miles into neutrino soup. We'd learned about that on Ed Sullivan, too.

So at Christmas, we listened to Handel and Perry Como, Vivaldi and "Jingle Bell Rock" and never gave a thought to politically correct.

Then the civil-rights stuff started, and somehow "White Christmas" didn't cut it anymore.

Dad got Nat "King" Cole crooning about "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," which is a great tune, but after hearing it lo these 30 years the thought of chestnuts makes me ill.

Next, somebody said: "How come Elisabeth Schwartzkopf never came clean about singing for the Nazis?"

Ms. Schwartzkopf, of course, was the golden-throated soprano who made Otto Klemperer's "Messiah" such an ethereal joy.

Oh drat. We hadn't a clue she'd sung for the Nazis, let alone had anything to come clean about. But as children of the '50s, the only thing we hated worse than the thought of being vaporized by Russians was being gassed by Nazis.

Dad went out and bought another "Messiah," but it was so tepid nobody ever bothered listening to it.

In the '70s, people who couldn't hear when they were playing out of tune decreed that Vivaldi really meant his music to sound that way and that anybody who played it like Klemperer was out of touch.

Since then, only "authentic performances" on "period instruments" have been politically correct.

Dad tossed our beloved Vivaldi, which, despite its scratchy mono sound, could still delight, and bought a digital stereo version that has all the loveliness of processed cheese.

I forget whose sensibility "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," sung by the lady whose name I forget, offended. But to make a long story short, we tossed that too.

Now we only listen to politically correct music at Christmas, and I must say that diligence in this regard is infinitely preferable to being scared silly by the cobalt bomb.

Lately, though, the Russians have been up to their old tricks. Their electing this Zhirinovsky fellow last week was a thoroughly nasty business. Now all we can hope is that sheer terror once again will allow us to enjoy Klemperer's divine "Messiah." Another season of politically correct "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" and I might welcome being turned into neutrino soup.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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