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A Yankee Notebook

August 11, 2014


MONTPELIER – I wandered today to the hill, Maggie, to watch the scene below: The creek and the old rusty mill, Maggie, where we sat in the long, long ago.

I really should spend less time in front of this computer.  Like a maelstrom, it can suck you into so much information that your normal life can drown.  Last week, I stumbled over half a dozen old photos that led to a recollection of a long-ago summer job.  This week, an equally random link posted by one of my (carefully screened) Facebook friends looked interesting.  I clicked on it: Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

It was Joplin’s most famous ragtime piece, deservedly so.  I was about to lean back in my office chair and close my eyes, when I noticed the “related” music listed in the right-hand margin beside it.  For some obscure reason, it included John McCormack singing “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”  I didn’t even wait for Mr. Joplin to finish, but clicked on that instead.  Within 15 seconds I realized that a tear was trickling from my left eye, the one more susceptible to sentiment.

When I was a little kid in Albany, New York, my family drove weekly to my grandparents’ place for Sunday dinner.  The dinners were incredible – meat slow-roasted in a stone cooker, mashed potatoes churned to almost a froth by Grandpa Lange, and afterwards a dessert topped with cream whipped in an antique glass beater with a cast-iron crank and cogged wheel (I’m looking at it as I write).  But the after-dinner conversation could get a little long for a child.

Luckily, there was an old stand-up, wind-up Victrola in one corner of the parlor.  The crank fitted into the side of it; the records were stacked on edge in slots below.  By today’s standards of sound reproduction, the Victrola was pretty hissy, but one of the records was John McCormack singing “Maggie,” with a wheezy studio orchestra behind him.  I loved it, but soon discovered that I couldn’t get too excited.  “The Irish” were not popular with my German Protestant ancestors.

The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie, where once the daisies sprung.  The old rusty mill now is still, Maggie, since you and I were young.

As an adolescent I took up, at my parents’ behest, the cornet, and practiced in my bedroom at the back of the house.  It never bothered my parents – they were deaf – but probably wouldn’t have if they could have heard it, because, like them, I preferred the sentimental: “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “The Lost Chord,” “Maggie,” and the like.  “My Wild Irish Rose” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” were for livelier moments.  Nobody else in the world, I’ve discovered, does sentiment like the Irish.  Driven from their green ancestral homeland by invaders, profiteers, blight, and poverty, they yearn as none of the rest of us is able to for the hills of home, the days of yore, and the lively red-haired girls of their youth.  Nobody, as the song goes, does it better.

I wake up almost every morning with an earworm: invariably musical, usually hymnal, and often Mormon or German.  Now and then it’s a 19th-century ballad.  Significantly, it’s never anything more recent than “The Age of Aquarius.”  Current American popular music is about as stupid as a roomful of people all staring at little screens.  There are obviously folks turned on by heavy metal and rap; to many of us it’s the sound of trash cans being rolled down a steel fire escape and (to quote the Bard) “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

They say I am feeble with age, Maggie; my steps much less sprightly than then.  My face is a well-written page, Maggie, but time alone was the pen.

The tragedy of the American Civil War inspired a flood tide of sentiment.  Not without reason; the country lost forever a significant percentage of its promising young men.  “The Vacant Chair” evokes the sadness at the loss of “our noble Willie,” shot down as he bore the flag forward in one of the near-suicidal assaults for which the conflict is notorious.  “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,” with an almost dreamy tune, bitterly describes the unnoticed death of “only a private, a picket,” shot by moonlight by a sniper in the brush.

Over the decades I’ve noticed that the best, the most unforgettable stories, songs, hymns, sermons – take your pick – contain the best metaphors.  The forlorn slaves of the American South lived for centuries with only one sure hope: the apocalyptic dream of death, which they described in their spiritual “Deep River”: “My home is over Jordan. I want to cross over into camp ground.”  The 23rd Psalm’s central pastoral metaphor has proven irresistible for millennia.  Martin Luther, battered and threatened by reactionary forces after his revolt against the established church, adapted another psalm for his most famous metaphor, “A Might Fortress Is Our God.”

Sentiment seems absent from much of our current Western consciousness, and much pooh-poohed by the sophisticated.  There’s a very fine line between it and bathos, which I detect in many modern memorial services and in the white roadside crosses for extinct drivers who wouldn’t have known Christianity from potato salad.  But as Mother and I ineluctably approach the end of our long life together, I find it has a certain power to help us appreciate the wonderful life we’ve had.

They say we are aged and gray, Maggie, as spray by the white breakers flung; but to me you’re as fair as you were, Maggie, when you and I were young.

Photo by Willem lange