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May 14, 1999

I stopped paying attention to rock and rap artists a long time ago and I rarely listen to any of today's pop music. Let me clarify, lest some of my young friends stop reading right here. It is just too pop for me, too loud and mostly not understandable. I need something that sounds nice but also with words that make sense. When I was young, we used to hear that all the time on jukeboxes, radios at the soda fountain or 78 rpm record players at the teen hop. It could be dreamy or hyper-energized by the big swing bands, but almost always with understandable lyrics that conveyed a sentimental or perky thought. The vocalists were always well dressed and well scrubbed. Men wore their hair short and clean, with perhaps a little dab of hair oil to make it glisten.

I guess I'm just suspicious of today's popular music because I don't understand it. I regret that young people of recent decades have missed out on what we who are now seniors recognize as more or less immortal tunes. We used to eagerly await each week's Hit Parade on the radio to see if our personal favorites made the Top Ten. (I remember that our elders back then did not care for swing, either. Thought it was decadent. Now I hear it's coming back.)

The other day my favorite radio station was playing a recording of "The Music Goes Round and Round," a classic from the 1940s, and it brought on this wave of nostalgia. That tune was a landmark on the cutting edge of modern swing in its day. And ah yes, the words. Here's a sample, best as I remember: "Oh you blow through here / the music goes down and around / wo-o-o-o-o-o / and it comes out here." Are those memorable lines? And easy to understand? Louis Armstrong at the peak of his career helped make that a certifiable classic with his distinctive singing voice and scat trumpet style. Numerous other artists of the era recorded that song and all of them did well with it.

Another standard with most swing bands was a number called "Cement Mixer." It also had noteworthy lyrics. One phrase that comes quickly to mind is this: "Cement mixer, put-tee, put-tee / cement mixer, put-tee put-tee." Nothing suggestive or vulgar there. Perhaps it's not in the same league with "Three Little Fishies" ("three iddy fishies in the iddy-biddy poo") and certainly not with "Mairzy Doats," ("oh, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamsy divy") or "Hey bob-a ree-bop," but it stays with you. Another hit was "Hold Tight." Those two words, plus "poodly-acky-shacky / I want some seafood, mama," comprised virtually all of the lyrics. It was one of the Andrews Sisters' biggest successes. Songsmiths don't write them like that any more.

In the interest of objectivity, and to keep this essay in the right perspective, I tried to think of some comparable selections or albums from today's charts but that didn't work because I have no clue to what the younger generation likes. When I accidentally tune in a top 40s show on the radio, it is mostly just noise to my ear -- no melody to speak of. How do you hum stuff like that? Give me the real thing -- perhaps another Spike Jones rendition of "Glow Worm." But, they're not writing that kind today. Pity