Laura’s Music: 11-14 years old

imagesWhen I was 11-12 years old, my father (who I was still only visiting on weekends), took up with a 16 year old woman named Judith Wolfman. We called her Judy, and sometimes Jude. To this day, I don’t know that much about her background, except that she grew up in a relatively affluent Jewish family on Long Island and had two sisters, Laura and Deborah. Her father was a psychiatrist. She had dropped out of school and come to central and western Massachusetts where she hung around the margins of the local counterculture and music scene. We were only four years apart in age. (My dad was 33).

bb_king_3Judy was smart and educated, as much or more than my father. She knew a lot about film, literature and poetry. She was also well-versed in music and popular culture. She played the guitar reasonably well and knew things about pottery, sewing, and fashion. She kept a journal (which she occasionally showed me) and gave names to her house plants. Jude had a great sense of humour and easily made me laugh hysterically. To me, she was the epitome of sophistication, even though she was only four years older than I.

janis_joplin_by_diabla69-d4kilrnJude was an enormous cultural influence on as I entered puberty and adolescence. With a few exceptions here and there, almost all the music on this playlist came directly from Judy. (The exceptions: by the time she came into our lives, I had already developed a Donovan obsession. And I had learned about Gladys Knight and the Pips from my classmates at Amherst Junior High).

Judy was just one of a string of my father’s women after my parents’ divorce. Like all his women, she didn’t stick around for that long. Sensibly, she left him after just two and a half years. (I’ve always been grateful to my dad’s various girlfriends and wives, at least the ones I knew about. Each and every one of them were strong, independent, interesting women and my father was only a temporary interlude before they moved on to much better things. All of them helped shape the person I am today, including being a feminist).

Looking Back: Music in the Life of William Henry Waller, II

William Henry Waller, II, circa 1948.
William Henry Waller, II, circa 1948.
My maternal grandfather William Henry Waller (also known to us grandkids, variously, as “Unk,” “Hank,” or “Chief,” was born in 1909, in Angola, Indiana. He was the only son of three children and grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist family.

At some point after his graduation from college, he completely and utterly rejected the conservative ideology and religion of his youth. That probably happened during the Depression of the 1930s, when he had finished college and was navigating his way through young adulthood. Although I cannot, of course, be completely sure of this, I feel pretty confident that after college he likely never set foot in a church again and he hard harsh words for religion of any sort.

FDR was one of my grandfather's heroes, as he is to me.
FDR was one of my grandfather’s heroes, as he is to me.
Moreover, Unk evolved into a fierce critique of capitalism and corporate hegemony. He adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt and considered him a hero, although Unk’s family of origin apparently considered FDR the devil incarnate.

He never called himself a socialist, although he sounded an awful lot like one to me. Unk believed in the marketplace, he frequently reminded me, just thought it had to be tightly regulated, and he was knowledgeable and devastating in his critique of regressive tax policies.

After college, he studied neuroanatomy at Cornell University and then graduated from medical school at the University of Georgia. He eventually became a psychiatrist, which remained his profession until retirement.

My grandfather wasn’t an affectionate or demonstrative person. Most of the time, I found it difficult to talk to him at all, never mind share anything personal or to have discussions about music, poetry or other kinds of art. But I knew he loved me.

I’ve tried to learn what I can about the music he listened to or might have listened to. My own memories are limited: I remember he and my grandmother Irene Andrews Waller dancing every New Year’s to Guy Lombardo’s “Auld Lang Syne.” And he was fond of FDR’s now-classic campaign tune “Happy Days Are Here Again,” even forty or fifty years after FDR had been elected.

The great Irish tenor, John McCormack whose version of The Rose of Tralee is included below.
The great Irish tenor, John McCormack whose version of The Rose of Tralee is included below.
My mother has provided some additional clues: songs that she heard him singing in the shower, an incident when he went without my grandmother to hear Frankie Laine at a nightclub in Boston (which apparently caused some friction between them) and songs that he often requested that my mother or grandmother play on the piano after my mother’s voice practice sessions (usually involving classical music, ie Handel, Mozart, etc) were done.

Patching all that together, and learning what I could about which artists were recording what during the relevant time period, I’ve assembled this playlist!

Wanted Man: Laura’s Music Memories, Age 8-11

Laura, at age 9 or 10.  The beginning of my own hippie phase.
Laura, at age 9 or 10. The beginning of my own hippie phase.
My parents got divorced when I was 7-8 years old. My brother and I lived with my mother and visited my dad on weekends or holidays. His life was chaotic, to say the least, and he never lived any one place for very long. Most of my memories revolve around being in cars with my father–when he picked us up, dropped us off, or took us on long rides or outings to go here and there, visiting his motley crew of hipster friends.

My dad had an 8-track cassette in the car, and he tended to get fixated on certain music, so us kids did, too. To this day, I can still remember Johnny Cash blaring loudly as we drove here or there, or the soundtrack to the movie Bonnie & Clyde. (In fact, we heard that soundtrack so often in the car that to this day, my brother and I can recite from memory virtually every line of dialogue from that film.)

me, at my father's house in Barre, Massachusetts for the weekend, watching TV late at night, with brother Andrew asleep,
me, at my father’s house in Barre, Massachusetts for the weekend, watching TV late at night, with brother Andrew asleep,
The other important source of musical influences during that time was movies. My father took us to movies a lot, sometimes two or three in one day. He took us to see grown up films, something for which I will always be grateful. He had no patience for children’s movies and believed it was downright wrong to censor or deprive children of worthy movies just because they contained sex or violence. (At least, that’s what he said. In retrospect, it’s my guess that he may simply not have cared. He wanted to see the movie, that’s all that mattered, and he wasn’t going to be bothered with making arrangements for a babysitter or an alternative children’s movie.)

Consequently, I got to see all kinds of fantastic movies that none of my friends were seeing, such as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, To Sir With Love, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Last Picture Show, The Graduate, and of course, endless visits to theatres to see James Bond films.

During this time, my music was still heavily influenced by what my parents listened to. But I did start, in small ways, to exercise my own preferences, independent of them. By the age of 10, I had developed a bit of an obsession with Donovan (Season of the Witch, Hurdy Gurdy Man), for example. And through the repeated exposure to those damn James Bond movies, I developed an independent interest in Shirley Bassey and Louis Armstrong.

My father was obsessed with Johnny Cash. In particular, I remember this song playing frequently. Listening to it now, it makes sense that my father would have liked the song. At that juncture in history, my dad had started to turn the corner toward being alienated from society and his family and friends, indeed eventually becoming a fugitive himself. By this point, he felt misunderstood and persecuted much of the time. Wanted Man.


And here’s the rest of the playlist from that era:

Finally, it was during this time in my life, specifically at about age 9, that I identified and purchased my very first album of my own, inspired by Randall Huntsberry, a hipster professor and father of my friend Joanie. An album that changed my life. Rubber Soul. (I can’t include any of the tunes from this extraordinary album here because evidently the Beatles have never licensed their music for streaming on Spotify or any other service).

Laura’s Music History, 0-8 years old (dedicated to Altina and Andrew)

me, approximately 5 years old.
me, approximately 5 years old.

This is a selection of music drawn from my early childhood. These tunes still loom large in my memories of that time in my life–music that had an enormous impact on me, even at a tender age.

Of necessity, the selection reflects the music my parents, their friends and my grandparents chose and were surrounded by–a historical snapshot of a musical (and political) era. This is what my youthful parents–Altina Waller and Louis Wilson–listened to at home, in the car, and sang out loud to my brother Andrew and I.

In building this playlist, I chose tunes actually remembered (rather than music I’ve since learned about). Many were old tunes revived and performed by multiple artists. If I couldn’t remember which artist I’d heard do the song, I made a choice based on what I know of my family’s history, which artists recorded during that period and what they likely would have been exposed to.

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke

As you see, I was mostly–but not exclusively– a child of folk music. As an adult, I’ve explored that important period of our history when Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, Odetta and others revived old tunes passed down through generations and made them not only accessible and popular, but the catalyst for the most important anti-war movement this country has ever known and the soundtrack that inspired the the civil rights movement.

My parents and grandparents weren’t political activists, at least then. But they were modern, optimistic and progressive. They melded the old with the new. The music to which I was exposed represented that spirit. Perhaps the most emblematic, for me, was the mournful and moving “Freight Train,” written and performed here by the extraordinary Elizabeth Cotten.


And here’s the first portion of the playlist. Enjoy.

Note: “Beautiful Brown Eyes” is a remarkable song, covered by artists ranging from Leadbelly to Pete Seeger to the Kingston Trio and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. My father Louis Moore Wilson sang it to my brother Andrew and I at bedtime on many occasions. The only lyrics I remember are from the refrain: “beautiful brown eyes, I’ll never love blue eyes again.” But as an adult, looking up the song’s history and provenance, I learned that it’s not exactly a children’s song. Instead, it’s a dark tale, narrated by a woman who chooses to be single rather than married to an alcoholic man. Since it’s among my earliest musical memories, I have no concrete knowledge of which version my father would have heard most, so I reviewed the options in light of my father’s age and the song’s recording history, and settled on the version by Roy Acuff, a “cowboy” musician of the late ’40s and 50s.

Roy Acuff
Roy Acuff

Here’s part II of the playlist.

The standout tune, from the folk genre–and in my memory–was this, by Sam Cooke. To this day, it is one of my great regrets that I never got to hear him sing live.

In assembling the playlist, I researched about who had done renditions of the songs–both then and now–and there were a few surprises. The biggest one, and the most compelling, was this version of Woody Guthrie’s Red River Valley, an old Canadian cowboy standard, by the great contemporary jazz artist Cassandra Wilson. If this doesn’t move you to tears, nothing will.

Finally, the late Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana, did a startling rendition of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” some time in the early 1980s. I think it might be the best version of them all, and that’s saying a lot!