Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

07 Aug 2010, 1:29 a.m.

The Great American Songbook

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I am not very good at making small talk with my mom. So much of it brushes against my switchboard of buttons dusty and bright: how I should have tried out for Jeopardy! or what to eat next or hey, I should be publishing more or God makes everything happen for a reason! Even when the conflict or trigger is two moves away, unspoken, never brought up, I get antsy in case the conversation ripples thataway.

Last night she was tired and down. I read aloud a few great passages from A Writer's Nightmare by R.K. Narayan. (An amazing fiction author, Indian, who turned into a more fanciful Andy Rooney for his weekly newspaper column. I need to quote him extensively on umbrellas and wisdom and tourists' interest in the caste system and coffee.) She perked a bit, then sagged again. I didn't know what else to do. So, as I took my plate to the kitchen, I started singing Union Maid.

There once was a union maid
Who never was afraid
of goons and ginks and company finks
and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid...
I finished with the old sexist verse about marrying union men, then the chorus. She loved it and asked for more. I sang Down by the Riverside.

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
And study war no more

You have such a sweet voice, she said. I sang what I remembered of Banks of Marble.

I've traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore
It really makes me wonder
The things I heard and saw
For the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for
I sang what I've memorized from Dar Williams's What Do You Hear In These Sounds.

... and I ask myself what state I'm in
And I say well I'm lucky, 'cause I am like East Berlin
I had this wall and what I knew of the free world
Was that I could see their fireworks
And I could hear their radio
And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing
And they'd know that I was scared
And they'd would know that I was guessing
But the wall came down and there they stood before me
With their stumbling and their mumbling
And their calling out just like me and

Oh, the stories that nobody hears
Oh, I collect these sounds in my ears
That's what I hear in these sounds

The stories that nobody hears, I collect these sounds in my ears. Beautiful, she said. One more, she asked. And I sang the start of New York City, which I know from the They Might Be Giants cover.

You called me last night
On the telephone
And I was glad to hear from you
'Cause I was all alone
You said, "It's snowing, it's snowing; God I hate this weather;
Now I walk through blizzards just to get us back together."

We met in the springtime at a rock 'n' roll show
It was on the Bowery. When it was time to go
We kissed on the subway in the middle of the night
I held your hand
You held mine
It was the best night of my life

'Cause everyone's your friend
In New York City
And everything is beautiful when you're young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is
You and me.

You should sing that to Leonard, she said.

Today: a bit of Birdhouse in Your Soul. I should memorize more songs, so I can sing them to my mom, and more poetry to recite. But first: downstairs again, to keep her company.


Thomas Thurman
07 Aug 2010, 19:05 p.m.

Visiting my grandfather last month, I also found it was enormously useful to be able to recite. There's something about reciting poetry that makes a bond across the generations.

Sumana Harihareswara
07 Aug 2010, 21:44 p.m.

And not just familiar poetry, either, I think.

This morning: "Old College Try" by the Mountain Goats. Somewhat less soothing.

08 Aug 2010, 0:35 a.m.

I love this. My mom used to have me sing to her all the time too (though it was usually silly songs like Pink Floyd's "Bike" and Cake's "Opera Singer". I need to memorize more songs too.