My friend Michael and I have, on more than one occasion, sung to one another on the phone. No love songs, no Broadway. Just two early baby boomers trying to cobble together the lyrics to songs we were raised on by progressive parents who believed in the messages the songs taught. Neither of us knows anyone else who played these 78s until there were no grooves left in the plastic records.
From time to time we remember snatches of lyrics:
“I’m proud to be me, but I also see
You’re just as proud to be you…”
And . . .
“I may not know a lot of things
But one thing I can state
Both native born and foreign born
Have made our country great . . .”
And, as Michael just sang to me:
“George Washington liked good roast beef
And Hamilton liked fish,
But when Uncle Sam served liberty,
They both enjoyed the dish!”
The only song I completely remember, “Brown Skin Cow,” is the one my mom and dad sang to me. I sang to my daughters, and I now sing to my grandchildren every single time I tuck them in. It begins, “You can get good milk from a brown-skinned cow, the color of the skin doesn’t matter anyhow . . .” You get the idea. Every song had a simple and poignant message.
The other night, as I was singing “Brown Skin Cow” to my 8-year old granddaughter Remi, she asked me why African-American people (a term that did not yet exist when I was learning the song) are called black instead of brown. A subsequent Internet search turned up some sad, nasty, bigoted blog posts, strong testimony that for some, there are still some basic lessons about human kindness to be learned.
Remi told me she learned about Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger and that she knew “all about Martin Luther King.”
“I remember,” I told her, “when Rosa Parks was so brave. I read about it in the newspaper the day after she stood her ground.” I also told her that I was in college when Martin Luther King was shot.
“Grandma,” she asked in shock, “you were alive when Martin Luther King was alive? You are really old!”
“Good night, sweet Remi,” I said. (“I’m getting a facelift, I thought.)
But back to the brown-skinned cow. Moms, grandmas, teachers, aunts, dads, uncles: There is a man named Peter Muldavin in NYC who owns both versions of the original two-record set, one released by the Jesters in 1947 – that’s the one I grew up with – and another by the Bachelors released at about the same time. He will copy them onto a CD for you, and you can give another generation something good to think – and sing – about. Songs written more than half a century ago could have been written yesterday.