Songs We Used to Sing, Listen to, and Read
Songs We Used to Sing, Listen to, and Read
Gus was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. We lived at 2625 Liberty St. which was right across the street from Muhlenberg College where Gus’s father worked. The house was owned by the College. The rent was cheap because we contracted to entertain students monthly with a movie night and discussion.
We had one car. It was a 1992 Nissan Sentra that my mother had bought for us brand new. Johan could walk to work, while I had the car for errands and the kids.
We were broke, but officially above the government poverty level, so we could not get assistance; but, we were close enough so it was challenging to feed the kids healthy food. Organic food was mostly out of the question.
However, we were lucky. We had that big, ranch-style, four-bedroom house. It had two bathrooms and a small fenced-in yard. And it had a big, mostly finished basement where there was even an extra bathroom, a semi-private bedroom, and a big playroom.
I was not working, which is why we were struggling. The only work I could find was in daycare at the local Jewish Community Center childcare. I earned an hourly wage as a caregiver for the pre-toddlers, of which Oskar was one. My paycheck barely netted me any money, because I was charged for Oskar to be there with me. It made me sad to be there. We were located in the basement, so the children rarely saw the light of day. There were a lot of reasons why it was sad, Oskar and I quit.
I didn’t have a teaching certificate, so I couldn’t get a job teaching, even though I had four years of experience, which included teaching my own class for a year. All I could do to earn money was to work in daycare or in another low-paying job. That meant I would be working away from my own children to pay someone else to be with them. It made more sense just to stay at home with them myself. I am more than grateful that I did. I remember the years when Oskar and Gus were little with strong feelings of love and gratitude. I love to think about that time in our lives.
Because the rent was cheap, we could get away with living (barely) on their father’s paycheck. It also turned out that Muhlenberg College offered college courses free to faculty family members. They had an elementary education degree program. When Gus turned one, I enrolled and began taking classes. Eventually I would earn my teaching certificate and go on to teach for over two decades in public schools.
My class schedule was part-time, and I scheduled it so the boys’ father could be home while I went to class. I did my homework at night and when they were asleep during the day. So I got to be home with the boys until Gus was three and Oskar was five. After that I got my first teaching job at Allentown’s Swain School which did NOT charge for the boys to go there. So we got to go the same school together when they began school.
Every Saturday, the boys and I went to the Allentown Public Library which was located on Hamilton Street. It was a big library with a lot of books and a lot of space. The children’s section was on the second floor. We spent a lot of time noodling around, pulling books out, reading them, and deciding which ones we wanted to borrow. Sometimes I looked for books from my own childhood that I had remembered loving. Other times we just browsed. The boys loved good stories, but they also enjoyed non-fiction books. Oskar was first an expert on diggers and dump trucks, so we got tons of those books. Then he became enamored with dinosaurs, so we read a lot of dinosaur books. Then he loved sea creatures, so we read a lot of sea creature books. And because we liked to be outside and noticed animals around us, we got some insect and bird books. The Golden Guide to Insects was a beloved book that we borrowed and renewed a lot. It was such a favorite that we did end up getting our own copy. It was small—pocket-sized—and it had a red cover. We used it for identifying all kinds of insects. One time, we even learned we had a tomato hornworm in our garden! One of my favorite children’s books was the Tall Book of Fairy Tales, illustrated by Garth Williams who was hands down my favorite illustrator. Garth Williams had illustrated such classics as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, all of The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. And those are only a few of the books he illustrated. The Tall Book of Fairy Tales was a collection of poems, songs, and folk tales. One story was written by Carl Sandburg. I was especially excited to share that book with the boys.
When we drove home from the library, the boys had a big stack of books between them in the back seat. Because we had no radio, they read books in the back seat for entertainment. We would bring the books in the house, but always had a couple of books in the car when we had to run errands. On the way to the library, I used to sing the library song from Sesame Street. On the way home, I reminded the boys how the library was free, that people got to borrow books, and it cost no money at all. All you had to do was bring them back on time. We continued this Saturday morning tradition until we left Allentown.
At some point during those years, we must have gotten a cassette-tape player and radio installed in the Nissan because that was when we began playing cassettes and singing in the car.
We had Raffi and learned a lot of those songs by heart. We also had some tapes of Sharon, Lois, and Bram. They were a Canadian trio who also sang children’s music. The boys’ grandfather (my stepfather) had introduced them to Sharon, Lois, and Bram via VCR. Oskar especially loved them. We all knew their song “Skinnamarink.”
We read a couple of books that were beautifully illustrated song lyrics. The lyrics, as with many old songs, told a story. The first one was a well-known book called Frog Went A-Courtin'. It was also an old American folk song. The book was put together by John Langstaff in 1955. It won a Caldecott Award for its beautiful illustrations (done by Feodor Rojankovsky).
The boys loved having it read to them because I sang it. You can’t read this book. It must be sung. Each line of the song has its own illustrated page. The illustrations are beautiful and very detailed. We ended up buying our own copy of Frog Went A-Courtin’.
Below is a link to Pete Seeger singing Frog Went a-Courtin.’
Another illustrated singing book we loved to read and sing was The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night by Peter Spieir. We read that at bedtime mostly. It was a cozy, night-time kind of book.
Sometimes, a book we borrowed or bought would come with a cassette-tape version of the book, so you could listen to it in the car in addition to reading it. One such book made a big impact on Gus. The book was put together from a story that Pete Seeger had told, and the story was called Abiyoyo. The story involves a small boy, his father, and an ogre called Abiyoyo. It has a happy ending, but the ogre could do things like eat a whole sheep, and Pete Seeger told that part with great sound effects. Gus and Oskar loved to listen to it in the car. Gus’s face was especially solemn and his eyes were especially wide. When the ogre gobbled up the entire sheep, the sound of Pete Seeger’s voice made Gus’s eyes blink. He was very quiet and listened very intently. At the end of the story the boy sang and played his ukulele. Pete Seeger also sang and then we all sang the song of Abiyoyo. Even when we had moved to Long Beach, New York, we still listened to the story of Abiyoyo in the car. Gus’s friend, Eddie Whelan, remembered being introduced to it in our car. Eddie remembered how much Gus loved listening to the story, having the book read aloud and sung to him, and looking at the illustrations.
Time passed, Oskar and Gus became teenagers, and we listened to Red Hot Chili Peppers in the car. Oskar went to college, graduated, and came home. Gus went to California, came back, and traveled back and forth. He had just begun staying in England for a while, and was working there and in Los Angeles. He had to get new phone numbers a lot so I had a bunch of different ones.
One day, on July 17, 2017, I got a text from Gus. He was at the airport in England getting ready to fly to L.A., and he was just sending me a little text to say hi and let me know where he would be. The first part was a photo of a plate of food--about how he was eating chicken and rice and that made him think of me.
The second part of the text was about a movie poster. I figure he must have seen some advertisement display at the airport because he sent a second photo of the movie poster for the upcoming movie of King Kong, saying the poster looked just like a specific page from the Abiyoyo book.
I had no idea that Gus, after all these years, still remembered the book—let alone a specific illustration and a specific line in the story. But he had, and with crystal clear detail.
When Gus shared his recollection of Abiyoyo I understood that the book, the story, and the song must have left quite an impact on him. Right up to the time he died.
You can use the link below to listen to an old version of Pete Seeger telling the story and singing the Abiyoyo song we used to sing in the car.