An All-Purpose Schoolmarm Makes Merriment and Music
Our class had advanced somewhat into the ''senior citizen'' bracket when we were introduced to our first music teacher. Education, with that capital E, was coming into its own. But we had not been without music, heaven forbid!
Miss Strout, who was the first of our reg'lar classroom schoolmarms to give way to the special teacher, had hitherto had a pitch pipe and a baton she never used. She had brought us through the scales and up to the operatic capabilities of ''Pop Goes the Monkey'' and ''Old McDonald.'' Miss Strout, without being paid one cent more than the stipulated $800 per annum, played the piano while we sang, and she also knew what per annum meant.
The rosy days of which I speak were near enough to World War I, so our schoolroom repertoire ran to such favorites as ''Keep the Home Fires Burning,'' ''A Long, Long Trail,'' ''Over There,'' ''A Long Lean Country Gink,'' and other patriotic rousers that went out of style shortly. And instead of a set time for a singing class, Miss Strout would vamp the piano at unexpected times, and we could tell from the tune what she expected us to sing. This depended on our knowing one tune from another, and some of us did. Our favorite tune was ''Andy Gump.''
Mr. Gump was a comic-strip character in a daily newspaper cartoon. He was chinless under a cartoon nose, and he had a high rating in the two-cent papers. He had been running in the newspapers for many years when the song appeared and swept the nation. The song went:
How do you do, Andy Gump, how
Is there anything that we can do
How is Chester, how is Min,
How's the whiskers on your chin?
How do you doodle-doodle-doodle-
Min was Andy's wife, and Chester was the Gump baby.
And it chanced that the previous winter the board of trade had ''put on'' its annual minstrel show, a scandalous and slanderous libel of our town's dignified folks, one by one, and the Andy Gump song had been parodied liberally by Ray Dyer, who operated the Martha Jane Tea Room.
Mr. Dyer, in a clown costume, appeared to be singing from a world atlas. He was called back repeatedly, and always had another half-dozen verses. He spared none of the town's gentlefolks and was extremely funny. So we had all the Andy Gump verses that Mr. Dyer had sung at the minstrel show, and we would sing them at our music-appreciation class while Miss Strout tickled the ivories. It happened that our superintendent of school that year looked just like Andy Gump, and he would sit in his office one door down the hall and talk to himself.
Possibly he had something to do with introducing a special music teacher who came once a week with a baton and relieved Miss Strout. This was the music teacher who taught in our town for five years before it was discovered that she was tone deaf. When this teacher came, Miss Strout would greet her courteously and go down to the furnace and knit mittens. She put the mittens in a summer gift shop and augmented her $800.
But we youngsters, thirsting for culture, were really not that thirsty for grand opera and the master works now provided. The home fires burned out, the monkey ceased to pop, and Andy Gump left school. Downstairs, Miss Strout knit fox-and-geese mittens, while upstairs we yearning scholars warbled in desultory manner such uninspiring classics as one finds in Verdi.
I have dwelt on the details not to challenge the wisdom of our school board in the days that were, or to show that Miss Strout made better mittens than she did enlightened citizens, but to explain to a wondering world why I am not proficient on the violin and have never appeared at Carnegie Hall. There are times when I can make a shrewd guess and people are convinced I am musically informed, but there are also times that I think Johann Sebastian Bach sounds a good bit like Gilbert and Sullivan.
There was, as you may suspect, some disgruntlement among the ranks as our old style of music gave way to the new style and mittens. Some of the boys who were big enough to cut pulpwood on Saturdays felt they were wasting time singing madrigals at music class, and found ways to be uncooperative, such as singing ''Take Me Out to the Ball Game'' when the special teacher wanted ''The Lilies,'' so pure, so white.
Winona, one of the girls in our class, sang the lily song at a parent evening program, and it was ever so pretty, but in chorus with boys, it did have a frivolous complexion.
Our special music teacher tried to organize both a class orchestra and a glee club. The orchestra idea waned when 15 of the 17 boys wanted to play the tuba. The glee club tapered off to a mixed double quartet, and we did do a creditable version of ''Frankie and Johnny,'' but the special teacher said a glee club needed more than one piece.
As I recall, my musical education came to an end when that special teacher was at last dismissed by an embarrassed school committee, and Miss Strout retired of her own decision. Everybody signed a petition, but she refused to reconsider.
She said she could make more money knitting mittens, and then the Bijou hired her to play the piano for the movies.