In new situations, I sing an old song

I’ve never been up on current tunes, but I’ve never had to be.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Seniors sing at a class in Miami.

I like to tell stories of old times, and sometimes I prefer old songs to new ones. Even as a student running amok in peace demonstrations in Berkeley, Calif., in the late 1960s, I didn’t know the new songs being sung by popular bands. I preferred opera and classical music to rock, and I had no idea what was being sung by the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane or other groups whose names I didn’t know. I preferred the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and other songs from the 1940s and earlier. But sometimes, even with my very limited knowledge of music, some old songs have helped me appear to be at home in new situations.

Some years ago my wife and I were visiting monasteries clinging to the cliffsides in Bhutan, in the eastern Himalayas. We were traveling with a group of alumni from Principia College, from which my wife had graduated. 

One late evening in the minibus, crossing a snowy mountain pass at 12,000 feet or so, someone suggested we sing hymns. Going around the bus in order, people called out hymn numbers – No. 125, No. 23, No. 98 (I don’t recall the actual numbers) – all from the Christian Science Hymnal, and people joined in singing. While my wife knew that hymnal, I did not. My turn was coming. Did I dare choose a number at random? Would I be asked to sing the first line? It was clearly a new opportunity to recall something very old. 

My turn came. “I don’t know the number,” I said, “but isn’t the tune the same as ‘Ode to Joy’ in Beethoven’s Ninth?” 

“Oh, yes,” someone replied. “I’m glad you remembered that one, I really like it. It’s number” – well, I still don’t know the number, but everyone joined in singing a hymn I’d never sung before. It was certainly not the hymn with that tune from the Episcopal or Presbyterian hymn books. There are quite a few hymns written to that tune, which meant that I had not had to admit my ignorance.


My most memorable occasion with an old song in a new place, however, was in late April of 1974. While I was then teaching mathematics at the University of Kentucky, a small grant allowed me to go do research and teach for a semester at the University of New South Wales in a suburb of Sydney, Australia. 

I had just arrived, as the fall term in Australia starts in late April. One evening I went to a restaurant that had a young piano player, playing quietly. Almost all the songs were ones I’d never heard before. He asked for requests, and people asked for other songs I’d never heard before, songs that he knew and played.

And then someone pointed to me. “We have an American visitor – he’s new here. Let’s hear a request from him.” In my great ignorance of modern music, either American or Australian, I was on the spot. But I had begun to learn local culture. The University of New South Wales is on a hillside above a major avenue named Anzac Parade, commemorating the Australia New Zealand Army Corps, which fought for England in World War I. Anzac Day is a significant Australian holiday honoring the sacrifices made by soldiers. It is often much more solemnly observed than Memorial Day or Veterans Day in the United States. It falls on April 25, the day the ANZAC forces landed at Gallipoli, in northern Turkey, in 1915. And I did know a song that seemed appropriate for the holiday, from my student days participating in peace demonstrations in Berkeley. 

I asked the pianist if he could play “The White Cliffs of Dover.” I saw people in the restaurant smile. 

And then the young pianist said, “I don’t know that one.”

A visible shock went around the room. An older man said, “Well, let’s sing it for him.” 

Virtually the entire room, certainly everyone over the age of 40, joined in singing the song, which became popular in England in 1942 and spread throughout the English-speaking world. I could sing along with this one: “There’ll be bluebirds over/ The white cliffs of Dover/ Tomorrow /Just you wait and see ...” 

It’s an old song, but expresses a hope for peace as timely today as it was during the Battle of Britain. And people made it very clear afterward that they appreciated my knowledge and respect for local tradition. The newcomer, in the new place, had made himself one of the gang.

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