Wednesday, August 1, 2018

They said, 'beautiful eyes' - they said, 'lovely fur'

If I really want to spring the latch on my childhood and release all the hobgoblins of memory, I listen to Children's Record Guild recordings on YouTube. I didn't save any of my originals, which were in bad enough shape when I inherited them from some other family who didn't want them any more. But they didn't go anywhere. They took up residence in the back of my brain. When the internet was relatively new, I discovered "kiddie record" websites which actually SOLD these things, and I was amazed to see they still existed, but I wasn't about to pay $50 for an old beat-up copy of Puss in Boots.

Now  I can hear them, many of them, for free. Some have aged better than others. This might be my favorite - a vastly-simplified version of the Puss in Boots tale, with the main character played by a brash actor with a slightly nasal, possibly New Jersey accent. At the time I just thought Puss was "neat" and didn't notice how American he sounded. 

Then there were the songs. They stuck in the mind. When we  got a kitten in about 1990, I went around the house singing something that made my kids want to climb the walls. It was the song about how Puss learned to talk.

"When I was just a teeny-weeny kitty,
Everyone told me that I looked so pretty.
They said, 'beautiful eyes',
They said, 'lovely fur',
But all I could answer was meow,
or purr."

Pretty soon they were singing it with me, helpless to resist. "My coat was black, my eyes of course were yellow/People always said, what a charming fellow! I wanted to thank them, but I did not know howwww, for all I could answer was purrrr, or meowwww."

When I listen to these things that we played so often, full of familiar skips and scratches that somehow became part of the story, they seem - different. They've changed. For one thing, they're so short. In childhood, time is perceived differently. When we were waiting for Christmas to come, it seemed to take a few thousand years. Now Christmases whip by in a blur, and I want time to go slower so I can at least breathe. The stories now seem almost laughably brief. Puss in Boots was one of the really big, impressive, two-disc recordings, a musical extravaganza, an epic. You had to keep turning records over to hear it. And the whole thing lasts about fifteen minutes! It was hard to fit more than three or four minutes per side on a 78 rpm record, especially a cheaply-manufactured kids' recording. 

Fifteen minutes! Surely those stories lasted hours, because they were a kind of universe we entered. We didn't notice how stupid some of the songs were: 

"Oh a beaver shouldn't bother with a bathrobe
And a raincoat on a reindeer isn't right
And a seal in bedroom slippers
Though he fits them on his flippers
And he zips them up with zippers looks a fright
Now a spider in a sweater is no better,
Hippopotami look horrible in hats,
And a sparrow in a snowsuit looks much worse than one in no suit,
But boots look nice on pussycats
(purrrrrrr, purrrrrrr)
Boots look very nice on pussycats.

That song, dumb as it sounds, still kind of gets to me because it's sung rather tenderly, and the "purrrrr, purrrrrr" is quite convincing. Then Puss says, "Thanks, Jahn," and the spell is broken.

All those actors are dead now, because these things were mostly made before I was even born. It was an important cultural genre then, children's records, and even my own kids caught the tail-end of it. And then it all changed. I can't keep up with kids' entertainment now, not sure I even want to, and every day I encounter at least six words that I don't know the meaning of. And yet, in the midst of this alien landscape, I can take a trip backwards any time I want. For free. By the power of YouTube.

Squirrel in a shark suit eating an avocado