Songs we sang
When I started school, the building was in our limited perception, new. While my father was in the Class of 1933, the date above the then front steps, the student body moved into the new facility in the fall of that year. Some parents, like my own mother, were not from here but the majority had started at some district school and graduated from the brick structure on High Street.
There was still some reverence about the place, it had electricity and central heating and hot and cold running water, not yet a given in most island homes. There was no kindergarten, we went directly into the first grade, into a classroom already occupied by second and third graders.
In addition to handling those three grades, one new to any sort of strict daily structure, the primary teacher was also the music teacher, and a piano sat in the back of the room.
We had opening “exercises” and learned all manner of song and verse, not the lengthy poems our parents could recite but the simple Pledge of Allegiance, the technically difficult National Anthem, the familiar 23rd Psalm, and a raft of what would today be called “patriotic songs” or Americana, but back then were just songs we sang.
There was, perhaps, more than just getting us in order in the morning. Thinking of “America” today I realized, it contains a little geography lesson, the breadbasket waves of grain, purple mountains we saw only in our imaginations, that fruited plain, all be-
tween shining seas. The lyrics did not come with word by word instruction, it seemed a lot of us knew parts of them to start, and the “upper class men” certainly did, but when I came to a real wall I wanted an out-of-school source, not wanting to appear too stupid before the group. I remember coming home asking my mother what “alabaster” was and what gleaming cities were made of it and wonder now how the heck was I supposed to glean such information from the scant amount (“white”) presented. It was part of a patriot dream that saw beyond the years, a hope of the future.
We had school-wide programs for both Armistice Day and Memorial Day, the former filled with songs popular during the Great War which would become World War I, the latter more of the second Great War. No one was quite sure of Korea, it was too fresh, our sum total knowledge of it was a far off land where one of our fathers of our class, the youngest amid the WWII vets, was stationed.
Many of the words to the more often sung songs stayed, others floated away, some hung in the back of my memory, waiting. After September 11, I heard sung from the National Cathedral in Washington a verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that had been dropped from hymnals for its ferocity, “I have read His fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel. . .” It was chilling.
We sang of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, the provenance of which now seems debatable, but I’ll stick with the story we first heard, of a great merchant ship, the first to circumnavigate the globe under the U.S. flag. We might easily have been rolled into “The Music Man,” with our imperfect voices and parents, the whole community, cheering us on nonetheless.
But the Fourth of July fell outside the school year, there was little Mrs. Gertrude, or any teacher, could do to muster the troops once we were free. There was often a bonfire on the Narragansett Inn beach the night before the Fourth, and there were sporadic fireworks displays.
Mainly, I remember visiting the marinas, then Payne’s New Harbor Dock and Champlin’s Yacht Station, walking down the narrow docks, counting the boats rafted out before there were any finger piers or floating docks. And the Inner Basin of the Old Harbor was always interesting, even if we had to get out before it got more interesting.
There were no parades, no organized fireworks, if people had flags they came out but there was none of the bunting draped from porches and railings.
Today, there are more flags than I have ever seen, wildly and wonderfully old-fashioned, as though we fell back in time, to another time, of a patriot dream, not burnished rows of steel, to hope that after this bruising past year and a few months, we may come out on the other side, not to a replay of the roaring twenties but a better, more civil time.
It was a beautiful day on Block Island, warm but not blazing hot as it has been other places, and with a good, steady breeze and it was nice to see the power company crew out not in the brutal winter weather piecing together the wires that restore our power — and generally heat and water — but simply placing flags in holders to mark this upcoming holiday.
I go back to my old songs and think perhaps I sang the multiple verses often, perhaps the music is easy, but when I read lyrics to infrequently sung verses they come back easily.
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law