RIP Theo Bikel

Today I discovered that a folksinger whose work I grew up listening to has died, at the ripe old age of 91.  His record that I grew up with became available electronically a few months ago…after years of searching for it, I promptly downloaded it and have listened to it several times a week since.  Middle age has sweetened my affection for the music I loved as a child, overlaid the familiar notes and lyrics with all the emotional poignancy of nostalgia.  Over and around the songs fall the shadows of all the grief and loss and confusion that have passed since then; woven into the raspy voice and singing guitar are all the moments of joy and delight and utter innocence that my childhood was full of. 

I was a very happy child, sheltered and adored by parents who understood instinctively how best to give me the peaceful space I needed without ever letting me feel lonely or afraid.  My world was full of music; my father had grown up in a musical family and made the house ring with everything he loved: opera, swing, jazz, folk, chamber music.  I would wake in the morning to the sound of his singing along to whatever was on the record player.  He would tell me the stories of his favorite operas, and dance me in his arms while he half-sang, half-translated the arias.  He loved all the tragic endings and he made me love them too, held me in his arms while I cried a little girl’s tears at the death of the characters whose stories and songs were so sweet. 

My parents pretty much missed the revolutions of the 1960s; my dad went to Ireland in 1963 for a two-year stint pursuing his MA at Trinity while my mom worked as a computer programmer in California, then they married outside Dublin and went straight to UVA where my dad got his PhD in 18th-Cent. English Literature while my mom programmed computers and had me and my baby brother. The family moved to Oregon in 1970, where we settled and stayed.  Much of the musical revolution of the hippie era completely passed my household by; I grew up with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Theo Bikel, the Kingston Trio—no Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell.  Only as a near-adult did I catch up a little, although my anachronistic musical tastes have raised eyebrows amongst my friends for decades. 

I am still at my best in some ways when there is music playing in a silent house.  It’s as if the friendly ghosts of my youth still haunt my space: people snuggled into comfortable chairs with their noses in books, the smell of cookies and tea, the purring of a cat or crackle of a wood stove fire.  During the brief periods when I have lived alone, I have been able to recreate that feeling, that cocoon of utter comfort; these days when I share my home with another, I create pockets of complete privacy to get my fix—early in the morning, usually, or in the car during the long hours of driving that my job requires.  My boss thinks I’m a hero for being willing to drive across the state at a moment’s notice, but what he doesn’t realize is that those long peaceful hours are my gateway to an orgy of purely self-indulgent musical wallowing.  I learned to love music as a young child and never became much of a student as an adult, so I often feel a bit ignorant and tongue-tied around my friends who have devoted themselves to the intellectual and aesthetic study of music to an extent far beyond my own.  I forget artists’ and compositions’ name in a heartbeat, and can’t hear most of the subtleties that real connoisseurs talk about.   On the flip side, however, my proletarian level of music appreciation makes me easy to please and eager to learn, about almost any music someone thinks is worth listening to. 

As a young child, I had no idea of my parents as political people, barely knew what party they belonged to or what that meant.  As I grew older and began to listen more closely, I began to get a sense of what kind of world they wanted to live in, and to see how it shone in the music they loved…revolutionary Irish songs, anti-war songs, populist hymns.  In my family we even learned about the birds and the bees from songs…the Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads albums recorded by that inimitable troubadour, Oscar Brand.  At the same time that I was listening to Kasey Kasem and America’s Top 40 on the radio, I was singing in the church choir and listening to everything that poured from the speakers at home:  Ella Fitzgerald, Josh White, the Jubilee 4, Gilbert & Sullivan, the irresistible rhythm of Scott Joplin and the heartbreaking adagio of Beethoven’s 7th.  The whirling inner cacophony of adolescence was reflected in the music, just as it has been at every turning point in my life since then.  And as the singers, one by one, have died, the bittersweet sheen of loss has added to the lustre of the old music for me, cracking open the shell of weary adulthood and re-opening for me the full emotional range that was mine when I was still brand-new and unfrightened in the world. 

As I explore the path of middle age, I have been joyfully surprised to see how much of the journey has been learning how to reconnect with that little girl with the serious blue eyes.  I find much of my task is to unlearn the reflexes and anxieties learned through decades of adult mistakes and return to that state of radical acceptance that a happy, intelligent child embraces without thinking.  Thanks to technology and a sentimental heart, many of those doors to an older wisdom have been unlocked by rediscovering the music that filled my universe in those days.  Saying farewell to those musicians is like bidding goodbye to beloved imaginary friends; they have given me so much joy that their reality lives in their tunes now. RIP, Theo Bikel, with your humor and your gentleness and your courage.  May your vision of the world be the one that comes to pass.

©Mary Braden 2015

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