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December 4, 2008 “Buddy Holly, My English Teacher”

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

The first thing my father bought upon arriving in Birmingham, Alabama, was a radio. A classical musician, he was a passionate jazz aficionado, and assumed that, since Birmingham was in the heart of Dixie, there would be non-stop fabulous jazz programming on the radio. Instead, all he found was gospel music, and rock\’n roll.

I can\’t stand these boy singers with their adenoidal voices. And those eternal triplets in the accompaniment–da, da, da…da, da, da–drive me crazy. Take the radio,” he said to me, “but turn it down low and keep your bedroom door closed.”

So the radio came to live in my room, and with it Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Brenda Lee, and Elvis Presley. I didn\’t understand their songs, but I loved the mysterious world they alluded to.

One of the first songs I remember is Buddy Holly\’s “Raining In My Heart.” (In the versions below, “blah” designates the parts I didn\’t understand.)

Blah, blah, blah, blah,

blah, blah, blah, blah,

he doesn\’t know

you\’ve gone away

and it\’s raining, raining in my heart.

Oh, misery, misery…

This is where things began to deteriorate. When Buddy sang “misery,” I thought he was saying “Missouri.” He was sad because his beloved had gone away to Missouri, which I knew was a state named after an important river of North America. The rest of the song made no sense, as there were no further allusions to the state, plans for the singer to go there, etc.

There was also “Donna,” by Ritchie Valens. His voice was so nasal, and he was so often flat, that he could have been any of the boys in my school, singing on the way to the cafeteria. I had come to the US after a few years in Latin America, where popular songs were sung by grown men with mustaches, who sang lines like ”Woman, if you can speak with God, ask Him if I\’ve ever stopped adoring you…”

But in my bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, Ritchie stated with adorable simplicity,

I had a girl

Donna was her name

blah, blah, blah

blah, blah, blah

Oh, Donna, Oh, Donna…

What kind of a name was Donna, I wondered? Was there a Saint Donna, and when was her feast day? It must be an exotic, wonderful name, since it inspired such longing in Ritchie Valens.

From the first time I heard him, I found Elvis irresistible. He didn\’t sound at all like the boys in my class, but he said weird things all the same, as in the song “Stuck On You”:

Blah, blah, blah,

Hide in the kitchen! Hide in the hall!

Ain\’t gonna do you no good at all [what was this girl doing alone in the house with Elvis? Where was her mother?]

Cause when I catch you and the kissin\’ starts

Blah, blah, blah [WHAT is going to happen when the kissin\’ starts?]

blah, blah, blah

I\’m gonna stick like glue [what is glue?]

Stick! Because I\’m stuck on you!

In this case, I learned, “stick” was not a piece of wood, but a verb, which appeared again in the form “stuck.” From Elvis\’s tone and panting breaths, I deduced that being “stuck” on someone meant liking him or her very much.

By my sophomore year I had made some progress, and could understand most of the first stanza when Brenda Lee shrieked:

My baby whispers in my ear

Mmmm, sweet nothings…

He knows the things I like to hear

Mmmm, sweet nothings…

Thanks to Brenda, I realized that in English, unlike Spanish, the noun “nothing” could be pluralized. I liked Brenda\’s unsentimental, assertive take on the things she liked and felt entitled to, a rare thing in those days.

Finally, there was Johnny Mathis\’s maddening “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” I couldn\’t make any sense of it. Were the lovers at a barbecue? Were they caught in a forest fire? It didn\’t help that every time the song came on the car radio my father would make me turn it off. “Listen to that vibrato. That man,” he would say, “sounds like a goat in heat.”

The bleatings of Johnny Mathis, the pantings of Elvis, the adenoidal laments of Ritchie, the shrieks of Brenda–they were all pure magic to me. It wasn\’t so much the music that was magical, as the words that I didn\’t understand, because I didn\’t understand them. They pointed towards a world that was utterly foreign and desirable to me, a world I was making my way into step by clumsy step. Rock\’n roll was poetic in the way that only the unknown can be poetic, and I poured into the “blah blah”places, the spots I didn\’t understand, all the contents of my fevered teenage imagination.

These days, entire “oldies” stations are devoted to these songs, and my American husband loves to listen to them. But now that I can understand the words, the songs are a disappointment. They are shallow, repetitious (arms/charms, hand/understand) and unimaginative. They were so much better when I didn\’t understand them, when they were just a vessel for my passion.

I have a CD of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert\’s “Travels in Winter” in German. The CD comes with a complete translation of the poems on which the songs are based. I have only a smattering of German, but I refuse to look at the translation. It\’s much better if I don\’t quite know what Dietrich is saying. It makes the snow, and the sadness, more real.

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