Roving thoughts and provocations

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It’s on YouTube, Kid


It dawned on me recently that every song, movie, and TV show that ever made an impression on me is available on YouTube. To test that proposition, and with so many options where to begin confronting me, I began by looking up a 1939 western called Oklahoma Kid with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart that I saw in 1950 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, one cold and snowy winter day while playing hooky from school. Not only was the entire movie on the website, but several isolated scenes and a trailer were also available, along with the astonishing information that 45,298 others had already viewed the clip I was watching. In a flash it all came back to me: the rundown, near-empty movie theater, where on a previous occasion I had seen a rat make his way across the stage, come to a stop directly under the movie screen, and study the action with great interest for a while, before proceeding into the wings on some more urgent business.

Finding myself thus once again a twelve-year-old kid, I checked out a few other movies I saw in those years, like Great Expectations, the 1946 British adaptation of Dickens’s novel. In its opening scene, a boy no older than I was at the time is seen running through a marshy countryside on a bleak and windy evening to pay a visit, as it turns out, to his mother’s grave in an overgrown churchyard. No sooner has he knelt down to clear the nettles growing around her tombstone than he is accosted by a large, bald, and fierce-looking man wearing leg irons, who threatens to cut his throat and eat his liver if he doesn’t procure for him a file from a blacksmith’s shop or if he tells anyone that he’s seen a man hiding in the graveyard. I remember being terrified by that movie, terrified walking the dark streets of Belgrade home and being unable to fall asleep for a long time that night. This was strange, because like any other child who grew up during the war, I had seen many more frightening things.

To test the all-knowing YouTube, I looked next for the patriotic songs we were made to sing in school and in May Day parades in Belgrade, as we marched past Marshall Tito and his party comrades on the reviewing stand. To my astonishment I found them, their words as idiotic to me today as when I first heard them. And that wasn’t all. Songs by every murderous faction in the civil war that raged in Yugoslavia during World War II and made the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children hell on earth, have also been preserved for posterity—I imagine, by the descendants of the killers and by new generations of their admirers. Soviet army songs and popular songs, however, were of much better quality; some, like the well-known “Katusha” and “The Dark Night,” which was sung in the 1943 Soviet movie Two Soldiers, were irresistible even to those who loathed Stalin’s Russia:


My own musical interests lay in different direction. Every night, after my mother and grandmother were asleep, I listened to American armed forces radio stations broadcasting from Italy and Austria in hope of hearing some jazz. The memory of those times made me look up a dozen big band numbers, among them one called “Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” played by Tex Beneke in a 1946 recording that a kid in my neighborhood had gotten hold of someplace and used to play as loud as he could, with every window in his sixth-floor apartment open, when his parents were out. The entire neighborhood was terrified—not only by the wild, orgiastic sounds of decadent capitalist music, but also by the likelihood that what were hearing was a deliberate political provocation by some as-yet unidentified clandestine organization working toward the overthrow of our socialist system.

When I was done with my childhood on YouTube, I turned to my teenage years. The day I arrived in the United States on August 10, 1954, at the age of sixteen, my father, who was already living in this country, took me to a dive on 7th Avenue and 48th Street in New York called Metropole, where I heard a group led by an old New Orleans trumpet player Red Allen, whose guest that evening was the renowned saxophone player Coleman Hawkins.

William P. Gottlieb
Red Allen at the Onyx Club, New York, May 1946

I didn’t find a video of that night on YouTube, since videos of live performances are very rare in jazz and since even some of the greatest names in music, like Lester Young and Charlie Parker, are poorly documented. But I found one from 1957 of Allen and Hawkins playing “S’Wonderful” and with a nearly identical group we heard backing them up. Of course, once one starts searching for something on YouTube, all kinds of surprises await, like this live broadcast from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the mid-1930s with Chick Webb and his orchestra and the young Ella Fitzgerald doing a swinging, astonishingly inventive version of the “St. Louis Blues.”

When one lives in the boonies, as I do, and the winters are long, one has a choice of either dying of boredom or going stir crazy, unless one can find a way to pass the time. One night recently, my wife and I made a YouTube tour of the early TV shows: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Ernie Kovacs and Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners, all of which our families watched faithfully in the 1950s and afterwards fondly recalled to their dying day. Many of them, like Caesar’s “This is Your Story” a skit from his weekly variety program, Your Show of Shows, are still very much worth watching. “It just doesn’t get any funnier than this,” one of the 78,525 people who viewed it says in his comment, and I fully agree.

Reliving one’s past with the help of YouTube tends to be addictive. Once one starts, it’s hard to stop, because any name dug up from memory inevitably suggests another, and hours pass, and before one knows it, it’s close to midnight and time for one last song, or movie clip, before slipping under the heavy down covers. But it can’t be just any old thing. It has to be something extra special to mull over and savor as one drifts off blissfully into sleep, like this clip of Ida Lupino playing the piano and singing in a 1940s film called Road House, which I found recently, and am ready to play at least once every night till Christmas and New Year come, and after that, even till that distant and unimaginable first day of Spring comes:


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