During the month of October, I performed a series of preschool story time concerts in Oregon’s Douglas County Public Library System. Yesterday, I played a gig at the small library in Oakland, Oregon (population 927). The vintage 1910 building has thirteen-foot ceilings and large wooden-frame windows. The library resides on the top floor of the building and the Oakland Play School Co-op operates downstairs.
In the 21st-century, it’s uncommon to find a public library within walking distance of a school campus, let alone one in such close proximity that the students can access the library, even on a rainy day. So, Miss Melinda, the school’s lone teacher, assisted by several parent volunteers, brought her class of a dozen preschool students upstairs to attend my concert in the cozy children’s room of the library. I taught them to sing Woody Guthrie’s “Put Your Finger in the Air” and “Why Oh Why?” We sang “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star,” “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and “The Wheels on the Bus,” with which they were already quite familiar. And I told them the story-song that I learned from my mentor, Sam Hinton, called “The Frog Song” (which is so obscure I don’t think anyone sings it anymore except me).
About 25-minutes into the concert, a five-year old boy in the front row, wearing spectacles with bright green frames, raised his hand and said plaintively, “My mom said you were going to sing ‘Wizard of Oz!’”
I realized I had forgotten something. No matter the age of the people in my audience, I almost always include Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s 1938 composition, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in my concerts. And this young fellow made it clear that he had been led to believe that this song would be a part of this concert. So, I played it on the autoharp and sang the familiar lyric. Some of the children inaudibly mouthed the words and nodded their heads while their mothers sang along.
Whatever their origins, whatever their genre, some songs enter the oral tradition and become truly universal. Over one billion people have watched the 1939 MGM motion picture, “The Wizard of Oz:” it has been enjoyed by more people, in more languages, than any other film in the history of the medium. It is no wonder that, in 2001, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was voted the number one popular “Song of the Century.”