Here I’ve joined together two posts that I wrote a decade or so ago at The American Conservative (which has memory-holed most if not all I wrote for it). The first one:
The Kinks’ “Come Dancing” (1982) is a bouncy, catchy, almost silly little song with one of the saddest back-stories I’ve ever heard.
Ray Davies, the leader and songwriter of the Kinks, grew up in a large and eccentric working-class family in north London. He was the seventh of eight children, a somewhat shy and easily frightened child whose chief comforter was his sister Rene, who was eighteen years older than him. During the Second World War, when Ray was just an infant, Rene had fallen in love with a Canadian soldier posted in London, married him, and moved to Canada.
But their marriage was unhappy. Rene’s husband drank heavily and sometimes beat her; they argued constantly, and to escape him she would frequently return to the family home in Muswell Hill for extended stays, at first alone, later with her son. Like all of the Davieses she was musical, and enjoyed playing show tunes on the piano; the family tended to sing and play its way through hard times, of which they had plenty.
Rene was making one of her visits home when her kid brother turned thirteen, which she believed to be a special birthday deserving of a special present: she bought him a Spanish guitar he had been coveting for some time. She sat at the piano and they played a song together.
That evening, Rene decided to go dancing with friends at the Lyceum Ballroom in the West End. This was not, in the opinion of her doctor or her mother, a good idea: Rene had had rheumatic fever as a child, and it had weakened her heart. But, as Ray would write later in his autobiography, she had always loved to dance, and her life was hard and her violent husband very far away; she was not inclined to deny herself a cherished pleasure. On the dance floor of the Lyceum that evening she collapsed and died, as the big band played a tune from Oklahoma!
Only a quarter-century later did Ray Davies write the lively song that celebrated his sister Rene’s love of dancing: a song that gave her a longer, and happier, life than had been her actual lot. Ever since I learned what lies behind this little song, it has touched me.
Come on sister, have yourself a ball,
Dont be afraid to come dancing,
Its only natural.
Just like the Palais on a Saturday,
And all her friends will come dancing
Where the big bands used to play.
And here’s the second post:
In the comments to my previous post on Ray Davies of The Kinks, one reader linked to a YouTube version of a lovely ballad called “Oklahoma U.S.A.” The kind person who made that video (which I’ve not linked to here) seems to be under the impression that the song is about Oklahoma, but it’s not: it’s about the romance of America for working-class Brits half-a-century ago, as they saw America on the movie screen.
And yet the Muswell Hillbillies loved their place in the world. Rene repeatedly escaped from her unhappy marriage by returning to a home which, however shabby it may have been, gave her love and stability. It seems that for her there was something particularly consoling about hearing those American show tunes at the Lyceum Ballroom not far away, and playing them on the beaten-up old piano in her parents’ front parlor. And Ray Davies’s nostalgia for the world of his childhood is palpable throughout his music and well as in his autobiography.
I’m reminded here of several books by the remarkable English writer Richard Hoggart in which he celebrates his own urban working-class upbringing, in Leeds rather than London, and laments its displacement by an electrically-disseminated mass culture. But as he describes the place of singing in his upbringing — his community was intensely musical in much the same way that Davies’s family was — something odd emerges: these people weren’t singing English folk songs, but rather hit tunes they had heard on the wireless. He describes, for instance, the huge influence of Bing Crosby’s “crooning” style on the amateur singers in the local “workingmen’s clubs.”
There seems to have been a period, then, in England and I think in America too, when electrical technologies (primarily radio and movies) connected people with a larger world that shaped their dreams and aspirations — but without wholly disconnecting them from their local culture. Instead, it seems, they managed to incorporate those new and foreign songs into their local culture. Oklahoma! might show you some of the shortcomings of your world, but it didn’t necessarily make you hate it. There was a way to bring those distant beauties into your everyday life.
But perhaps this can only be done if you’re a creator and performer as well as a consumer. Davies’s sister Rene went to the movies, yes, but she also danced in the ballrooms and played piano with her brother. She made those songs her own by using her body and her voice, rather than merely observing the words and movements of others. Perhaps we have the power to incorporate mass culture into our lives — but not by just consuming it.