Some people say that music defines a generation. Think of the era of jazz where teenagers went to secret underground parties to dance. Look at the era of the forties, where music was centered around patriotism and bringing our troops home. We could go to the sixties – where the hippie movement created a sexual revolution, a wave of drug use, and a call for peace. Some even argue that the era of classic rock through the sixties and seventies is the only true music. And we could talk about the seventies with disco and the eighties with…well, as my mom puts it, “We all dressed horribly, drugs were rampant, and the music was horrible,” (Not to offend anyone who likes the music of disco and the eighties.
And then we can go to an era that I lived through: The nineties. Between the boy bands, the Spice Girls, and Britney Spears – well, that era kept the screaming pre-teen girls like me very busy with an obsession.
I always knew that music had a big impact in my life and in the lives of my family members. But I never realized how involved certain relatives of mine were in music. And this morning, I received a glimpse into the life of my Auntie Shirley, a self proclaimed “wild child of sorts”.
Born as the fourth child of William Harney and Ethel Weston Harney in 1920, Shirley was the black sheep of her family. While all the other girls of the family were polite, ladylike, and trained in playing classical and religious songs on the piano, Shirley was out wrestling the boy next door for making fun of her dress.
In the forties, Shirley hung out in small clubs singing and dancing with the soldiers who were getting ready to go to war. When Seattle threw a parade after WWII ended, Shirley was one of the pretty girls riding in the back of a car, singing patriotic songs and blowing kisses to the soldiers. At one point, she even jumped out of the car and started swing dancing in the middle of the street with a soldier who “couldn’t take his eyes off” of her. With a chuckle, she explained the fury her father expressed after multiple soldiers came over asking for permission to take her on a date.
Even when I was a kid, my Auntie Shirley knew how help me find my voice. By the time I knew her, she was blind, but that didn’t hold her back. Despite her lack of sight, she knew her way around downtown Seattle and would take me to these wonderful old buildings, telling me about what what cool “hole in the wall” joints they used to be. I used to love listening to her and picturing what it was like for her to be dancing down the streets.
But it was when we reached a church that she attended that she really shocked me: She told me that I was going to sing in front of all the old ladies who came together to play bingo every week. I was terrified, and as I tried to sing, my voice was quiet with nervousness and cracked right as I felt the tears coming to my eyes. That is when she told me sit next to her on the piano bench and began playing this quick, fun song. She then started singing and told me to sing along. Within minutes, I felt empowered and could sing on my own. I was this nine year old kid, singing and dancing with all these old ladies and having a blast. I gained so much confidence that day, and I bonded with my Auntie Shirley more than ever..
So maybe music is what defines a generation – or maybe it is the generation that defines a generation. (I’ll leave this philosophical thought with you…)