Sunshine on my Shoulders–John Denver

By Rebecca Sonnenshine

When I was very small–maybe three or four–I often had the unsettling feeling that I was standing at the precipice of sanity, just about to fall into a bottomless chasm of crazy. At least that’s how I characterize those feeling as an adult currently wading throughRebecca Quote middle age. At the time, it simply felt like I was being chased by big scary emotions–happy, sad, scared, angry–that were waiting to swallow me whole.

Now, of course, I have come to the conclusion that all toddlers are mentally unhinged. Part of the human growing and learning process, I guess? So I was normal. The only part that probably wasn’t normal was my self-awareness of said toddler insanity. Am I crazy? I would think, as I was carried out of Bambi or Charlotte’s Web, sobbing inconsolably as if the world had ended. My mother soon put an end to movies— “Until you’re older”–and also the Sunday night Disney shows about wildlife families (wolves, bears, deer, whatever) in which a baby was separated from its mother, then reunited a commercial-break later. It was Just. Too. Sad. Even Sesame Street had to go.

But here’s what couldn’t  go: music. Music was the only thing that was everywhere, back in the day. You didn’t see movies playing in car DVD players. You didn’t see television blasting in every waiting room or nail salon or store window. But the radio was always on: in the car, in the coffee shop, at home. And I soon became obsessed with a song by John Denver called Sunshine on my Shoulders. Here is the first verse:

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

John Denver was pretty popular in the 70s (even before he was on The Muppets). I think my mom might have had a t-shirt with his face on it. He looked like a pretty nice guy to me: sweet, smiling, with straight blonde hair that was a little long and cut like mine. When he sang, he sounded like he understood me. Also: I liked anything that had to do with sunshine, since that was my last name (close enough). But what I liked most about the song john-denver2was that it made me cry. But not uncontrollably. Just enough to be enjoyable. That little swell of the heart, that tiny tear falling from the corner of my eye. Every time I heard it on the radio, I would press myself up against the speaker, basking in the melancholy of the song. And finally, I asked my mother if I could HAVE THIS SONG. I needed it. I needed to hold it close and let it be all mine. And for some reason, she agreed. Maybe because it was so damn cute, but probably because I wouldn’t stop asking for it.

This was a big deal. We lived in a tiny town. I’m not even sure there was a record store. We had to drive to the nearest big city (Chico, if that tells you anything) and go to the mall. There, my mother bought me the 45 of the song. I don’t remember what was on the B-side. I’m sure it was my first record that wasn’t a read-along story or Captain Kangaroo collection of songs and jokes. A real single. All mine. Little kids had record players back then. Even three year-olds. And once we bought it, I had to wait the rest of the day AND the 35 minute drive home to listen to it.

But once I put it on the turntable and lowered the needle, it was just as wonderful as I remembered it from the radio. John Denver was singing this song about me. To me. I started to cry. I probably listened to it until my mother wanted to hurl the whole damn thing into the garbage. But a funny thing happened: the more I listened to it, the less it made me cry. There was something about listening to the sad song over and over again that gave me the power to control my emotions. I didn’t feel so crazy anymore. Eventually, I got bored of Sunshine on my Shoulders. I put it next to Captain Kangaroo and moved on to another obsession: a weird cover of the ballad One Tin Soldier.

Recently, I heard Sunshine on my Shoulders. It came up streaming in my Pandora station: singer-songwriters of the 1970s (an excellent station, by the way). It was amazing how moving the song still is. Sweet and sad and simple. It took me back to that record store in the mall, holding my mom’s hand as we walked through the aisles in search of my treasure. I still love things that make me cry. I still love that song. And when I heard it, out of the blue, I might have cried. Just a tiny bit.

Official Website of John Denver

Sunshine on my Shoulders–John Denver

Pandora’s Music Box

By Jennifer Fort

I collected my childhood in songs: the alphabet, how to count, parts of speech, sharing is good, C is for Cookie, Love American Style. I learned that Jesus loved me and Mr. Rogers was really counting on me to be his neighbor. Commercial jingles and jump rope rhymesJennifer Post 3 and hymns and theme songs slosh and spill into my life even now as I carry them like a brimming coffee cup I forget I’m holding.

One song sinks to the bottom like bitter stray grounds. I sang it for my little sister. I sang because this particular song could make her cry. And, oh, I wanted her to cry. I wanted her to howl, to give voice to my existential eldest child frustrations. I don’t know the exact moment, but at some point it became clear that music had power. The box had been opened.  Music could evoke responses mere words could never generate. I understood that I could use music to manipulate my sister’s emotions; I had a new weapon.

That weapon was Ten Little Indians.

On the surface it is a simple counting song. The version found and used currently is simply a count of little Indians, forward and then backward, usually to the tune of Michael Finnegan. It is simple and mind-numbing and politically incorrect. The version I learned Jennifer Post 2was more complicated and recounted the horrific demise of each Indian boy, one by one. I can find various poems that must have been the basis for the song I knew. There is death by choking, death by bee stings, death by giant fish. One is killed by a bear. One roasts to death on a hot day. One gets chopped in half. It is a nursery song directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I don’t remember who taught me this song. If it was an adult, it hardly seems like a good call. But to be fair, it was the 1970’s and there was a lot of impaired judgment. What seems to me now like obvious racism and attempted genocide tucked into a song for children went unnoticed and unheeded in those groovy days. Fairy tales were served raw with some carob and wheat germ on the side. The only line I remember singing is the last one. It is not the traditional ending and appears to be a unique and violent adaptation. It is this line that would generate the tears and I sang it to full effect:

One little Indian found a gun. Shot himself, and then there were none.

My sister found this horrifying because how could that little boy’s parents let him play with a gun? It sounded like a simple open-and-shut case of suicide to me, but she insisted upon a complicated story of tragic parental neglect. My sister was and is a maternal person, always caring for the dolls I did not hesitate to throw headfirst into the dark well of our toy box when the work got tedious. She was the good shepherd for those left behind on ourJennifer Post 1 block. She was kindly captain of the little sisters and brothers, the kids nobody had time for. She was the democratic underdog, the unheard and unheeded middle child giving voice to the voiceless up and down ticket. And me? I was Donald Trump.

I was the monster that music built. I was the one-note bully in the obnoxious trucker hat: Make this family great again. These siblings had showed up, uninvited and unwanted, and I was doing my best to deport them. And then there were none. When I wasn’t singing to make my sister cry I was acting the terrorist, beheading my hapless Sunshine Family dolls in full view of my little brother. This was an incredibly satisfying act, as it made him scream and sob and seek a more hospitable country. When he was not providing me with useful menial labor as a shopkeeper in our pretend store I was busy building a wall to keep him out of my room.

I could get myself in trouble with the authorities for throwing a book at my brother’s head or pinching my sister; I had gone these routes and been spanked for them and knew I needed to be more creative. I could be faulted for physical violence, but this music let me manufacture all the misery I desired with impunity. If I was careful, these drone strikes would fly undetected by preoccupied parental radar and devastate their targets. Who would punish me for playing with dolls even if what I was doing belonged at a public execution in Riyadh? Who could chastise me for singing to my little sister?

The enemy I imagined in my sister no longer exists, has been replaced with an ally. The tormented has long since forgiven her tormentor, if she remembers at all. The actual words I sang have melted and evaporated from memory like ice cubes on the broiling summer sidewalks of my California childhood.

But this remains:

Someone taught me a song.

Someone opened the box.

Sometimes the wind is right and a song rises from the depths and I can hear things that have been silent.

Sometimes I hear my sister crying.

History of Ten Little Indians

Editorial from Indian Country

Pandora’s Music Box