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

Cloudbusting–Kate Bush

By Andrew Fort

Hounds_of_love

 

When the album “Hounds of Love” came out I was in high school. Even though Kate Bush was hugely popular in Europe, she was still perceived in the U.S. as bizarre, willful, and somewhat immature. If anyone knew about her at all, it was as “that chick who sang with Peter Gabriel.” I think that’s still all most people here know about her.

But I was obsessed. I had all the albums–on cassette. I read all the interviews. People used to see me walking home from school and think I was talking to myself. I wasn’t. I was just singing the entire album to myself. From start to finish. Track by track. With sound effects.

Kate Bush looking childish
Kate Bush looking childish

But I was a Freshman, so people wrote me off, and I was left to my liner notes and reviews. I remember one in particular (in ROLLING STONE, I think) which was unable to deny the songcraft and production ingenuity of the album, but which still wrote off the lyrics as nothing more than the rantings of a woman with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. And though I would have vehemently denied it to anybody I was trying to convert, I always felt the same about this one particular song, Cloudbusting: bizarre, willful, somewhat immature. I mean, she actually sings from the perspective of an eight-year-old here. She sings about her glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. She sings about her dad being taken away by the government.

a book of dreamsPerhaps not coincidentally, my parents split up around this time. My dad had been jobless for a long while and I think this was the source of the conflict. My mom felt like she had to do everything and my dad felt worthless, a them which would carry through the rest of his life. At the time I didn’t really understand the pressures of having a family, so I spent most of the time in my room, with my liner notes and interviews and cassette tapes. With the kind of obsessive attention that only a high-school Freshman seems to have time to lavish on his favorite music, I even went so far as to seek out the book which inspired the song: A BOOK OF DREAMS by Peter Reich. It explained the backstory: Reich’s father, the brilliant scientist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, regarded glow-in-the-dark items as radioactive and was later taken away by “men in black” who thought him dangerous. Yet is still didn’t excused the childishness of the song or the video, in which Bush, with the aplomb that only someone as brilliant as she can manage when being totally ridiculous, dresses as a child and spends time with her magical, brilliant father (played by Donald Sutherland) until he’s taken away. 

So. My father has been dead for nearly twenty years. He wasn’t brilliant. He wasn’t magical. Towards the end of his life he was close to being homeless, struggling with alcohol and joblessness. He wasn’t taken away by the government, but by a heart attack. And I was almost too busy trying to be an adult to even take notice.

About five years ago I wrote a calculatedly tear-jerking essay about him for a now-defunct website called Field Report. The site’s gone now, but at the time it was offering $1,000 prizes for winning entries. Even though I have never really written for money, this time I did. I won the $1,000, as I knew I would. But I still didn’t feel much. Because my dad had always been a cipher, someone I was vaguely embarrassed by.

Quickly enough the $1,000 evaporated, as money tends to do. And little things began to permeate the air, like alpha particles being ejected from a radioactive material. I began to feel guilty for writing the piece. I remembered the time my dad got so angry at my older sister that he broke down the bathroom door with his bare hands while she hid inside. I remembered the birthday when I had given him a carton of cigarettes, because he couldn’t afford his own. Then, the next year, to atone for contributing to his terrible smoking habit, I gave him a book of Mark Twain stories, only to learn somewhat later that he was most likely dyslexic and could barely read. As someone who writes, this realization hit me the hardest.

Then, slowly, happier memories began to come through. Tickle-torture matches. The way he could dance completely unselfconsciously, something I’ve never been able to do. How much he loved his parents.

My father wasn’t magical. He wasn’t brilliant. He was jobless, on the verge of homelessness, and could barely read. But I began to understand how difficult it all must have been for him. I began to see how earnestly he attempted to make a connection with his sometimes bizarre, willful, and immature offspring.Cloudbusting Quote

I think that what troubled me most about Kate Bush’s song when I was in high school was that it felt embarrassing and childish at a time when the last thing I wanted to be was embarrassing and childish. But the childishness was still with me. I hadn’t shaken it yet. And ultimately Kate Bush was right, as she seems to be about most things, given time.

My dad’s entire side of the family has died out, and often it seems to me like my his life was completely pointless, and it feels far too self-congratulatory to imagine that all of his struggling went towards forming my sisters and me.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter anyway, because his memory is like Kate Bush’s yo-yo: something radioactive which I keep in my pocket. And it continues to emit energy into the air whether I acknowledge it or not.

Cloudbusting video on YouTube

Cloudbusting–Kate Bush