While traveling with Charley in 1960, John Steinbeck worked in a few visits with family — his son in college, a rendezvous with his wife in Chicago — but he made a point of not including details of those encounters in the book he eventually produced.
They would create, he wrote, a “disunity.”
Instead, the famous writer, traveling the country and using his dog to get people to open up to him, bare their souls and spill their guts, chose to keep his own private life unbared, unspilled and, well, private.
While we’re following Steinbeck’s route, we’re not following that philosophy. That is why you’ve read about our visits with my mother, my father, my brother, an ex-wife and to the former home of my grandparents.
All of this, along with Interstate 94 and my perpetual quest for free lodging, brings us to my sister’s home in Wisconsin.
She’s a writer of hymns and a singer of songs who grew up on 60’s music. Long before karaoke machines, she was a hard core singalonger. Or, when no radio was around, a singaloner. She, unlike me — who will sing only when alone (except for Ace) — rarely hesitates to sing, no matter how many people might be around.
She also used her singing to torture me — not that her voice is bad, it’s actually quite good. But, at a time when you don’t even like girls yet, you don’t want one singing sappy girl songs in your face, and she’s always leaned toward the sappy girl songs.
When John Steinbeck left Long Island and hit the road 50 years ago with his poodle to take the pulse of America, he found one of the places to take that pulse was the radio. Radio stations at the time were still playing “Teen Angel,” a morbid little number that told the story of a teenage girl being killed by a train while trying to retrieve the high school ring her boyfriend gave her.
Steinbeck didn’t quite get the name right in “Travels With Charley,” but he did note how the song — No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks earlier that year — seemed to be playing everywhere he went, that America, at least in terms of its music, was becoming pretty homogenized:
“If ‘Teen-Age Angel’ is top of the list in Maine, it is top of the list in Montana. In the course of the day you may hear ‘Teen-Age Angel’ thirty or forty times.”
The song, recorded by a one hit wonder named Mark Dinning, was a continuation of a gloomy theme — the third No. 1 song in a row at the start of 1960 that featured a love-related death.
The 60’s may have kicked off on a hopeful note, but there was plenty of angst even then, at least in our music. Before Teen Angel, there was “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins — the story of a cowboy who gunned down the man he caught wooing his woman (Felina, who worked in Rosa’s Cantina). He hightailed it out of of town, but was drawn back by his love for Felina. Upon his return, he was gunned down, but at least got a kiss from Felina before he died.
After that came “Running Bear,” by Johnny Preston. Running Bear, you might recall, loved Little White Bird — and vice versa — and they both jumped into a raging river to reach each other’s arms, only to get sucked under and drown once they did.
Popular music got a little cheerier and even cheesier after that, with lots of songs about the foolishness of love, including several plaintive chart-toppers by Brenda Lee.
A couple of months before Steinbeck departed on his journey, “I’m Sorry” rose to the top of the charts — a song I remember well because my sister used to sing it constantly, and, once she realized it annoyed me, right in my seven-year-old face.
The worst torture, though, would come two years later, with the release of the song “Johnny Angel,” by Shelley Fabares. My sister would delight in singing me — being a John, though not a Johnny –the sappy tune. She was 14 by then, I was nine. The more I appeared to be bothered by it, the more she did it, which taught me a lifelong lesson.
Today, in the home she shares with her husband in DeForest, outside Madison, she has her own karaoke machine, which she fires up frequently. Unlike the young me, the machine serves as both her accomplice and audience, and doesn’t run to another room.
Her husband, also named John — and a true appreciator of her singing — has a connection to another singer, I just learned today. When he was in the 7th grade in Dumfries, Virginia, he was assigned to be the escort of one of four finalists vying to be selected queen of the winter dance.
Parents and teachers served as judges for the contest, and they picked the girl he’d been chosen to escort — the daughter of a marine. She was cute, he recalled, the fastest runner on the playground and prone to wearing “puffy-shouldered dresses.”
The year was 1959, and the girl was Emmylou Harris.
Now that I’m grown up, I don’t think I’d mind Emmylou Harris (a true dog lover, by the way) singing “Johnny Angel” to me — even in my face. My sister singing it to me, however, is still bothersome. How do I know? Because even now, as I look up the song on YouTube, she is doing it again. She’s singing along. And she’s 61. And I’m 57. And I want to run into the other room.
Johnny Angel, how I love him.
He’s got something that I can’t resist,
but he doesn’t even know that I exist.
I’m pretending it’s not bothering me at all.