Happy 94th Birthday to My Dad

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Son and Father (March 2018)

One of those afternoons that stretches eternally between boredom and dinner. I’m lying on the couch in Allahabad listening to music.  On the small Phillips stereo behind me, The Beatles are urging a German composer to give way.  I’ve made sure the volume is set appropriately: loud enough for me to enjoy but not too loud to disturb Dad, who between lectures, is always to be found in his small office tapping away at some urgent piece of correspondence.

 

The front door bangs open and dad rushes in in a huff. My heart stops. Like a well-trained soldier I leap off the couch toward the stereo. My hand is already reaching for the volume knob.  ‘I can’t hear it,” Dad says, moving in my direction.  Before I am able to formulate a response he gives the knob a squeeze and…cranks it.

 

You know my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse
My hearts beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps a singing the blues
Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

 

At the end of the verse George Harrison lets rip with one of those essential Beatle screams. I watch Dad do a middle aged twist, just avoiding the brass coffee table that sits on the Mirzapur carpet. My first thought is: Geez! Turn that stuff down!

 

My second thought is: Wow Dad. I love you.

 

A bit of context.  Dad and Mom were, for nearly 40 years, conservative protestant missionaries in India. Dancing to rock ‘ n roll was not something they encouraged. Music was celebrated as one of God’s many gifts but the family record collection was limited. Classical music and religious records mainly. But as my older brothers grew into teenagers, a few more racy platters found (strictly controlled) rotation time: The Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels and eventually Dylan. ‘Upbeat’ numbers could be frowned upon but, in general, as long as there was no overt bodily movement especially of the hips and shoulders then it was tolerated as a part of ‘bringing up young people these days’.

 

So, to see Dad, this serious theologian of Midwest Methodist stock, trying to do the twist, and that too, with a spark in his eye, was stupefying.

 

Today Rudy Rabe, my father, is 94 years old. If you got him in an honest moment he would likely confess there is not much to celebrate, what with his eyes and ears and knees not showing up for work anymore. He would reject any but the most basic ‘fuss’ being made of him. Like so many of his contemporaries he has learned to avoid the limelight.

 

I know he’s not living long like this and though he may not think himself worthy, I need to put a few words together about one of his greatest gifts to me and my brothers and sister.  A love of music.

 

For years I’ve collected music in all media types from 45s to bit torrents. In recent times I have found myself gaining a bit of regional renown as a music journalist. I could not live without music. From South African accordion stompers to Noor Jehan and from Funk. Inc. to George Jones, music has been a constant, comforting companion. And it all began with that small record collection in India, and my dad.

 

A Rudy Rabe Playlist: 12 Essential Musical Moments

 

The very first traces of musical memory go back to Gadag, a small district town in northern Karnataka where we lived for the first several years in India.

 

  1. I Love Parisby English minor league trumpeter Eddie Calvert is a lounge-jazz classic. The soaring, pure, effortless way he blew the horn went straight to my heart and fired my imagination. Paris, I guessed was in the West, where what Mom and Dad called ‘home’, was. The cooing and harmonising ladies, the subtle organ, the plucked strings and Eddie’s horn still make my knees weak.  Eddie looked the part too with his pencil moustache and slick hair. But he was a bit of jerk. After his career fizzled out in the mid-sixties he moved to racist Rhodesia where he continued to perform in White Only clubs. One of his most popular renditions was Amazing Race, a pro-apartheid reworking of Amazing Grace.

 

  1. One night the circus came to Gadag. Decked out in our pyjamas the family trammelled in the dark to the dimly lit tents. As Dad pushed me on his bike my brother Mike began singing Drink Drink Drinkby Mario Lanza.  I’m amazed we were allowed to play this song given its rousing endorsement of beer, a beverage, despite his German heritage, my father has, as far as I know, never even tasted.

 

That night he told us that he didn’t approve of Lanza’s lifestyle which included allowing his kids to run riot and use crayons on the wall.  I’ve no doubt that Dad’s favourite track from The Student Prince was this: I’ll Walk With God. To sing God’s praise was the most important purpose of music and Dad never missed the opportunity, even if the song was surrounded by other less edifying content.

 

  1. It was 1963. I was 7 and this was my first visit to the States. My sister Beckie and I spent the summer criss-crossing America as Dad and Mom raised money for their work in India. Passing the long days in the back of a Rambler station wagon driving from one rural church to the next, local AM radio was our only entertainment. For the first time, I was hearing secular music on a regular basis.  One song stood out. Ring of Firewas everywhere.  There were those trumpets again. And the vivid imagery and fast pace. I would watch Dad discreetly turn the volume up when the horns burst out of the speaker. Sometimes he’d sing the chorus aloud. Even Mom would hum along. Many years later when I understood what the song was about I wondered what it was they were thinking when they sang along.

 

  1. Those long drives between Nebraska and Iowa, through the Dakotas and Montana and from New Jersey to Minneapolis were where my lifelong love of the Man in Black began.Several years later Dad returned from one of his overseas trips with a Johnny Cash Greatest Hits cassette. He loved to hear us listening to it and of course, especially loved Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord). I played that tape over and over. Maybe a hundred times. And I credit it with giving me my early appreciation not just for American roots music but rock ‘n roll, too. How much more exciting could you get than, I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues?

 

I don’t know how much Dad really knew about Johnny Cash. Though he was a committed believer all his life he was also a first class ‘sinner man’. When he recorded Ring of Fire and Were You There he was addicted to pills and starting an affair with his future wife June, one of the beautiful Carter sisters. Knowing Dad was an avid reader of Time magazine and newspapers, he surely knew some of Cash’s troubles.  And yet, I never heard him say a bad word about him like he did about Mario Lanza. I like to think Dad was able to understand that life is a struggle. Just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean you never screw up. And of course, I know that Dad was able to appreciate a man’s art as being distinct from his life. That he was a fan of Johnny’s is evidence of that.

 

  1. Though he loved Johnny Cash I don’t think Dad really ‘got’ country music. The few country records in the collection were sort of faux country of the sort you heard at Las Vegas shows. One was a Frankie Laine record of cowboy songs my favourite of which was Cool Water. The other was Tumbling Tumbleweedsby Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. He hated that record. ‘Don’t listen to that junk,’ he’d say, but it was too late. I had been bitten by the country music bug. Once after I played it he hid the record. I never saw it again.

 

  1. Dad returned from meetings in America in 1971 bearing gifts: a purple shirt with white stitching on the (very) elongated collar for me. And for us kids in general a couple of tapes. One was by the hottest pop star, Cat Stevens. The other was a collection of rock n roll songs played by Christians! Lordy me! After Johnny Cash, Cat Stevens was my favorite singer. His earnest lyrics about the passages of life were the perfect platform for Dad and me to have our occasional ‘deep and meaningfuls’.  Over the years we had several conversations with On the Road to Find Outas the template for exploring life away from home, spiritual longing and growing up.  But his favourite, which he quoted for years was the cautionary tale, Wild World.

 

  1. Though dad was a strong believer in the teachings of Jesus, India was a country and culture he held in deep respect. He was a student of its religions, a lover of its foods and captivated by its beauty. We hiked in the Himalayas together and from time to time he’d accompany me to a Rajesh Khanna picture. And of course, he enjoyed Indian music. His busy schedule precluded his truly digging deep into the raga system but that didn’t stop him from bringing home some amazing records. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, a native of Gadag, was his favourite classical singer and for years the only Indian musician I could name. A record he played a lot was Pannalal Ghosh’s Raga Yaman with which I fell in love with the bansuri(bamboo flute). Eventually the collection included Ravi Shankar, V.G. Jog and Bismillah Khan records which I must admit, I never understood but four decades on understand were the first portals to my appreciation of Indian classical music.

 

  1. Over the years music has lost out to other interests like college sports! But every once in a while I’ll send him songs I think he might like and that mean something to me. He always listens and gets back to me with a brief thumbs up or down, never overly enthusiastic about anything. Except for one. Almost Persuadedthe gorgeous Louvin Brothers hymn which brings together old time religion and impeccable country harmonies was one he’s mentioned several times as being ‘a blessing’. Like all those Cat Stevens songs, Almost Persuaded, were dad younger, could have been the perfect reason to embark upon another deep and meaningful.

 

 

There have been lots of other songs, records and artists I could mention. Rudolph Serkin and The Moonlight Sonata; Beethoven’s Ninth; Handel’s Messiah; the Tijuana Brass, Jesus Christ Superstar, Larry Norman and the Chad Mitchell Trio. And an obscure Christian folk rock group called Love Song.

 

I’m sad he can’t enjoy music the way he once did. But I’m so grateful for the way not only his own taste in music opened doors and  piqued my curiosity but also how in an environment where non-religious music of all types was distrusted and ignored, Dad, in a very subtle but classy way gave me (and my sister and brothers) one of best gifts ever.

 

Happy Birthday Dad. Thanks for all the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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