My Old Kentucky Homesite

Earworm Saturday #6

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 07/10/2010

The other day, a friend asked me if I remembered what my first earworm was. I sure do. It was Mrs. Bronstein playing “The Spinning Song” on her piano.

When I was growing up, my Saturday mornings always began with the sounds of that poor woman of indeterminate middle age — I referred to her as “old” back then (fuck me) — practicing her music. The headboard of my bed was separated from the sounding board of her upright piano by a thin wall of plaster between our apartments. Throughout my entire childhood, she never expanded her repertoire beyond the same two pieces, but she played them both with such gusto each week that I sometimes worried about her piano crashing through the wall and landing on my head. The one she always started with was a musette by J.S. Bach. Usually, she tried it once or twice, maybe three times at most, and that was that. I liked the way the tune played with rhythm (I didn’t learn the word “syncopation” until later), and even though Mrs. Bronstein almost always screwed up the middle section, she’d end with a flourish.

The other number was “The Spinning Song,” my ear-monster. I’ve subsequently found out that it was written by a 19th-century German actor named Albert Ellmenreich, but when I was a kid, I thought it might have been composed by Mr. Bronstein to drive his wife crazy. He was definitely that kind of guy. He wore a beret, f’Chrissake, and my father told me that he was a … shhhhh … socialist. My other theory was that some Jewish mother, maybe even mine, had commissioned the piece with the specific purpose of awakening her slugabed child in the Bronx.

In any case, Mrs. Bronstein never did get through “The Spinning Song,” even though she practiced it from the time I was about five until I was nearly eleven. Six years, and she never finished that goddamned thing. Because whenever she would hit a wrong note, she would start all over again from the beginning.

Boop-bah Boop-bah Boop-bah Boop-bah
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dih-TAHH.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dit-DUMM.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dih-TAHH.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dit-DUMM.
OOM-puh OOM-puh OOM-puh OOM-puh …
… Oh, no!

To this day, I can hum, whistle, or scat-sing the first twelve bars of that tune perfectly. But at precisely the same point in the thirteenth measure, every single time, Mrs. Bronstein’s fingers got hopelessly muddled. She’d approach that spot in the melody and I’d lie absolutely still, holding my breath, united with my neighbor in some kind of mystical mind-meld of uncertainty.

She never did manage to spit those notes out perfectly. After a few seconds of silence, during which time I always imagined her heaving a sigh from the innermost recesses of her tormented being, she would go back to the beginning and doggedly commence deedling once more. Fifteen, twenty times, occasionally thirty, until she gave up, but only for that session. The next Saturday morning, she’d be back at it again, tenaciously determined, the paradigm of optimistic persistence.

For the rest of the weekend, I’d find myself singing the nonsense syllables printed above, which I’ve always imagined to be the song’s lyrics. Once I was deedling to myself while bringing a bag of garbage to the incinerator, and Mrs. Bronstein happened to open her door.

“Oh,” she said, “I see you like good music.”

I never knew until today, when I listened to it on YouTube, how the rest of that damned thing went.  Here it is. So stick your computer behind your headboard and listen to just the beginning about fifteen or twenty times. Guess what: you’ll have grown yourself an earworm. Meet me at the incinerator, and we can hum a duet.

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13 Responses to “Earworm Saturday #6”

  1. the chaplain said

    Oh, god – I remember that song. I don’t think it was my first earworm – that honor probably goes to Jesus Loves Me – but it was one of mine. The difference is, I was the one playing it and driving my family nuts.

  2. Chappy:
    Sorry that your response was held up in my spam filter, which happens any time a comment has three or more links. And you can certainly understand why a triple-bill of your selected song would have rung the WordPress alarm bell. Yikes!

    By the way, I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Bronstein never played “Jesus Loves Me.” Or did she?

  3. It is rather annoying on piano, but I bet it would sound interesting on a harpsichord. Which was in fashion when you were 5?

    Also, I have no idea how middle-aged housewives can exercise on stationary bikes to this tune.

  4. Des:
    When I was five, the only instrument that anybody played was the lyre. Keyboards hadn’t been invented yet.

    Mrs. Bronstein didn’t have a stationary bike. She had a real one, and was kind of like a good-hearted version of this woman. Of course, the scenery she passed on her bicycle rides was a bit different from what’s shown in the video. The only chickens we ever saw in the Bronx were in soup.

  5. Speaking of earworms, I doubt anyone can see that picture of Margaret Hamilton on the bicycle and not immediately hear The Wicked Witch Theme in his head.

  6. the chaplain said

    Larry:
    If that was Mrs. Bronstein, you forgot to mention that her piano was dreadfully out of tune. That alone must have driven you crazy.

  7. Des:
    I hear that theme in my head whenever I see any woman on a bicycle.

    Chappy:
    I’m not sure whether it would have mattered if Mrs. Bronstein’s piano was well-tempered or not. I certainly wasn’t.

  8. Perhaps it’s just me, but

    her piano was … out of tune

    sounds vaguely naughty.

  9. Des:
    You’re right. It’s just you.

  10. Joel Wheeler said

    HA! Played it as a kid as well. Slightly better than that, if I recall …

  11. Joel:
    Back before the Internet, everybody who learned how to play the piano had to work his or her way through Thompson’s, Grade 3. My wife still has her childhood copy, and we looked at it this weekend. Both of Mrs. Bronstein’s pieces are in that book — near the beginning.

  12. Thanks for the earworm.

    I read your post last Sunday and watched the video and fully intended to go about my biz. Imagine my surprise when the tune popped in my head as I was taking a leak.

    Boy was I pissed.

    (and because I was not at a keyboard, I just remembered to yell at you!)

  13. Going:
    Maybe at our age, that tune is particularly appropriate for taking a leak. It opens with a few seconds of waiting for the actual tune to begin, then it speeds up and slows down, hiccups in a strange rhythm, and — at least the way Mrs. Bronstein played it — stops and then starts all over again.

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