Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mother, please!

Good morning, class.  Today's slice of pop rock history involves the song "Sylvia's Mother," written by Shel Silverstein and originally sung by Dr. Hook.  If you don't know the song or haven't heard it since that wonderful Watergate Summer of '72, listen to it here and come on back!

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Nice little song, huh?  A guy calls his soon-to-be former girl's house in a last-ditch effort to get back together, and her mother gets on the phone and high-hats him all over the place.

Shel Silverstein wrote hundreds of poems, many set to music, ranging from kid's verses (they're in a book called "A Light In The Attic") to adult poems (e.g. "Stacy Brown Got Two") to his many great country songs ("A Boy Named Sue," "The Cover of the Rolling Stone," "Hey Loretta," and "Daddy, What If?" among them). But "Sylvia's Mother" is probably his best-known song, and his most autobiographical.

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The record
Silverstein had been going with a woman named Silvia Pandolfi, but she threw him over for another dude.  Silvia (correct spelling) later wound up as a curator at the Museo de Arte in Mexico City, but when she gave Shel the air, she headed for Galveston, Texas. When Shel called to try to talk her out of leaving, he spoke to Silvia's mother...her name was Louisa...and it was her sad duty to give him the sad news.

In the story, the family surname is changed to Avery, probably to save the Pandolfis from everyone knowing the whole deal. Mrs Avery tells the forlorn young man that Sylvia is getting married, and trying to start her life all over in Galveston. And the heartwrenching line is when she asks the dude not to say anything to her because she might start crying and want to stay, missing the 9 o'clock train. She then reminds Sylvia to take an umbrella "cause it's starting to rain" and come back to wrap up the phone call.  She does, however, sort of leave the back door open again by saying thanks for calling, and won't you call back again?

Unless that was just to be polite.   And the guy is on a pay phone and the operator keeps asking for 40 cents more...

It's a sad song, and if you watch this video, you get to hear the real whole deal!  It's amazing to find that there were real people involved in what seemed to be a fictional heartbreak.  And Mrs Pandolfi comments that the song made her seem kind of brusque to the caller, but she doesn't remember it that way!  She doesn't want to comment too much about her daughter's business, but I find it remarkable that she recalls Silverstein - a man so adept at the written word - saying that he is not much for writing letters, but prefers to communicate by phone call.

The bonus to the video is, it's captioned, for those who can read Dutch.

And, the local connection to Baltimore? Shel later had a daughter Shoshanna born in 1970, with Susan Hastings. Ms Hastings died 5 years later in Baltimore, and afterwards, her aunt and uncle, Meg and Curtis Marshall, raised Shanna until her death of a cerebral aneurysm in Baltimore in 1982 at the age of 11. Shanna was  a student at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, and her death, said a friend, was "the single most devastating event of (Shel's) life, and he never really did recover from it." He died at age 69 in 1999. 

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