"Room party in Fetz' room tonight..."
A half a century later, fraternity brothers formerly and for four years at a prestigious northeastern engineering school reminisce over the roots of popular American music.
ROOM PARTY I and II are collections of songs which were widely played at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during the years 1957-1961.
The playing of these tunes occurred at impromptu gatherings of the fraternity brothers, and their dates —mainly on Friday and Saturday nights — in the living and study rooms of the fraternity house. These gatherings were called room parties.
A listening to these tunes some 50 years later provides not just touches of melancholia for those who were actually present at these sessions, but interesting perspectives on late-fifties lives and times.
Selection Criteria: "what we were listening to during our fraternity room parties during the nominal target years 1957-1961." Not "what was a hit record during those target years," not "what became influential during later years and remembered more vividly now," not "what were (or are!) my favorite songs or the favorite songs of my best friends," but "what, as a matter of shared recollected fact, were we listening to during the room parties."
The first thirty (30) tunes included on ROOM PARTY I are set forth as an answer to that question. If there are any songs in the 30 that we never played (a lot) during that time period, then they should not be on the list. If there are any songs which we were playing a lot, but which do not appear on the list, then the list should be made to include them, at the possible expense of songs already on the list.
Provisionally taking our first thirty tunes, and examining them, a few observations are easily made.
Gender of Artists: astonishingly, they are all male. Not a female in the bunch. Not even in the back-up bands. They too are all male. The occasional female back-up vocalist often turns out to be a falsetto-singing young man. This suggests a systematic exclusion of non-male musical talent in the songs we called our favorites. We didn't make these songs, but we did choose them.
How this came to pass isn't clear. True, we were a male fraternity, but half of the persons at these room parties were females, and we were very happy they were. We knew of popular songs sung by females, of course. There had just recently been "How Much is That Doggie in the Window," by Patti Page, "Come On-A My House" by Rosemary Clooney, "It's My Party" by Leslie Gore and "Wheel of Fortune" by Kay Starr. We were playing these tunes before coming to Troy. But we never played them once while in college.
Although the BILLBOARD charts for the years in question also show a preponderance of male artists over female artists, we could have chosen to listen to a female artist every now and then. There were The Shirelles, Connie Francis, Connie Stevens, Lavern Baker, the Poni Tails, Gladys Knight, Brenda Lee and Annette Funicello, for a start. Be this as it may, we weren't playing any of their songs on Burdett Avenue.
All this would change, of course, during the next ten years. Had we been having our room parties ten years later, we would have been listening to Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and a sorority of other voices. All this because of Gloria Steinem, and Ms. Magazine?
Genre of Music: up-tempo, loud, and country-influenced. (Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Dion, et. al.) This is what is referred to now as "Rockabilly." The other favorites (folk ballads, dixieland, and hard-core, black R&B) seemed to have enjoyed a certain favor (to have been tolerated) to the extent that they echoed, after their fashion, the Rockabilly center theme. We didn't like jazz, or classical music.
Topic of Music: seduction/adoration of a female (Peggy Sue, Scotch and Soda, Love Me Tender, North to Alaska), unrequited love at the hands of a disinterested female, (Runaround Sue, A Lover's Question, Bird Dog, Bye Bye Love), mortality (Tom Dooley, Sloop John B, Long Black Veil, Patches, Teen Angel, That'll Be the Day), and novelty themes (The Twist, Rock Island Line, Wimoweh.)
No Political Themes. We would have to wait a couple more years for Bob Dylan, and the anti-war activist crooners. (The Kingston Trio did sing some songs by The Weavers, and Woody Guthrie, but the content was always projected in a half-hearted manner, and was subordinated in all cases to witty remarks and fine collegiate harmonies.)
Drug of Choice: alcohol. No psychedelics in sight. No pot being smoked in these songs. No recording artists succumbing to heroin overdoses. Just liquids are being used, like Scotch whiskey, hops, and "a bottle-a Kansas City Wine." How this would change too during the next ten years! The Beatles would be singing songs about LSD; the Rolling Stones would be informing us about Opium.
Religious Overtones: Protestant-flavored Deism. Frequent references to "God," almost always in connection with the delivery of a love interest to one's bed. God is male in gender, referred to as "he," or "him." Jesus, however, is never mentioned. This was the religious right in drag.
The afterlife is taken for granted. At least two of the tunes are being sung to us from beyond the grave. Death is preferable to life without (physically consummated) love. Death aside, marriage is enthusiastically condoned as a necessary vehicle for sex, and often confused with it. "Be my bride..." often turns out to mean something else.
Summary: these songs offer a country-influenced, up-tempo presentation of a young man's obsession (to the exclusion of any other worldly topics) with romantic love, and with the better than even odds of its failure in an unfair and highly competitive dating game. We preferred the white protagonists to the black ones — ever suspicious of the origins of the blacks in the urban, ghetto environments of the East Coast, whereGod only knows what was going on. Although played, R&B was never fully accepted by the Room Party.
These song titles share and project an intriguing innocence. Could it ever be that simple again?
Room Party I, and II (each over an hour long) can be heard on the Studiowner web site "Media Library" by clicking here. Signup required.
Once inside the library, use the search box.
Attach good speakers (e.g., Logitech) to your computer, and listen to these tunes in near studio quality.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.