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If You Teach Us Not, How Shall We Learn?
Written June 2005

At a Richwood High School basketball practice forty years ago, coach Frank Zirbel grumbled to one of his players, "I'll have to get you a rule book for Christmas!"

Watching from the sidelines, I thought, why not?  If a kid is learning a sport, shouldn't there be some formal instruction in the rules of the game?  Where else is he going to learn?  On the streets?

Actually, that is how he learns.  He makes a move.  The defender says "You can't do that!  That's a double dribble."  He protests, "What do you mean?  When I dribbled, I only used one hand!"  Then the defender has to explain.

But that's an inefficient system, and it misses some of the finer points.  I still have no idea what the criteria are for an illegal screen.

At my college radio station, I eventually became the station director and decided to dabble in disk jockeying.  I claimed one of the "morning drive" timeslots, hosting Sunrise!  from 7 to 9 am on Wednesdays.

Once I overslept and got the station on the air 20 minutes late.  I was apologetic to my handful of listeners.  I didn't want anyone to miss an eight o'clock class because they had been relying on me to wake them up.

The Arthur Brown record "Fire" had recently dropped out of the Top 40, but I found it among the oldies and cued it up.

"Gee, I overslept," I mused on the air.  "I wonder what's going to happen to me."  I rolled the turntable.  Mr. Brown shouted, "I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!"  "Uh-oh," I remarked.

But, being the boss, I knew I wasn't really going to "burn."

We DJs would customarily identify every record, naming both the song and the artist.

Usually we'd do it beforehand:  "And now here's Steppenwolf, taking us on a ‘Magic Carpet Ride.’"

But sometimes, as with "Fire," that wasn't practical, so we'd back-announce:  "We just heard ‘Susie Q’ from Creedence Clearwater Revival."

And often we'd throw in some additional information:  "‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ came out earlier this week, and on the flip side of that single is this George Harrison song.  It's called ‘Old Brown Shoe.’  The Beatles!"

But nowadays the radio industry has decided that listeners don't want a lot of talk from their DJs.  Listeners want Much More Music.

Some stations play a half-dozen uninterrupted records in a row and then back-announce the lot of them.  The third song in the block may feature a promising new artist, but by the time they tell you that, you've forgotten what the song sounded like.

Much worse are some classic rock stations, like WDVE here in Pittsburgh.  They don't mention performers or song titles at all.  Why should they?  These are classics.  Everyone should know them already.

But everyone doesn't know them all.  WDVE plays a cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" that is obviously not the original Bob Dylan version that I'm familiar with.  They play another where someone who sounds like Leon Redbone keeps chanting "A-how how how how!"  Who are these performers?

Once, happening to be on the Internet when the songs aired, I went to the station's website.  In the Now Playing window were the answers to my questions.  Guns N' Roses performed "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."  ZZ Top performed "La Grange," which (I learned on another site) is based on a John Lee Hooker song.  So now I know.  But why did I have to visit another medium in order to find out?

WDVE ran a contest in which listeners were to phone in when the station played anything by the Rolling Stones.  Sure enough, someone called and said, "Hey, man, I just heard the Stones.  Do I win?"  The puzzled DJ replied, "No, actually that wasn't the Stones, it was The Clash.  Don't you know anything?"  Well, if they don't teach us about the music, they shouldn't be surprised that we're ignorant.

Some years back on television, I heard snippets of an interesting song.  The name of the group was mentioned, Blues Traveler, and even the name of the lead singer, John Popper.  But I never caught the name of the song he was singing so passionately and, in places, so rapidly.

This spring, Comcast had a Blues Traveler concert on Video On Demand.  The show concluded with the mystery song, obviously one of the group's hits.  I tried to write down some of the lyrics.  It seemed like the refrain went,

The heart brings you back.
I ain't tellin' you no lie.
The heart brings you back.
On that you can rely.

I therefore Googled "Blues Traveler heart brings you back."  I soon learned that this was a common mis-hearing of the words, which are actually "the hook brings you back."  The name of the song is "Hook," referring to the memorable part of a popular song that makes us want to hear it again.  It's actually an interesting lyric from the songwriter's point of view.  Excerpts:

It doesn't matter what I say, so long as I sing with inflection.  That makes you feel that I'll convey some inner truth; but I've said nothing so far.  And I can keep it up for as long as it takes, because the hook brings you back.

I am being insincere; in fact, I don't mean any of this.  Still, my confession draws you near.  And when I'm feeling stuck and need a buck, I don't rely on luck, because the hook brings you back.

The highlight of this lip-sync bit starts at 1:56:
Emma Stone with “Hook.”

I also learned from the Internet why I find this song musically interesting.  I hadn't noticed this before, but it's based (like more than 60 other songs) on Pachelbel's well-known Canon in D, reproducing the bass line exactly.  Even the third verse, where Popper rattles off "Suck it in suck it in suck it in if you're Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn ..." has its counterpart in Pachelbel's sixteenth notes.

It used to be that DJs would tell us these things, but now I guess we have to look them up ourselves.



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