Boys in the Bach Room

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Soldiers listening to the radio.

From the June, 1943 WQXR Program Guide:

Editorial Note: You know that various organizations are doing a great deal to bring music to the boys in the armed forces. But here is what one anonymous private is doing for himself. We at WQXR were amused and pleased when we read it and thought you would enjoy it, too. So through the courtesy of Common Sense magazine in which publication's May issue it appeared, we bring you this down-to-earth appreciation of good music.

Although I'm not the sort of person who carries a score to Carnegie Hall, I do go to concerts. And for me, WQXR is the bright spot on the broadcast band. So when the Army shipped me to a post within listening distance of WQXR, there was added reason to feel fortunate.

When I first came into the outfit, through, it was almost a case of so near and yet so far. On my floor of the barracks there was just one radio, the property of Sol, a self-satisfied and bossy lawyer from the Bronx. Next to him bunked Ziggy, a light-headed young zoot-suiter who had played drums in a small-time dance combination and who now was a loader in the supply section. Because of Ziggy's proximity and brash lack of inhibition, he ran the radio.

Scorching swing was Ziggy's meat. After evening chow and News Around the Clock (brought to you by the Daily News, New York's picture newspaper), Ziggy would stretch out on his bed and expectantly wait for Martin Block to fade in the Make-Believe Ballroom from one of his numerous imaginary stages.

To the bandstand then would trot Harry James, Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, the Andrews Sisters, etc., until I thought my insides had turned to water. One evening I got back from the mess hall before the others and bravely snapped on WQXR. As my bunk mates streamed in to the strange rhythm of a Strauss waltz, they wrinkled their noses as if they detected some of our usual foul-smelling Friday filet.

"What the hell is that?" writhed the drummer dogface.

Who put that on my radio?" bellowed the ambulance chaser from my native hills, circling his best courtroom scowl over the recruit end of the squad room.

Tentatively I looked up from my book and said, "I did."

Somehow, I had impressed Sol as a man of culture and he wanted to make clear that he was no Philistine. With an audible grinding of gears, he changed his tone. "You know," he blandly confided, "there's nothing like good music. Give me a Havana cigar and a copy of the Sun and I can spend an evening just listening to good music." But he quickly added, "Let's have something lively now," and sharply twisted the dial.

Glum as it appeared for the finer things in life, the cause of WQXR soon was aided by several non-esthetic forces. In the first place, our men were in just 50 percent of the evenings and on their time off most of them tore like mad out of the camp. Fortunately, Ziggy and I were on alternate schedules, and after he pushed off on one of the rampages that would bring him staggering in at three or four in the morning, I could often manage to tune in Music to Remember.

Deserted by their leader, the jive hounds listened with bewildered tolerance. There was an almost tangible tension in the air and momentarily I expected an outburst of protest. By the time the slightly heavier A Treasury of Music came on, these ex-Brooklyn shipping clerks could bear it no longer.

"Come on, you've had enough of that stuff," one opened. His pals growled in reinforcement and so with much show I begrudgingly gave in, secretly pleased that I had accomplished so much.

Later I became bolder. At times I could get well into the Treasury of Music before someone would howl. Hearing Symphony Hall, of course, was beyond my most reckless hope. With their increasing confidence, my recruit classmates who gagged at too much swing became more outspoken in my support. Including in their number a librarian from Yale, a French instructor from Andover, and an anthropologist from Trenton, these new GIs were in general a better educated crowd than then old timers.

By far the best blow for good music, however, was struck by the detachment order moving the stray cooks and supply men (especially Ziggy) into separate barracks and leaving upstairs in No. 134 exclusively to the more genteel clerks. Shortly afterward our barrister went to OCS [Officer Candidate School] and with him his radio.

But we soon got another. More changes in personnel also added weight to the case of WQXR, for now my bed is flanked by a Chicago music teacher and a Stamford law student. An extension cord I bought permits me to keep our new floor model right beside my bunk. Such a purely physical factor is of great tactical value. Now there are evenings when I can get through Symphony Hall as thoroughly relaxed as if I were in my own home.

From this it shouldn't be concluded that the three B's reign supreme in my company. A recent arrival in our floor is Jackie Searl* grown older, with his own tan leather portable. This persistent hepcat is generally quite obstreperous. Some nights swing rumbles at symphony from opposite ends of the squad room. In the mornings, Pvt. Searl, reaching for the tuning knob as he rolls back the blankets, is master of radio row. But then, as I go through my housework, making my bed and mopping under it, Tommy Tucker [popular bandleader] seems more appropriate than Toscanini.


*Jackie Searl (1921-1991) was an American child actor especially known for playing bratty kids.