Let’s take a trip on memory’s ship, back to the bygone days.
Sail to the old village schoolhouse,
Anchor outside the school door;
Look in and see, there’s you and there’s me,
A couple of kids once more.
— Will Cobb & Gus Edwards, 1907
You may not recognize those lyrics, but you’re probably familiar with the song’s chorus:
School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule Days . . .
Sitting in a snarl of traffic near Lihikai School on Tuesday morning, berating myself for forgetting that it was the first day of school and leaving my house at 7:15, I couldn’t get the old tune out of my head. As I watched young parents walk their children onto the school grounds, I wondered if any of them sang “School Days” over breakfast, the way my mother did for me, and I for my son. If they did, they probably had some explaining to do. ‘Rithmetic has given way to Common Core Math. Reading and writing no longer require paper and pencil, let alone a slate. And the hick’ry stick was silenced long ago.
Except for corporal punishment, I think we baby boomers had it better than today’s students. First off, summer started within a week after Memorial Day and ended after Labor Day. Six weeks do not a summer vacation make, not in my ‘rithmetic book.
You were my queen in calico, I was your bashful barefoot beau . . .
Over and over, the song ran through my head, even as I did my radio show. Singing along to my favorites, I found myself ending several rock ballads with “when we were a couple of kids!” Hoping to exterminate this earworm, I did some online research and was surprised to learn there was more to the song than Mom had sung.
After finding the lyrics to the entire song and listening to several versions, I realized that it wasn’t a children’s song or nursery rhyme; it was a popular love song and a sentimental ode to days gone by.
‘Member the hill, Nellie darling,
And the oak tree that grew on its brow?
They’ve built forty stories upon that old hill
And the oak’s an old chestnut now.
‘Member the meadows so green, dear;
So fragrant with clover and maize?
Into new city lots and preferred business plots
They’ve cut them up since those days.
As timely as that last verse seems, Cobb and Edwards wrote those lyrics in 1907, and the song became popular with Byron G. Harlan’s recording in that same year. Since then, “School Days” has been recorded by more than a dozen artists, including Eddie Cantor (1941), the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet (1951), and Charlie Rich (1960). Tiny Tim included it in a 2009 CD, “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana.”
On YouTube, you can hear Harlan’s original 78-rpm recording as well as several other versions, including the above-mentioned Tiny Tim’s. Be warned; you’ll also find several songs of the same name with completely different words and music.
Chuck Berry’s 1957 anthem is probably the best known; jazz bassist Stanley Clarke’s instrumental, first released in 1976, rocks just as hard. Google will also suggest Alice Cooper’s “School Days: The Early Recordings” and “School Day Blues” by Johnny (Winter) and the Jammers.
The good news is, I’m no longer singing about “reading and writing and ‘rithmetic” in my head. The bad news is, I can’t unsee the image of Tiny Tim and his banana.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.