‘The Room Was Humming Harder . . .’

Originally posted October 9, 2007

It was the summer of 1967, and I was doing my normal eight-week stint in summer school, an enrichment program designed to provide kids a chance to learn things they wouldn’t be exposed to during the school year. So, just as I had for the nine months preceding, I spent another two months hauling myself every day to the bus stop a block north of our house and riding the two miles to South Junior High for mornings of enrichment.

I don’t recall what courses I took that summer – the summer between eighth and ninth grades. That might have been the summer I took a cooking class for boys. About sixteen of us filed into the home economics room that first day of summer school, ill at ease at being in a portion of the school building reserved at that time for the girls.

Once we got used to being in the wrong room, as it were, we enjoyed ourselves. Topped off by our chef’s hats – we thought they were kind of silly, but the teacher, whose name I’ve forgotten, provided them the first day of class and insisted we wear them – we fumbled our way for eight weeks through various recipes. We learned how to measure, how to mix, how to slice, chop and combine various things. The dishes we created were no more than basic, but the point of the course, I’ve always assumed, was not that we learned to make specific foods but that we learned to be comfortable in the kitchen. And, at least for me, it worked. Along the way I combined the basic skills learned in summer school with skills learned from my mother – an excellent cook – and over the years, I’ve done pretty well in the kitchen.

At the end of the eight weeks, our cooking class went on a field trip to the Twin Cities, touring the Betty Crocker Kitchens at the headquarters of General Mills in the suburb of Golden Valley. After we toured the kitchens, the bus headed west and the next thing we knew, we’d pulled up into the parking lot of the Excelsior Amusement Park! We ate a picnic lunch, and – not knowing at all that we were following to some degree in the footsteps of Mick Jagger and Mr. Jimmy – we spent a good portion of the afternoon sampling the rides and games before getting on the bus and heading the seventy or so miles back to St. Cloud.

It was another bus ride I had in mind, though, when I started this. On one of my rides home from summer school during that year of 1967, someone had a radio on the bus tuned to one of the two Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations. This might have been a regular thing, music in the back of the bus, but I’m not sure. What I am certain of is that I listened with the other kids that day as the radio played the strangest-sounding song any of us had maybe ever heard.

It began with a ponderous and spooky organ solo, with drums and cymbals providing punctuation. And then a reedy voice entered: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ’cross the floor . . .” It was, of course, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

We looked at each other, then back at the radio as the voice went on to tell a surreal tale in a setting that combined the ancient world with the medieval, although I doubt that any of us could place it that accurately back then; we just knew it wasn’t in our time, what with vestal virgins and the miller’s tale.

What did it mean? We had no idea, but it sure was strange . . . and cool. We liked it a lot, even me, who was still a couple of years away from digging very deeply into pop and the Top 40. Over the years, the meaning of the words – written by Keith Reid – has been assessed maybe way too many times. At its website, Procol Harum provides a link to a discussion of the lyrics, where listeners and fans – who seem to call themselves “Palers” – indulge themselves in deep and far-fetched theorizing.

The last word on the lyrics, it would seem, comes from the top of that page of theories, where one finds organist Matthew Fisher’s comment from an interview with the BBC:

“I don’t know what they mean. It’s never bothered me that I don’t know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they’ve got to know what they mean, and they say, ‘I know, I’ve figured out what these lyrics mean.’ I don’t give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great… that’s all they have to do.”

The song was so odd, so different from anything on radio at the time, that beyond its lyrics, it spawned another discussion: Where did the music come from? Was it a lift from a classical piece? If so, which one? (Something by Bach was always considered most likely.)

I recall reading a piece about the song that included a quotation from a fellow who at the time was a classical music critic for a London newspaper. He said that he and a colleague spent an entire morning whistling the melody from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” back and forth to each other before deciding that it probably wasn’t Bach but a theme that sounded very much like his work.

And that’s pretty much the case. At the Procol Harum website, there’s a general explanation of how the music, written by Gary Brooker and Fisher, certainly refers to two Bach pieces but is nevertheless an original work. Those pieces are “Air for the G String” and the choral piece titled in English “Sleepers, Awake!” (For those so inclined, the Procol Harum website also provides a link to Bach expert Bernard S. Greenberg’s formal analysis of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and its links to the two Bach pieces.)

Of course, the other bus riders and I didn’t know all that as we listened for the first time to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on that bus carrying us home from summer school. It was just a cool song. And it still is. It’s also a popular song for cover versions: It shows up on about 280 different CDs, according to All-Music Guide, with performances by artists ranging from pianist Ronnie Aldrich and clarinetist Acker Bilk to Elisabeth Von Trapp (yes, of the Von Trapps of The Sound of Music!) and 1970s R&B singer Zulema.

The version I’ve selected for today’s cover is by Johnny Rivers and comes from his Realization album, which was released in 1968 and is one of my favorite albums.

Johnny Rivers – “A Whiter Shade of Pale” [1968]

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