It was the 1970s when I attended Mills Elementary School on the east side of town, the other side of the tracks, that is if tracks had ever run down the middle of the quaint Main Street that effectively cleaved the town into west side and other. Being the ’70s, we had a folk singer come in one day (it may have been required by law), and in addition to all the ol’ chestnuts like Clementine, Rocky Top, and my personal favorite, Oh, Susanna, the woman—probably no more than a girl in retrospect—sang an original song about our town. Considering the set list up to that point had leaned heavily toward tunes from at least a century previous, to be face-to-knee with someone who actually wrote a song effectively blew our still-congealing eight-year-old minds.
I can still remember the first few lines, as well as the melody of the tune, although all together we may have heard it twice. It went something like this:
There’s a little town / On the map / Of Cal-if-orn-i-a-a-a-a [rhymes with say]
And if you ask me / About this town / This is what I’ll say-a-a-a …
I’ll spare you the details of what the song went on to list as the distinguishing attributes of our little town on the map. Needless to say it didn’t mention anything about rampant alcoholism, xenophobia, or a barely distinguishable sense that our best days as a town may, at that point, have been behind us.
I’m sure it did say something about being the state capital for a hot minute back in the 1850s, as well as the flash point for the dissemination of the news about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill (our now bucolic Main Street was once an adult playground of whorehouses and establishments exclusively dedicated to drinking and gambling, none of which leads to one keeping his mouth shut for very long), but that was all ancient history by the time we came around and as meaningless to us as the lyrics to Clementine.
What the song should have mentioned, but I’m sure left out, was how great it was to be an eight-year-old and be able to explore the vaguely reclaimed post-industrial waterfront, mysterious alleyways, and open space that still—in the early ’70s—surrounded our village. It should have extolled the virtue of being able to ride your bike until the streetlights began to flicker to life without worrying that you were going to end up in someone’s basement “putting lotion on it’s skin.”
It could have sung the praises of the decent union jobs that still were out there, ensuring that a young family could get by with one working parent, and that there were enough stay-at-home moms to go around to keep most of us correct. It may have commented in passing upon a community-minded liberalism that would soon go the way of “Save the Whales” medallions, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t.
Still, it pretty much rocked.