A friend had given me the CD, ‘he’s a classic performer’. He might be, but forty-four tracks of country and western was around forty too many. Fishing in the pocket in the driver’s door for some alternative listening, a compilation from 1965 came to hand. A Christmas gift to my wife from a parishioner in the 1990s, the triple album is an odd selection.
Driving the road between Abbeyleix and Durrow, there was a moment’s realisation. Being only four years of age when most of the tracks were popular, it seemed odd they seemed so familiar. There was Jerry Scoggins singing The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme tune from the television series The Beverly Hillbillies; then came The Ballad of Cat Ballou sung by Nat King Cole, with its memories of Jane Fonda playing the heroine in the film; and Remember the Alamo sung by Donovan.
It was the Alamo song that really provoked thought – Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William B. Travis. John Wayne had directed and produced the film and starred as the Tennessee congressman with his distinctive headwear. Would it be possible to reel off the names of three men who had died in any other battle?
Perhaps it is a legacy of being a child in an age when there were only two, and then three, television channels and when the broadcasters bought in American programmes to fill the airtime, that places never visited and people long dead are as familiar as those among which I grew up. Our culture was monolithic, every boy in the class would have known the shape of a Bowie knife and a Crockett hat, and it wasn’t just the Alamo that would have been familiar; through the Sixties and the Seventies the streets of the United States from Kojak’s Manhattan to Danno’s Honolulu seemed better known than the streets of the cities of our own country.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine the power of television, how each evening we would have sat and watched even those programmes that would now be flicked past without a moment’s thought. The culture may have been monolithic, but there was a community created by everyone watching the same programmes, in schools and workplaces people would have conversed about the previous evening’s viewing.
Choice is limitless with digital television and its hundreds of channels, but that sense of community created by the likes of Jed Clampett and Cat Ballou and the heroes of the Alamo is lost. Children now are far more likely than we ever were to visit the cities featured in the television programmes, but those places might never again possess the mythical power they had on a black and white television.