Author: Martin, George

Some things you just can’t forget

Five days a week I begin my morning with breakfast and Jon Carroll’s column in
the San Francisco Chronicle. Carroll always has something interesting to say;
sometimes he’s really funny, sometimes political, sometimes touching and

This past Tuesday he wrote a column about “sticky” and more particularly,
“non-sticky” facts. He wrote about his fondness for reading books and articles
about arcane subjects, and how the material in said books frequently doesn’t
stay available in his mind for long.

“The book,” he wrote, recalling a particular popular volume on meteors and
meteorites, “included lessons in geography, geology, metallurgy, astronomy and
much more. I really liked it, and for a few days I recommended the book to
friends. Now I can’t remember the name of the book. I can’t remember the name
of the author. Worse yet, I can remember hardly any of the fascinating facts
the book revealed.

“The knowledge was not sticky. It was there long enough for me to talk about,
which is supposed to reinforce memory, but it was not there much longer than
that. Today if there is a meteor in the sky I will say, ‘There’s a meteor in the
sky. I read a book about that once.’”

That happens to me all the time. I recently read a book by Bill Bryson (not the
bass player; the travel writer) called At Home: A Short History of Private
Life. Bryson used the example of his own house, a former parsonage built in
1851 as a lens to view the history of all sorts of inventions (toilets,
electricity) and ways various rooms were used and how their uses evolved.

It was an utterly fascinating book; I could hardly put it down. But a few
months later one of the few actual facts I recall from it was that when one pays
for “room and board” the word “board” comes from a wooden plank that they used
to lay across the laps of people seated on benches as a platform for food,
before actual tables were in common use.

You can read the entire column here:
Look for the one about Unsticky Knowledge: meteors and qubits.

Note the very last paragraph (which in the actual Chronicle was a mini-headline
submerged in the column: “Song lyrics, probably because they are reinforced by
music, are incredibly sticky.”

Now there is A True Statement. Readers of a certain age, when I write: “You’ll
wonder where the yellow went...” will immediately think, “when you brush your
teeth with Pepsodent.” That jingle was on radio and TV at least 40 years ago
and yet my (and your?) brain remembers it perfectly.

A few weeks ago a truncated version of the Prairie Rose Band was playing the new
Frog & Fiddle in Alameda, successor to McGrath’s. Two of our members weren’t
able to be there and we were thankful to have Bruno Brandli helping out with his
mandolin and Tom Cline on Dobro. A patron came up and dropped some folded bills
into our tip bucket (always a good way to get our attention) and asked, “Could
you do ‘North to Alaska?’”

To put it mildly, this song is not in our repertoire. Pauline Scholten, my
longtime singing partner, looked at me, and I looked at her. “Damn, what’s that
first line?” I said. “Big Sam left Seattle...” she replied, and with that the
sound of Johnny Horton came bubbling out of some very deeply buried neurons in
my brain.

I plunked a few chords on my banjo to find a key I could sing it in (actually it
turned out to be about two notes too high, but that’s another problem) and off
we went. I haven’t heard that song in many years but we got through it and the
customer was happy.

I just googled the lyrics and noticed that I got the name of one of the miners
wrong (it’s George Pratt, not George Craft) and one line that the Web site says
is “going north, the rush is on” I remembered as “going north to Russia’s
gold.” But that’s just a mondegreen (another Jon Carroll invention) a commonly
misunderstood song lyric like “Round John Virgin,” the fat guy in the Christmas
carol “Silent Night.”

Sticky lyrics. A great concept. Maybe when my dementia kicks in and I can no
longer remember what I had for breakfast this morning, I’ll still be able to

Posted:  5/12/2011

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