There is a long standing, bordering on stale, story in my family. It involves, me, my Aunt Spinning Jenny, Petula Clark, and a certain song from 1965.
Allow me to set the scene: in 1965, I was four, Spinning Jenny, twenty, and in my adoring eyes, world-wise. I mean, she could drive, played the guitar, and ratted her hair, what further proof did one need?
Our family was living in Memphis, TN, but we were still close enough to spend a great deal of time in our home town of Savannah, GA, where most of the extended family still resided including Mom’s younger sister, Spinning Jenny. Days spent on Tybee Island Beach were the norm for families with a bunch of summer-bored kids and not a lot of money.
Now in those days, there were no life-saving laws about seat belts and front seat size occupancy ratings. No, it was cram as many people as you can across those bench seats and woe unto the small child pressed between door and their larger relatives when going around corners. The safety harness was the “mom arm” flung across your chest upon sudden stops. Ah, the good ol’ days.
So when we all went to the beach, our crew shoved as many people in each car as possible and any available of-age driver was pulled into service. SJ fit that bill and perhaps to give the attendant Moms a rest, the kids (or a portion of them) often rode with her. It was on just one of those nights returning from Tybee, that the story begins.
The “British Invasion” of music was still raging and Petula Clark just happened to be part of that phenomena with her hit, “Downtown.” For my little four year old self, the hook of the song was the repeating lyric, “downtown.”
“When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely
You can always go
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know
There we were, all crammed into the car and somehow I scored a place in the front next to SJ, who was driving. The radio was playing (I’m sure to aid in keeping SJ awake after a long day in the beach sun. She was also known to fall asleep at the wheel, but that’s another story…) and the song came on.
Mx. Clark’s voice begins to croon and SJ started to sing along, but not with the words I was familiar with at all. No, this was an odd combination of sounds, mysterious and slightly dissonant to my ear. SJ looked at me and told me she was singing in Chinese. I was captivated. It was “Downtown” in Chinese! From then on, each time the song came up, of course I requested that SJ sing it in Chinese. How wonderfully fun and fascinating! I loved it. SJ, already high on the cool list, moved up even farther. Wow.
Every song has it’s day; the music scene moves on and so did we. “Downtown” moved off the charts and we from Memphis to various and sundry geographic locations through the years. And all this time, I would brag to my friends that my Aunt Spinning Jenny knew the words of a song in Chinese.
Now, I never questioned the fact that SJ never set foot in any Asian country (at that time), or that she didn’t speak any other language outside of English I was aware of. Hey, people sing along with “La Bamba” in Spanish all the time and have zero understanding of what they are saying. Nope, when you are four, 20 year old aunts know everything. And no one told me differently.
EVER – FOR THE NEXT 17 YEARS.
Turns out that the laughter surrounding SJ’s performance was not a mutual expression of the same amazement I felt.
No, it wasn’t until I was 21 years old that I found out my esteemed Aunt Spinning Jenny duped me. She never sang “Downtown” in Chinese, not at all, not once. Sigh. Gibberish, it was all gibberish. I was legitimately crushed.
I guess I should have known something since this is the same person who tried to convince me of the age old yarn about plants growing from seeds stuck in your teeth, but there never was really a reason to doubt. She did, after all, counter silliness like that with teaching me how to blow bubblegum bubbles and taking me for sailboat rides.
It could have ended the night I found out, surrounded by gales of laughter and disbelief at my long standing gullibility, but no, my family being the warm, supportive unit it is, has come to pass on the story of how ‘your Mom/aunt/cousin,’ fell for Spinning Jenny’s oh, so, clever language parody back in the day.
It’s been thirty five years since the reveal and I still suffer from PTSD (Pretend Translation Song Disorder). The expression of symptoms include, but are not limited to, slight embarrassment, chuckling to oneself, and a certain fondness of memory. It’s a disorder I can live with, so as old as the story has become, I’ll continue to thank Petula Clark and cherish the idea of my Aunt Spinning Jenny singing “Downtown” in Chinese.
Patricia (Tricia) Sullivan Fraker, a.k.a. “Aunt Spinning Jenny” 1945-2017
Lover of family, music, food, traveling, camping, hiking, dancing, sailing, trivia, oddities, game nights, adventures, and costume parties.
“What a Life Lived.” – B.F. December 8, 2017
*written by Tony Hatch