Today’s song is ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. This song was a 1956 hit single written by Chuck Berry. The lyrics of the song mention ‘rock and roll’ and the desire for ‘rhythm and blues’ to replace ‘classical music’. The title of the song is an imperative directed at the composer Ludwig van Beethoven to ‘roll over in his grave’ in reaction to the new genre of music that Berry was promoting. The song has been covered by many other artists, including the Beatles who regarded it as one of their favourite songs and which they sang many times. ‘Rolling Stone ‘magazine ranked it Number 97 on its list of the ‘500 Greatest Hits of All Time’. The song was recorded on April 16, 1956, in Chicago, Illinois.
I have always been a lover of every genre and style of music and song known to mankind. Whether it be pop, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western, gospel, jazz, ska or classical, they have and will always be enjoyed by me and retain a place in my affections. I recall as a young boy of 9 years loving the crooner Johnny Ray as well as repeatedly playing the songs of Mario Lanza and the Great Caruso on the record player on an old 78 disc. I recall loving the piano playing of Russ Conway and Mrs Mills, as well as Little Richard, but I also had an ear and appreciation of the greatest piano compositions and players of classical music, with Mozart and Liszt being among my favourites.
As a young Probation Officer of thirty-three years, I once recall preparing a brief introduction for a debating society evening that half a dozen West Yorkshire Probation Officers would take part in every month with their debating circle of counterparts (Lifers who were imprisoned in H.M. Prison Wakefield). I recall the motion for debate being ‘Classical music holds no significant relevance to a prisoner serving a life sentence?’
Given the often-disadvantaged background, educational standard and cultural scarcity of many a long-serving prisoner prior to having been incarcerated, needing classical music in one’s prison life experience would have probably been too strange a motion for them to naturally support. Hence, it was left to the Probation Officer’s side to move and support the motion. Many prisoners often have to spend 23 out of 24 hours a day in a tiny cell shared with another prisoner, where no body function any longer remains ‘private’ and morning ‘swill outs’ is the only way of diminishing some of the pervasive smell of the occupants’ bowel evacuations the night before. Fights between one prisoner and another are too frequent and are occasionally fatal in outcome, and during the night, the nightmares, the shouts and screams of prisoners echoing along the long prison corridors can drive one insane.
So, whenever the opportunity arose for some prison inmates to take part in an evening debate instead of being locked away in one’s cell, many prisoners preferred to take part in the monthly debating society. These monthly sessions would provide them with the opportunity where they could laugh and smoke freely with a group of Probation Officers who probably thought they were engaged in the improvement of the prisoner’s minds.
The idea of probation officers and prisoners holding an evening debate each month in Wakefield Prison had been initially proposed to them by a long-standing Senior Probation Officer in Huddersfield, the late, Wilf Battye. Wilf was one of life’s genuine people who had been promoted to Senior Probation Officer at a time when experience counted much more than the academic distinctions he never acquired. Wilf never wrote off another individual or considered them as being less worthy than himself, whether they be mass murderer, rapist, arsonist or child molester. He also had a strong belief that all minds could be better improved through reasoned discussion and debate.
Being a stickler for getting my facts correct, wherever possible, as well as not wanting to leave my Senior Officer and mentor with a poor impression of his latest protégé, I researched extensively in advance of the debating evening at the prison. It was to be my first experience of debating with Lifers inside a prison and my Senior Officer had given me the task of opening the debate and proposing the motion.
Two days before the debate, I looked up every significant classical composer who had written piano concertos and piano sonatas. I searched for the classical piano concertos and sonatas out of my belief that quieter music would fit in better with the chilled stillness of a prison cell after ‘lights out’ that invariably preceded ‘cries in the night’. I then marshalled some cogent arguments why Schumann, Debussy, Bach, Liszt, Mozart, Rachmaninov and Beethoven would prove more beneficial to the ear of a prisoner serving a Life Sentence than say Meat Loaf singing ‘Bat out of Hell’. I can’t remember whether the motion was upheld or fell but I guess that as the prisoners in the debate outnumbered the probation officers 3-1, that they won the count on the night.
I dedicate today's song to my beautiful Facebook friend, Jovanka Banjac of Vienna, Austria. Jovanka is a cultured lady with the most discerning of ears and classical music taste. She is much more than a music lover of the classical scene; she is a connoisseur of classical composition and presentation. I frequently listen to the musical pieces that Jovanka puts up on her Facebook page to access, besides reading with great pleasure her accounts of the musical evenings she frequently attends. Thank you, Jovanka, for sharing your love of classical music with us all.
I realise that you would never normally deign to listen to the piercing notes and musical screams of the Rock and Roller, Chuck Berry, and I know in my heart that you would take to the barriers if ever Beethoven’s music was in danger of being taken over and supplanted by rock and roll, as the message of this song advocates.
Love and peace Bill xxx