The Thinking 

Singing on a Bus

September 30, 2016



ALAN writes:

In a recent essay, the conservative writer Ehud Would cited a passage in a 2003 essay by Gary North about how it was once common in America for strangers traveling on Greyhound buses to sing during the ride. [“The Way We Were”, Aug. 18, 2016]

In the essay he cites, Gary North wrote:

“There is a scene in “It Happened One Night” (1934), where Clark Gable is riding in a bus. The bus is lighted inside, and everyone is singing.   For years, I thought that scene was filler. My friend and master journalist Otto Scott, age 85, tells me that singing on Greyhound buses was common in those days, though with lights off.  Strangers sang on buses. I cannot identify with such a world.”

Try a little harder, Gary. Singing on the bus is the kind of thing you get when people have heritage, culture, and values in common.  It is not the kind of thing you get in “multi-culture.”

A man who grew up in Cincinnati in the 1930s recalled how passengers on streetcars became friends during Sunday afternoon leisure rides:  “Soon the whole car would join together in a sing-along as we rode on into the fading day.”  [Edmund Withrow,“Trolley Tours Made Our Sundays Great”Reminisce Magazine, March/April 1994, p. 21 ]

In June 1960 my mother and I were part of a tour group in California.  The group travelled by train and then by bus.  Destinations included Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park, and San Francisco. 

Which bus company it may have been, I cannot remember.  I doubt that it was Greyhound; more likely a California bus company.  That is a secondary detail.

In Los Angeles we stayed overnight at the magnificent Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.  [Opened: 1921.  Closed: 1989.  Demolished:  2005.   A wonderful history of that hotel can be found in Margaret Tante Burk’s 1980 book Are The Stars Out Tonight? ]

We visited Knott’s Berry Farm, the Farmer’s Market, Marineland of the Pacific, and Disneyland.  In Beverly Hills, our bus drove past the homes of Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, James Stewart, and Rosalind Russell.

The tour guides rode on the bus with our tour group.  They were two college-age men named Jim and Van.  They dressed immaculately in white shirt, tie, and suit or sport coat.  They wore serious hats of the kind all American men once wore in public places.

There were no ball caps or blue jeans anywhere in sight in the tour group.  There was no diversity.  There were no spy cameras on the bus or in the hotel.  There were no worries about “terrorism.” There were no color-coded “security alerts.” But there was the certitude of security without those things.  Nor on public transit vehicles in 1960 were there any idiotic signs reading “If you see something, say something.”  Americans in 1960 had not been trained to swallow such mush, let alone to swallow it as agreeably as they do today.

One morning just before leaving the Ambassador Hotel, everyone in the tour group met outside at one of the entrances for a group picture, copies of which were given later to all people on the tour. Twenty-six people are in the picture, plus the two tour guides and the bus driver.  There were no slobs in the group and no one dressed or acted like a slob.  Several women under age 30 wore slacks.  All the older women wore dresses and hats.  There were 21 women and 3 men in the tour group, one teenager traveling with his grandmother, and one boy.  I was the boy.

In the picture all the people are smiling at the camera.  But there is no arrogance or excess in their smiles.  They project a kind of good cheer, restraint, and mannerliness.

It happened one day during a ride through Yosemite. Our bus driver drove to scenic points where we could see beautiful waterfalls, granite mountain peaks, and giant sequoia trees.  At some point during the ride, our tour guide suggested a sing-along.  The people in the group approved.  I distinctly remember everyone on the bus singing overlapping choruses of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Here was a group of men and women, most of them perfect strangers to each other and from cities like Detroit, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and St. Louis, singing together spontaneously in a concrete expression of good cheer and delight in being there at that moment, confident in who and what they were, confident in their nation, and surrounded by the natural beauty in Yosemite.

This was the kind of life in America that Lawrence Auster remembered and wanted to see restored.  This was the U.S.A. in 1960.   I know, because I was there.

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