I’m always grateful if people like what I’ve done. A legacy is something no one can foresee.
Jone Ball and Linda Matteri, 11 and 12 respectively, “needed something to do,” and so they started a newspaper. Dubbed The Newsarama, they had a paid subscription of 13 when the Lodi News-Sentinel did a feature on them in January 1961. At 5 cents a copy, the girls had made only $2 after three issues but remained undeterred. They were also undeterred by their lack of a printing press or more realistically, a mimeograph machine. That meant each copy had to be hand typed which helps explain why they only published twice a month. The Lodi News-Sentinel story quoted in full the girls’ reporting of the Kennedy inauguration. The succinct 50 word piece included the fashion-forward observation that, “Mrs. Kennedy was the only lady not wearing a fur along with her sisters.” The paper also quoted an anonymous poem submitted by one of the Newsarama’s grade school reporters. But more on that later.
While Jone and Linda were making headlines in Lodi, Tom Glazer was doing pretty well himself. He’d worked his way up from an orphanage to success as a folk singer, songwriter, composer, author and radio host. Glazer was twenty-nine when he made his professional debut. Two years later he had his own radio show, Tom Glazer’s Ballad Box. His activism was reflected in his songs—A Dollar Ain’t a Dollar Anymore, Our Fight is Yours, When the Country is Broke, and Talking Inflation Blues. His work was recorded by Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Burl Ives, as well as Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. But as early as the 1940’s, he began crafting the oeuvre that would ultimately define his career—children’s music. By 1961, Glazer had already hosted a children’s radio program and recorded three albums for kids. But none of this matched his 1963 sensation, On Top of Spaghetti. The novelty song about a sneeze that launched a meatball into the yard was an immediate hit. Sung to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey, the song came to define Glazer. And he wasn’t altogether happy about it. The happy little song eclipsed everything he had done or would do. Toward the end of his life he joked about meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates and being asked what he’d accomplished in life. Glazer saw himself mumbling, “I wrote On Top of Spaghetti.” “St. Peter’s quick reply was, “Sorry, buster, you can’t enter.” When he died in 2003, we don’t know what St. Peter had to say but On Top of Spaghetti was the lede in every obituary.
Still, as legacies go it could be worse. The song has brought joy to millions of kids and the tune is probably rattling around your head right now. But that’s where the girls from Lodi come back into the story. Remember that anonymous poem they published two years before Glazer’s hit? Turns out the poem is, you guessed it, On Top of Spaghetti. It seems On Top of Spaghetti set to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey is one of those songs that folks have been singing around campfires since the dawn of time. Glazer didn’t write it, he popularized it. That means his legacy is slightly askew—he accomplished so much but is best remembered for something he didn’t really do. So it is with all legacies. As we go through life we have many. They’re from the schools we attend, the jobs we have and the communities we live in. We can never be sure if we’ll be remembered for our brilliance, wit, generosity or for the time we dropped a full tray in the cafeteria. So take it from Glazer—and he knew better than most. Be grateful when your good efforts are recognized and let the legacy take care of itself. Good work is its own reward and that’s nothing to sneeze at! —Ebert