Mother knows best?

I was in the sixth grade when I realized that my mother was trying to wreck my life. We wore uniforms to school – white shirt, blue tie with the school logo in gold and dark-blue slacks. Shoes were the only thing you got to choose for yourself, or the only thing my mother would choose for me – as she had for my first five grades.

My mother was a well-dressed, sensible woman, except for the fact that she had eight children, so I was shocked to see the new pair of back-to-school shoes she presented to me that September. They had black-leather bottoms, with a large, white patch on the uppers. Years later, I found out that Elvis Presley wore a similar pair on the cover of his first album. When I was in the sixth grade, that album was seven years old.

I had heard of Elvis, of course. But he was from another generation. He certainly wasn’t my idea of a fashion role model. He was old hat; I liked the new stuff – The Kingston Trio, The Four Freshmen, The Brothers Four. The Kingston Trio’s big hit “Tom Dooley” was all over the radio, you couldn’t escape it. Folk singers performed on “Sing Along with Mitch” and “The Andy Williams Show” almost every week. It was hard to dial through all three channels without finding someone in a tuxedo or a ball gown singing “Cotton Fields” or “John Henry was a steel-drivin’ man.”

There were long, bitter battles about what was authentic folk music and what was not. Could a song written yesterday be a folk song?

“Of course, not,” my classmate Billy Thompson said. “It has to be old to be a folk song.” Kevin Marshall was not so sure. “If it’s written by a folk, it’s folk music.” David McMann said, “Somebody just wrote ‘The Twist’ and it’s not a folk song.” Peter Verdun said, “Maybe it will be in a hundred years.” We were having the same debate that had been going on for years in coffee houses and college campuses, especially in New York and Boston. Because if you wanted to hear 18-year-old, middle-class college kids sing about pickin’ cotton, the dustbowl, and spending life in prison, Harvard Yard and Greenwich Village were the places to go.

My mother did not seem to understand that the Limeliters and the Brothers Four and the Highwaymen would not be caught dead wearing black-and-white Elvis Presley shoes, that the college students at the Newport Folk Festival wore camel-hair jackets, white button-down shirts and skinny ties. And they wore Weejuns without socks.

“Weejuns cost $16!” my mother said. “Sixteen dollars for a pair of penny loafers? For a 12-year-old? Are you off your noggin? Your father could buy two pair of dress shoes for $16.”

“But everybody wears them,” I countered, getting the “if everybody jumped out a window,” response. But I knew, as sure as I knew that Vaughn Meader was the funniest man alive, that if I ever showed up at the Blessed Sacrament School wearing those shoes, I would be shunned.

“If everybody jumped out a window,” I said, “They’d be wearing Weejuns when they did it.” She started to laugh. It was finally resolved that I could get the shoes, but that I shouldn’t expect too much for Christmas.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2009, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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