In my more hallucinatory moments, I envision myself as the indomitable, fearless reporter in search of the truth that lies somewhere buried in most of the issues of the day. That fearlessness knows no bounds in the case of the current brouhaha about music on the Internet. I can only hope that the following column does not fall into the hands of my teenage grandchildren or even their parents.

First of all, I must admit, in fairness to you, dear reader, that I am far from a devotee of most of today's popular music. I must level with you further to confess that much of this aversion could well be an advanced case of fuddy-duddyism.

I recall the days when I was half a century younger and spent considerable time visiting the home of the girl who would become my wife. Betsy's father was a classical musician. He played the violin and had a string quartet with some local fame in Kansas City, Mo.

Betsy and I were fond of the leading popular singer of the day, Bing Crosby. But if her father came into the room as we were listening, he would charge the radio and snap it off, complaining vociferously: "I'm sorry, I just can't stand that darned caterwauling!"

Bing Crosby caterwauling? That velvet-voiced crooner, Mr. "White Christmas" himself -- caterwauling?

Betsy and I shrugged our shoulders as we sat before the silent radio and attributed her father's reaction to his advanced age. (He must have been all of 60 at the time.)

Our taste in music undoubtedly is generational, and there isn't anything peculiar about that. It is the justification for my independence: I don't have to listen to what passes for music these days if I don't want to!

I even understand why the record companies would go to court to try to protect their properties, although I do think that they might have overdone it. Suing hundreds of people, from a 12-year-old girl to an octogenarian grandmother, seems a little draconian.

I'm telling you this before confessing that I just don't understand the insistence of many folks, including a large segment of the younger set, that they are entitled to lift their favorite music off the Internet without cost to themselves.

No matter how rapacious the record companies might be in what they pay composers and musicians, they still own the properties, and why should anyone expect them to give their property away?

It just doesn't make any sense to me. OK, I'm a fuddy-duddy, but so be it: I'm already in enough trouble with the kids.

Since I have brought up the matter of my age, let me take this occasion to remind the younger generations that way back there in the 1940s, we had a dandy little scrap that was similar to this one. In those days, the radio stations featured in the late-evening hours what they called "dance band remotes." The musicians wanted to be paid extra for these radio performances. They went on strike when the radio stations refused. Soon they were joined by the composers with similar demands for payment whenever their songs were used on the air.

The best dance bands and the best composers -- Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Mercer, Arlen and Berlin -- all were off the air. Instead, we music fans were assaulted by golden oldies whose copyrights had long since expired, such as Stephen Foster's great Civil War hit, "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair." Believe me, those songs weren't anything to make a bobby-soxer scream in delight.

My lesson of the day: What if the record companies found a way to keep their music off the Internet entirely? I don't think our youth would care much for that "Jeannie" number.

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(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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