Showing off calluses on my fingertips Photo Credit – Mike Carron
During the last couple of decades the role of music in my life diminished. There was no plan, it happened on its own, without a recognizable nudge.
My guitars and banjo are tucked in safe places around the house, protected from the elements, largely unused. I sold my Telecaster to long-time friend Dennis. It has been a long time since anyone used the piano in the living room. My shelves of vinyl, cassettes and compact disks gather dust. Since the budget cuts on public radio, I can’t find a station that plays music in a range of eras and styles. In the car, my presets are country and classic rock. For the 25-minute commute to the home, farm and auto supply store I can stand them, mostly. The last musical concert I attended was a Celtic guitarist at the local library. I follow him on YouTube and that’s where I do most of my home music listening today.
It wasn’t always so. In first grade I served as emcee for a variety show at Sacred Heart Catholic School. I wore a bow tie and rehearsed my lines carefully. There were words I never heard before in the script. I introduced performances by my classmates, then wanted to perform.
When we moved across town in 1959 I took piano lessons at the grade school. I practiced in the upstairs gymnasium which also served as an auditorium, my rendition of Brahms bounced off the walls of a large, empty room at the end of the school day. My neighbor, a couple grades ahead of me, was a guitarist and played a concert for us graders before he left for high school. I thought he was cool, and he’s now one of the few people I know who make a living as a singer songwriter.
By eighth grade I was playing guitar. On a snowy day the year the Beatles came to America Mother took me to the King Korn stamp store where she traded books of stamps for a Kay guitar. I played my first concert of folk songs in eighth grade along with some neighborhood friends.
In high school, I took guitar lessons from the late Joe Crossen who played in a rock and roll band. After that, I tried to learn classical guitar at university but my fingernails weren’t good enough to make it work. After leaving Davenport in 1970 I felt music would be part of me. For many years it was. I don’t know what happened. This is not a lament or dirge. I accept life as I find it while imagining the future as it should be.
The other day Jacque and I were listening to different versions of The Dutchman, a ballad by Michael Peter Smith. We listened to his, Steve Goodman’s and Liam Clancy’s versions and it became clear Smith’s phrasing and tempo made the better experience, evoking an emotional response. We talked about the song which has been a favorite since early in our relationship. It was surprising how good Smith’s version was, when we’d only paid attention to Goodman all these years.
I’m awake early this morning, tapping on the keyboard. My sister in law stayed over last night after a brunch with friends in the Quad Cities. I don’t want to wake the house and keep the music turned off. Neither do I use headphones because I live in the moment at my desk. If there are noises in the house — the water softener cycling, someone walking to the bathroom, the washing machine running — I want to hear it. No muffled reality for me.
I don’t know about music any more. Every so often I find a song I like and listen to it repeatedly for a while. Then I get over the infatuation. What I mostly want is a feeling I should play music again. It’s not there yet. It may never be. I have a hard time visualizing it.
I remember traveling the Mediterranean coast with a young student from Germany in the 1970s. We had Eurail passes and rode trains from Barcelona, Spain to Genoa, Italy, playing guitars in our youth hostels until the host reluctantly said it was getting part curfew. I played lead to his rhythm and vocals, it was life as good as it gets, fleeting, transitory, in the moment. That can’t be captured again in the same way. Despite years and neglect, music can live within us. At least that’s my hope in late autumn.