25 February 2008

Love's Old Sweet Song

I've been playing the piano most days lately, and it makes me wonder what could possibly have been going on in my head that caused me to go all those years without a piano in the house. True, it's "only" a digital electric piano, whereas in several other periods of my life I had an upright, and even, at a couple glorious intervals, a grand piano available to me. But the digital sounds authentic enough, and offers the added advantage of my being able, using headphones, to play in the middle of the night.

I've actually owned this piano since the mid-90s, but never got around to shipping it over to London on the grounds that it would cost too much or was the wrong voltage or some similarly nonsensical excuse. During the entire ten years I lived in London I'd periodically think, "I really need a piano here," but then I'd get hung up deciding whether to get an acoustic (but it would cost so much, and what if I moved, and what if the neighbors complained?) or an electric (and should I get a new electric or ship my old one over from the States), and ultimately nothing would ever get decided. I'd play my old one during visits back to California, but they were infrequent enough that my painstakingly gained playing and music reading abilities gradually drifted away until I remembered so few songs that playing would rather quickly get boring.

But now I have not only my piano, but most of my old sheet music, and some of the old skills are coming back. A little more slowly than they used to, to be sure, but I'm also able to understand stuff that baffled me back during my last big bout of piano playing in the 1980s, and I'm certainly enjoying it more than ever.

I was really looking forward to reacquainting myself with some of my favorite Cole Porter songs as well as a variety of other Broadway tunes, but lately, for some reason, I've been almost obsessively focusing on the greatest hits of the 90s. The 1890s, that is.

I've probably mentioned here before how I felt as though I'd grown up with one foot in the 19th century, and musically that was certainly true. Hanging in our family's living room was a portrait of my mother's immediate ancestors in full Victorian regalia. It had been taken around 1895, and many of the people in it, my grandfather included, were still alive and a part of my life.

But while my 19th century relatives seemed impossibly old - though on reflection, some of them were barely older than I am now - another, more timeless remnant of the 1890s lingered in our house in the form of music. Not the original recordings, of course - many of my parents' favorite songs predated the phonograph - but faithful renderings, packaged under titles like "Greatest Hits of the Gay 90s," that sort of thing.

"Gay" hadn't yet acquired its modern meaning, and frequently appeared both in descriptions of the era and within the songs themselves. For an idea of just how innocent (or naive, or, if you prefer, structurally and institutionally racist) we were in those days: check out this lyric from a family favorite (and state song of Kentucky): "'Tis summer, the darkies are gay."

That one actually dated back to 1853, and was one of a couple dozen we'd invariably sing on long family car trips (which, in those pre-expressway times, meant anything more than 25 miles or so). Some other perennial favorites included "Who Threw The Overalls In Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" and the 27 or 49 or however many verses it was of "Abdul Abulbul Amir," a slightly more literate take on the "99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall" tradition.

As I got older and started learning to play actual songs on the piano, I mastered a few classics from the 1870s through the 90s. Well, tried to master, anyway. One of my more painful memories involves my constant efforts to play a note-perfect version of my father's favorite song, "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."

I never managed it, at least not within his earshot. I'd play lovely versions again and again when I was alone, but every time I'd muster up the courage to try and play it for him, I'd hit some painful clinkers. He was no musician himself, but he knew exactly how the song should go, and even if he was sitting behind me, I could still see his pursed lips and sense his pained sighs the second I deviated even slightly from the rhythm or the melody.

He wasn't so exacting, however, with some of the other old songs, and one of my fondest family memories was the year when everyone was gathered at my house in the mountains for Christmas and I unreeled a solid hour or so of 19th century classics. It was the first time our family had sung together since the 1950s; in fact I'd all but forgotten any of them could sing or ever had sung. I played "And The Band Played On" ("Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde..."), "After The Ball," "Silver Threads Among The Gold," "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon," "In The Good Old Summertime," with a few Christmas carols thrown in. My dad even allowed how my latest attempt at "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" was "almost just right."

But the most precious moment came when I went into "Love's Old Sweet Song," which though I'd never been specifically told so, I suspect might have been my parents' song. Even as a small child I'd noticed how they'd get moony, faraway looks when that song came on, and after months of playing it constantly on the piano, it was now one of my own favorites as well. My father, who had a pleasant if slightly reedy baritone, had been singing right along with the rest of us, but my mother had been holding back to the point where her voice was more of a distant murmur, even though she was standing no more than a couple feet away from me.

She stayed at that volume through the verse, but when the chorus of "Just a song at twilight" came round, she burst into full song, and it was as if the voice of an angel had appeared on my shoulder. I very nearly lost my place in the music, so startled was I by the simple yet exquisite clarity and beauty that shone through. When and how had my mother suddenly acquired such a talent for singing?

Gradually it dawned on me that she had always had it, but that as a child I'd either not noticed or taken it for granted, and that somewhere along the line as we'd grown older, she'd just stopped singing. I was still young and callow enough to be surprised that at her age - she was 67 at the time - she still had a song in her heart, let alone was capable of letting it out into the world with the gentle unforced innocence of a child.

Now that I'm not a whole lot younger than she was at the time, I can smile at my arrogance and naiveté in thinking that there was an age limit on the love and appreciation of music, and yet at the same time I note that I've quieted down a lot, and sing much less often, especially if there's a chance anyone will hear me. So even though one of my other favorite things to play on the piano is old Potatomen songs - "Now," "Iceland," "Sam's Song," "The Loneliest Boy In The World" among others - I seldom if ever sing along with myself. Considering that only ten years ago I was regularly singing these same songs on stage in front of (well, occasionally) lots of people, it's strange that I'm so reticent about it now. If this keeps up, some day when I do finally pipe up, some young whippersnapper is going to be going around telling people, "Who would have thought that old codger still had it in him?"

The downside, if there is one, to playing all these old-timey songs is that they tend to be unrelentingly sentimental. They're nearly all lamenting for lost love or reveling in happy-ever-after-ness (proving, you might say, that popular music never really changes that much), which can cause a resolutely single guy like yours truly to drift off into some uncomfortable introspection. What's interesting is that the last time I went on a binge of 1870s-90s music, it was followed shortly thereafter by my starting to write horrible, obnoxious punk rock songs, starting a band, and eventually a punk rock record label. Which prompts me to wonder where this current go-round might be taking me.

Anyway, here's the chorus to "Love's Old Sweet Song." If you're curious, you can get all the words here, and there's even a link for an (albeit awful) mp3 of the tune played on piano and synth. Trust me, I'm no genius on the keyboards, but my version is a lot better.

That being said:

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go.
Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes love's old song,
Comes love's old sweet song.
And oh, what the heck, here's the final verse, which kind of sums up what I, in my clumsy way, have been trying to say all along:
Even today we hear love's song of yore,
Deep in our hearts it swells forever-more.
Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way;
Still we can hear it at the close of day.
So 'til the end, when life's dim shadows fall,
Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

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