The Sounds of Almost Music

Posted July 14th, 2011

I remember playing the guitar as a teenager.

I don’t know where it came from. Had my mother bought it? During her lengthy residence at McLean Hospital, several members of the Taylor family, most notably James, and Ray Charles all sought refuge there. She became quite the authority on music in the 1960s.

I am pretty sure that was how I found out about the “Singing Nun.” I sang along with the refrain: “Dominique-nique-nique, / S’en allait tout simplement, / Routier pauvre et chantant / En tous chemins en tous lieux, /  Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu / Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu.” That was as much as I ever learned. I remember picking out the chords to it on the guitar, too.

I entered the folk age when I turned eleven with Peter, Paul and Mary’s debut album. Of course “Puff, the Magic Dragon” was a hit, but I had other favorites: “Lemon Tree,” “If I had a Hammer,” and of course, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”. That was the first record I ever owned. Or maybe second. I got it and Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica, in the same pile of birthday gifts. My sophomore year in high school, an older student, Gail Dorsey, introduced me to Delta Blues, Judy Collins and Eric Anderson. I remember we brought the African-American folk singer Len Chandler to campus and that was quite something, a totally different, socially radical kind of music. Simon and Garfunkle were my idols.

It was around this time that I began playing the guitar. My repertoire included “House of the Rising Sun,” “They Call the Wind Mariah,” and “Four Strong Winds.” I use the term “playing” in the loosest possible sense.

My interest in traditional music, the singer-songwriters of the protest era, and acoustic guitar in general continued. My freshman year in college I got a job as a waitress in Boston folk clubs: The Stone Phoenix, the Sword in the Stone, and the Unicorn. I met musicians, fell in lust with one and moved into his house and got my heart broken. On the up side, I met a remarkable number of extraordinarily talented performers and learned more about more kinds of music than I could have imagined. One roommate, Bill Stark, was actually a first-year law student at Harvard. He’d study for hours then head to the kitchen and cook weird Mexican food—he was a native of California—while listening to records. He had a passion for recordings by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.

The early seventies was a wonderful time in New England for people who wanted to play music and listen to music. There were countless clubs and cafés, small concert venues, and buskers. Accomplished recording artists mixed routinely with aspiring pickers. Tastes were ecumenical: I remember listening to Stevie Wonder, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tom Rush, going to ceilidhs and attending a performance by classical guitarist, Julian Bream.

Who cares about the heartbreak? It was a wonderful piece of my past.

Still Life: Homework and Guitar

Opening that enormous Christmas box presented by my Dear One and finding my very own D-type rosewood Martin guitar this Christmas was just, just… overwhelming. I searched for music on the internet, bought how-to books, and signed up for a beginner’s class at the local community college. Class was canceled due to low enrollment. Undaunted I searched for a local teacher and stumbled over the Maryland Conservatory of Music and Brent Shallcross, guitar teacher extraordinaire.

I had my first lesson five days ago. I have been diligently practicing my exercises and I am having the most wonderful time.

Soon enough I will almost be playing music.


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