“When the night has come and the land is dark,
and the moon is the only light we’ll see,
no I won’t be afraid, oh I won’t be afraid,
just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
My eyes close and I take a deep breath as I near the chorus. I know this part by heart. By the final chorus I’m rocking my shoulders and tapping my toes.
“Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me, oh stand by me, oh stand now, oh stand, stand by me.”
I practice it a few more times, then move on to Jimmy Reed’s, “You Got Me Runnin’.” Then “Falling Slowly” from the movie “Once.” After that I practice a G lick, a D lick, and an A minor pentatonic scale.
My mother said that when I was three I knew the words to “Bell Bottom Trousers” and sang it to anyone willing to listen. At ten I sang “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” (Woof, woof!) at the church camp talent show. That fall I began piano lessons.
By 14 I’d given up the piano, but it wasn’t long before I found a more satisfactory substitute. On the way to camp that summer a girl showed me two chords on her baritone ukulele and by the time we arrived I’d taught myself to play “In the Still of the Night” and “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.” From then on I played her ukulele every time I could get my hands on it. Somehow I found the money to buy one of my own when I returned home that fall.
In college Fred learned the guitar and we played and sang folk music. Then adulthood took over and we got serious. Over the years we’d occasionally play for friends and the magic was back: For a few moments I was 14 again and there was nothing but the joy of making music. The magic returned a few years ago when our friend Sam started bringing his guitar to our gatherings and encouraged us to play with him. But after a while that stopped too. Inevitably my love for music would come up against Boris the Bore, my perfectionist bully who criticized my lack of skill until it was too painful to go on.
One day last October I took my 11-year-old twin grandsons to their weekly guitar lesson. When Jake started playing the blues, tears started falling down my cheeks. The magic was back and this time it was accompanied by a profound longing.
“I want to take ukulele lessons!” cried Teen-aged Jeanie.
“You’re too old! You’ll make a fool of yourself,” scoffed Boris the Bore.
“I don’t care!” Teen-aged Jeanie insisted. “I want to! It’s now or never!”
Afterwards, Teen-aged Jeanie dragged me to the teacher. “Do you teach ukulele?” she asked shyly. I could feel my heart beating. Boris was breathing down my neck. He couldn’t wait to tell me how ridiculous I was being.
“Sure,” the teacher said. “Actually, I’ve just started teaching a teen-aged girl.”
“Do you have an opening for one more?”
He did. I took my first lesson two weeks later. I’m in my second term now, and I play every day. By the way, “play” is the right word. Teen-aged Jeanie and I are getting better and having a blast! Boris got off a few shots last weekend after Sam convinced me to play “Falling Slowly” in public for the first time, but for the most part he’s been curiously silent.
Why go into the arts? Your story will be different, but I assure you, the fundamental reasons are the same for every heart and soul:
“Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Thanks to my old friend, Charles Ruehl, for sending me the picture of Teen-aged Jeanie at church camp. That’s him on the left.
And thanks, Sam. This one’s for you.