My daughter was upset a few years ago, before she really knew better, when a friend told her: “Your dad sings all the time.” My daughter thought the friend meant that her dad sang too much which, most likely, she did and which, most improbably, I did. I tried to comfort her by telling her that her friend had the Song Sung Blues.
“What’s that?” she asked, whereupon I launched into an over the top version of the song bearing the same name by Neil Diamond.
“Sonnnng sunnnng blues, everybody knows one; Soooonnng Sunnng blues, every garden grows one.”
My daughter groaned. “I’m serious. You need to stop singing so much.”
She then explained that every time we have a conversation about something, I find a way to turn it in to some goofy song from my child hood. It needed to stop right away, she said.
A bit crestfallen I polled the rest of my family to see whether they agreed. I was met with a chorus of “yesses.” It was then I realized I had a problem and I assured her that I would try to be more careful, especially around her friends. So I set out to find the etiology of my melody malady.
Just like everyone else who has some screwed up social pathology, I blame my mom. Since I was a kid she surrounded our family with music. But it wasn’t always mirthful. One particularly scarring episode occurred when I was 12 years old. I was in the fifth grade at Christ the King school having transferred from West Nichols Hills elementary earlier that year. One fateful afternoon I learned there was to be a talent show.
Most of the kids split into groups but since I didn’t know anyone I was going to be a solo act. No problem, I thought, I’d rather not share the stage anyway. This was going to be an important debut.
I did a little reconnaissance to gauge the competition. The year was 1975 and we were in the earliest stages of the disco craze. One group would dance to The Hustle. Another act was working on an imitation of Get Down Tonight by K.C. & The Sunshine Band. This was cutting edge stuff.
I went home and told my mom about the show and I was eager to hear her suggestions. She thought awhile and said: “How about a cowboy song?”
“A c-c-cowboy song?”
She was already rifling through the song books under the cushion on the piano bench looking for the perfect number as she painted a mental tableau. “You can wear that western suit jacket we bought at Shepler’s, you can pretend you’re strumming a guitar, we can borrow some chaps from the costume lady at Betty Stockard’s dance studio…”
She plucked 62 Cowboy Campfire Songs from the bench and went full throat. She worked her way through “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Happy Trails.” My mom has the kind of voice that leaves you transfixed. So much so that with embarrassingly little protest I found myself deciding to perform “Don’t Fence Me In,” a Cole Porter song made famous in the film of the same name in…..1945. Good gawd.
I can’t tell you what a disaster the show was because I blacked out from embarrassment about 30 seconds into my act and everything within five hours of either side of the show has been repressed. Those memories have taken up residence somewhere between the band director demonstrating for our eighth grade class how to French kiss and the youth director in sixth grade teaching a few of us the meaning of “peach fuzz.”
But this is an unfair portrait of the beautiful legacy of music bestowed by my mom. She went to college on a voice scholarship. And she always wanted me to play an instrument or sing in the choir. So I took up the trumpet and I performed in the high school musicals. And I’ve been embarrassing myself, and now my own family, ever since.
My mom still has the prettiest voice in the congregation at Sunday Mass but her lesson had nothing to do with how melodious the sound. To her, all music is to be celebrated and enjoyed. From church hymns to cowboy songs to even the lame warbles of a goofy dad. Because music is about more than the notes. It’s about the emotional imprint that transcends a written or spoken word. It smooths the rough edges of life; it colors the soul. And it is a gift to be treasured.
So if someone has shared with you the gift, tell them thank you for the music, for giving it to you.