There are no photographs that I can find (we probably didn’t own a camera), of the days when Dad, my brother John and I used to play the ukulele. There are just so many tunes to play around the campfire on a ‘Uke’ but I remember them including Yellow Bird, Michael Row The Boat Ashore…Down In the Valley and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Dad got us interested in stringed instruments very early in our lives.
Whenever we gathered with friends or went camping, we had sing-songs. In fact, we grew up surrounded by music. Our military life took us on many family road trips and Sunday drives and all of it involved singing a repertoire of folk songs, big band era music like Abba Dabba Honeymoon, Moon River and Mack the Knife and funny songs like “One Man Went to Mow“, There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea...well, you get the idea.
Dad also owned a beautiful Gibson guitar. Nothing made me happier than listening to him sing songs, while playing that guitar. There are no photographs of the Gibson, but I’m certain that my father and siblings remember it as though it was yesterday. It was a family treasure. Dad shared…
“I was given that beautiful Gibson from our neighbour across the street from us on Briar Hill Drive in Battle Creek, Michigan. I am sorry I cannot remember their names, but they were certainly good friends of ours throughout my tour there. He was a Lt.Col in the USAF Reserve and taught high school. One of the humorous things I remember was Mom giving him a 1 quart and a 1 pint milk bottle that somehow came with us on the move. He was so excited since he would use them during his 2 hour course on Canada. That was the total length of time for their history of Canada. Anyway he came over one day and had the Gibson with him. He told me that it had been owned by quite a famous country singer and was given to him. It honestly looked like it had just come from the factory it was such a beautiful instrument. I simply adored it and learned to play somewhat from a book.(just our usual camping songs.).”
Because of this inspiration around stringed instruments, when I got a regular summer job at The Deluxe restaurant in North Bay, Ontario, I decided to buy my very own guitar. I spotted the one I wanted in a music shop window on Main Street and began saving up my tips. By end of summer, I made the purchase of my Yamaha Classical guitar…something I decided on so that I could play with ease because of the give of the classical strings instead of the resistance of steal strings. I’ve treasured that guitar for ever since. Yes…it’s gone out with my own kids to campfires and parties…but, it hung in and makes a beautiful sound to this day.
At the day of my purchase, I also bought a song book of Gordon Lightfoot songs. The thing about this particular book, the chord illustrations appeared above the appropriate words, so I figured, like my Dad before me, I could teach myself to play guitar.
From 1960 until 1963, Gordon Lightfoot became a household name in Canadian homes. He was and still is a wonderful song writer…optimistic writing, surfacing during what came to be known as the Folk Revival (just before the huge movement of Beatles music across North America and the world.) I wasn’t like my brother, John, who next door to me in Great Falls, Montana, in a neighbouring bedroom, played the Grateful Dead and Gregg Allman. I was playing Dylan; Buffy Ste. Marie; Peter, Paul & Mary; The Mamas and the Papas, Pete Seeger and Gordon Lightfoot.
In the end, it turns out that my older brother, John, became a person I would always admire for his ability on guitar. He had the ear for music and was a natural. He felt the guitar and released its spirit, where I would be measured and predictable. I think he spent some years playing at gigs as well, and given his home in Sault Ste. Marie, he moved towards a Bluegrass style.
Once I moved to Lethbridge and attended University, I continued to appreciate more mellow voices and music, enjoying Valdy, Bruce Cockburn, Bette Midler, Cat Stevens and Paul Williams. Somewhere along the line, I bought myself a Three Dog Night album. It seemed that I never really had a lot of money…still don’t…so accessing concerts and getting out for musical events didn’t really happen until I ‘grew up’. I did, however, listen to other people’s music and so became exposed to a lot of Cabaret music in the day, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton and Grace Jones…on and on it went from there.
Summers and Christmases, traveling back home to share times with Mom and Dad, the guitars came out…and always there were sing-songs. Mom always asked me to play and I did.
Family reunions brought together a large group of very talented people, many of them sharing guitar during the programs. Cecil, Jo-Anne, my brother, John…Dad…
There have been a lot of back yard, under-the-tree sorts of moments…sitting in the stair well at the U of L, singing my heart out. Living in residence was isolating at times. The guitar filled lonely moments.
Singing at weddings…oh my gosh, I’ll never forget not being able to find my beginning note during Lord of the Star Fields. But things went well when I played and sang I Will and also For Baby.
There was never the chance or the opportunity to pick up a Gordon Lightfoot ticket before this recent purchase. But, long-story-short (fail)…last evening I had the chance to attend a concert where 78 year old Gordon Lightfoot came to Calgary, I felt, to sing just to me. I purchased the ticket some time ago. Without a partner, I’ve had years to practice not being shy about attending events on my own. Strategically, when something comes up on my radar, I pour over the seating maps for the venues and select the best single seat that I can find for that event. Last night, I ended up in the second row of the Grey Eagle Casino Theater, with an unobstructed view of Lightfoot. A father and teenaged daughter duo were sitting to my right. I felt a bit sorry for the daughter because after every tune, the Dad would turn to her and say, “Did you like that one?”
To my left, two Ya Yas sat down just as the show began, a little envious of the cold gin and tonic that I was sipping, having arrived in time to access the bar line before the performance.
I felt that the performance last night was all about good song writing. The lyrics, beautiful narratives, for the most part, were exquisite. I was filled with admiration for this person…for a career of dedication, struggle, and sideways living-gone right. I really listened to these lyrics for the first time and saw them as very positive.
I got teary at the point where Gordon Lightfoot began singing The Minstrel of the Dawn…and that continued until the end of the song. Many of his songs moved me, but this one, the most.
Lightfoot is good humoured about his abilities. He has a great lead guitar that provides the thread of his former performances. His voice is weaker than in the past, but has all of that quality that is endearing. Some songs were performed as shorter versions of themselves, out of need to entertain the crowd with the ‘old familiars’, but Lightfoot performed his most recent writing in its entirety and with enthusiasm. I was really impressed.
I can’t tell a lie. As I listened, I thought about my Dad. I thought about what a gift it must be (and I have some experience of this already) to be able to continue to delight in your talents after so many years. Dad, at 86, is in a choir and continues to carry the magic of his Irish tenor voice whenever he interprets music. I was impressed by Gordon Lightfoot last night and was moved in a remarkable way. As we move into our later years, we need to do what we can to continue nurturing our gifts. I’m posting a video here. I hope you will take the time to listen to the interview and then, listen to the song.
Music is something we hold inside of us…like DNA. The stories that we carry in us are, for the most part, bits and pieces of the music we have cherished in our lives. Live music can never be underestimated for its impact on us.
Post Script: The Next Generation