When I was a kid, I was charged with the task of going door to door to sell trinkets for an upcoming high school band tour. I stumbled upon an outwardly appearing run-down darkly house which sat back in the shade of the woods. The garage was on street level and to get to the house you had to ascend a few dozen well healed moss carpeted concrete steps which had re-settled from the countless heave-ho of winter frosts past. I was hesitant to knock because the people inside would be either very poor or witches looking to eat small children. I knocked anyway. A portly and agreeable old woman answered the door. She was wearing an apron and had a frenzied whorled dust cloud of flour chasing after her. She looked at me with suspicion as I rattled off my memorized spiel about the salt and pepper shakers I was pawning.
“Salt and pepper shakers?” Her face lit up with glee. At that I was invited in where she ushered me into the deceptively warm and brightly lit living room which I entered with alacrity at the prospect of a sale. There, proudly displayed in a huge china cabinet where hundreds of shakers which she had purchased from around the world. She and her husband used to be circus musicians and at each city they performed, she would buy a set of local shakers. The shakers ranged in size, shape, material and utility, many signed by the artisans who crafted them. She commented how there were many more stored in boxes somewhere and she had also given several starter collections to her grandchildren with the hope to inspire one of them to discover the joy of collecting and maybe even instill in one of them the curiosity and hunger for world travel.
The husband then emerged from a nap and sauntered into the living room to see what the ruckus was about. He was tall, rail-thin and lithe bodied for his age. I told them how my grandmother was a cook and nurse for a circus and how my mother traveled with them until she was about the age of ten. She was raised by a community like none other. Not because they were clowns, acrobats or animal trainers, but this hodge-podge of diverse people who were running after or from something were instant family who cared for and watched out one another. My mother helped with the cooking and medical care and was also used as a plant in the audience by some of the acrobats and clowns. I was an instant hit with this old couple since we had so much in common.
I feel so bad right now that I can’t remember their names. My grandmother once told me that people suffer two deaths; The first when your physical body dies, and the second when the last person who knew you ceases to utter your name. I hope there are great grandchildren somewhere with a treasured collection of salt and pepper shakers who remember and can call this long gone couple by name.
The old man told me he was a piano player, violinist and conductor with the circus and at that, sat down at the piano and with his long lanky fingers ripping off a wonderful treatment of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He then invited me to play and I remember hashing out a song from the sixties called “You Send Me.” He immediately retrieved his violin and joined in. After we finished as if on cue, his wife emerged with cookies and lemonade. The old man asked me the name of the song we just played and I was amazed that he could just pick it up like that without knowing it. He explained to me the magic of the I vi ii V7 progression. I was floored. None of my classical teachers ever taught me this seemingly mystical knowledge of musical annealment.
He then pulled out some old sheet music bearing his name. He was also a composer, too! He showed me both the finish product and the original handwritten copy for one piece. He told me that whenever he composed something, he would send it to this guy in NYC who would then analyze the work for mistakes and would offer harmonic and melodic suggestions. He would also highlight every phrase and parse out the melody, scribbling in the white spaces and margins the names of other songs which used the same melodic structure, intervals or rhythm. The old man opined that there are no new melodies or chord progressions anymore, just different ways to play or mix and match them.
I never went back to visit this couple. At the age of fifteen or so, I didn’t realize the treasure they really were or the vault of knowledge and experience they possessed which was free for the taking. What an invaluable resource they could have been for stories, music theory, history, travel, inspiration and above all: sharing the wonderful gift of life and friendship. That one day experience taught me things which for a long time, I was unable to share with teachers or peers. Their lack of this knowledge was okay, I guess. One does not need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car. Some people are content resigning themselves to ignorance however, today’s computers would never have been invented had someone first not wondered about lightning or a light bulb, a wire, a toaster, ones and zeros, or a memory chip.
So, keeping in mind the concept that there are no new melodies anymore, I present you with my rendition of “How Dry I Am.” Listen for the same four notes – which can be found in thousands of songs.
By the way, out of politeness, the old woman purchased a set of my relatively pedestrian shakers. With a mild bit of shoving and maneuvering, she proudly ensconced them to the limited real estate of her already crammed shelves. My contribution to the glorious mélange was no match for the works of colorful art, exquisite material and the other hand crafted denizens of the china cabinet. She made a naive young boy feel very proud. Yet another gift that day, for the taking.