I Got Rhythm

Weldele School Rhythm Band conductor – 1952

I got rhythm,

I got music…

Who could ask for anything more?

–George and Ira Gershwin (1930)

I recently spent a morning with my three year-old grandson Samuel, just the two of us.  We went to buy donuts at a favorite shop near his home.  We took the car and along the way, I put on a favorite song that he and I have shared together many times.  It is titled “Natural Man” and is sung by the African-American artist, Lou Rawls.  It definitely has a beat.  As I looked back at Sam in the rearview mirror, I could see him swinging his arms in time with the music and mouthing the words he knew.

Rhythm Band stick player [Source: “Rhythm Band Direction” (1928)

In the early 1950s, when I was young, those responsible for child development in the public schools had concluded that expressing rhythm was not a natural ability for most children.  Accordingly, elementary schools in my town of Terre Haute, Indiana, included the curriculum titled “Developing Rhythmic Recognition in the Child” in music classes during first and second grades.  Each child was issued an instrument such as a drum,  a wood-block, a cymbal, a tambourine, castanets, or bells.  There were also triangles and rhythm sticks too.  Each child received instruction on how to play her or his instrument, and once they had a gist of it, the teacher assembled the entire class into a “Rhythm Band” following a prescribed seating chart.  The teacher then took her place at the piano and played a tune while the students provided their multi-instrumented percussion accompaniment.  Oh, and there was one more position in the Rhythm Band–conductor.  That was my job.

Rhythm Band seating plan [Source: “Rhythm Band Direction” (1928)

I don’t recall how I got to be conductor of the Rhythm Band at Weldele Elementary School in the fall of 1952.  It wasn’t because of my age.  Although I was in second grade then, I was just six years old and one of the youngest students in my class.  I’d like to think I was selected because of my superior mastery of rhythm, but I don’t know that to be true.  It’s possible, I suppose, that I had no sense of rhythm and could do less harm as conductor, although I don’t think that’s likely–and especially when I read what was written for teachers in the official rhythm band instruction booklet:

It is customary in public performance of the rhythm band to have a child conduct, standing in front of the group with baton in hand…The musical child will grasp it easily.

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Regardless of what motivated my music teacher to designate me as Conductor of the Rhythm Band, my mother took my assignment seriously.  She made me a child-sized tuxedo jacket suitable for a maestro.  I was also given instruction on fundamentals of conducting, and in the context of the time, this was important business.  Again, from the rhythm band instruction booklet for teachers:

In preparation for this [conducting] instruction must be given…All professional conductors keep the right hand with baton in exact rhythm giving definite beats while the left hand expresses strong or light, and indicates when the different instruments are to enter the music.  When children are learning to do things for the first time is the proper time to do it correctly.  Incorrect habits are just as permanent.

I was now ready to conduct the Rhythm Band in public.  I don’t recall the actual performance, although my mother remembered that it was held on a small stage in the school’s basement.  It was in the afternoon and was attended by non-working mothers (which were most mothers in 1952), as well as other children in the school.  My mother also recalled that the teacher played piano for some of the songs and used phonograph records as background music for others.  Although the names of the specific songs used in the performance are lost to time, it probably included marches, folk and popular tunes, and simple classical pieces.

Prince Charming rides his mighty steed while rehearsing for his role in “Sleeping Beauty” (1953)

Since I remember so little about my Rhythm Band conducting experience, it’s hard for me now to say just what it meant for me.  I may have been self-conscious about it since it was my first public appearance, however I had also been selected about that time to play the role of Prince Charming in our school’s musical adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty.”  So I doubt that stage fright was a problem for me.  The most traumatic aspect of being tapped to play Prince Charming was not about performing before an audience; it was after a friend in my class informed me I would have to kiss Sleeping Beauty to awaken her from her sleep.  I was distraught.  I went to my teacher and informed her that I didn’t want to kiss Becky Pate in the play, and so I did not want to be Prince Charming.  She smiled and simply said, “Oh, Steve, in this play all you do is remove the needle from Sleeping Beauty’s finger and she will wake up.  There is no kissing.”  Greatly relieved, I agreed to play the role.

As with my endeavor with the Rhythm Band, I remember little of the play experience.  It was performed in the evening and was a big deal for everyone involved.  I have a photo, taken before my parents and I left for the school that evening, in which I am wearing my Prince Charming garb astride my broomstick hobbyhorse.  It’s hard to imagine second graders going along with such costumes and props these days.  I only can recall the lyrics of one refrain from that evening.   While riding my mighty steed across the stage, I sang:

Te-gallup! Te-gallup! Te-gallup!

Powerful words, I must say.

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Pack up all my cares and woe,

Here I go, singin’ low

Bye Bye Blackbird…

            —from the popular song “Bye Bye Blackbird”

I suppose I was chosen for the role of Prince Charming because I could carry a tune—and perhaps better than the other children in my second grade class.  My mother has told me that I could sing even before I could talk.  When I was just slightly more than a year old, the song “Bye Bye Blackbird” became a hit for bandleader Russ Morgan.  My parents listened to the radio in those days, and my mother recalled that I sang along with the chorus of this song whenever it played.  I don’t recall this, of course, but the song must have made an impression on me since it is still one of my favorites.

Some of my strongest memories of my father during childhood are of riding with him in the car as he ran errands on Sunday mornings.  He was not a religious man, yet he was nevertheless fond of the old gospel songs of that day.  Perhaps he had become familiar with them when his mother, a devout Methodist, took him to church and revivals as a boy.  I remember him also singing Christmas songs during the season; “Silver Bells” was his favorite of all.  My mother and others in my family did not like to sing, so my father was the lone role model for singing in our family then.

Nat King Cole (1950s)

The decade of the 1950s during my childhood was a defining one for popular music.  As it began, many of the Big Bands of the 1930s and ’40s were still popular, as well as singers like Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Kate Smith and Margaret Whiting.  Even new performers in that time, such as Tony Bennett, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher and Connie Francis, continued to record songs in a mellow, heavily orchestrated style of that earlier time.

Johnny Mathis album (1958)

In the mid-1950s, a new style of popular music arrived on the scene led by performers like Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.  It was called “Rock and Roll” and it changed the course of popular music.  I was aware of this new style of music, of course, but I wasn’t much of a fan initially.  I don’t recall purchasing a single Rock and Roll record when I was in junior or senior high school.  Instead, my musical tastes favored singers like Johnny Mathis, Gene Pitney, Lesley Gore, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydel, Peter and Gordon, and The Lettermen, most of whom were not regarded as rock musicians.  Perhaps it might have been different if I had learned to dance during that time, but dancing was not a part of my life until later.  I did watch “American Bandstand” on television then, and I recall thinking that it might be fun to dance like the teens depicted on that show.  Now I see that my “outsider” status with regards to early Rock and Roll music was symbolic of my awkward self-image and a sense of alienation I felt from many of my peers and their pop culture.  I also was especially distant and uncomfortable around most girls.  I was short and wore glasses; need I say more?

The awkward adolescent years (1959)

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In dorm room during freshman year at Purdue University (1965)

We don’t really consider ourselves folk-singers in the accepted sense of the word, but it is our interest in this kind of singing that brought us together.
                   –Dave Guard from a liner note on the initial album by The Kingston Trio (1958)

When I left home to enter Purdue University as a freshman in September of 1964, things began to change for me.  Almost immediately, I felt more connected to my peer group and the university culture appealed to me much more than high school ever had.  The most popular type of music on my campus during that year was not rock and roll; it was “folk music.”  I’ve learned that true folk music in the United States existed much before its rise to popularity on U. S. campuses in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Singers like Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and Pete Seeger had made extensive recordings of such songs during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but few had attained a popular following.  With the emergence of groups like The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, Peter, Paul & Mary and the New Christy Minstrels, a commercial brand of folk music took root on campuses and within the broader popular music scene.  If I had read the album liners of these musicians more closely and objectively, I might have seen that some of these performers themselves acknowledged their distance from the true folk musicians who had preceded them.  One original member of The Kingston Trio, for example, noted on his group’s first album that they did not regard themselves as folk singers “in the accepted sense of the word.”  He might have also mentioned that The Kingston Trio was in the record business and was intent on making large amounts of money for themselves and for Capitol Records–but that might not have been so well received.

During my first year at Purdue University, my roommate in the dorm was a senior.  When I arrived, he was already well acquainted with the college folk music scene and owned many of the popular folk record albums of that day.  Ted and I listened to his records over and over, and I eventually bought some of them too.  Many of us also gathered each week in the television lounge of the dorm to watch a popular show “Hootenanny,” which featured some of the commercial folk groups and singers of that time.  The show, however, never included the more outspoken or controversial artists like Pete Seeger; the sponsors wouldn’t have approved.

You might say that my first year at Purdue included one more course than the ones that appear on my official transcript That could have been titled Popular Folk Music 1001, and as a result of that component of my education, many of the songs from those albums and that I heard performed on “Hootenanny” are very familiar to me today.  They evoke some of the strongest memories of my freshman year.

Debut album of The Kingston Trio (1958)

Debut album of The New Christy Minstrels (1962)

The Brothers Four album (1962)

Debut album of Peter, Paul and Mary (1962)

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With friend Bob Wilken (left) in front of our fraternity house at Purdue (1966)

Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast;

You’ve got to make the morning last,

Just kickin’ down the cobble stones,

Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy…

–Paul Simon from “The 59th Street Bridge Song”

After my freshman year at Purdue, I lived in a fraternity.  I became much more interested in popular rock and roll music then, possibly because I learned to dance during that time.  Also, the folk music craze on campus was waning, and in its place came a focus on new bands that followed the “British Invasion” of the Beatles.  One such group I liked then was called The Buckinghams.  Although they were from Chicago, they had adopted their name to evoke an image of Great Britain.  I never became a Beatles or Rolling Stones fan and didn’t buy any of their albums.  I did, however, collect other albums, and I find it interesting now that most of the artists who were favored by me were those who had begun their music careers during the earlier folk music time; these included Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and John Sebastian.  I now regard the songs by Simon and Garfunkel from their early albums to be among my all-time favorites.  The lyrics and themes of songs like “Sounds of Silence,” “Homeward Bound,” “I Am A Rock,” “Scarborough Fair,” “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” “Cloudy,” “Patterns”  and “The 59th Street Bridge Song”  still connect with me in a way that goes well beyond nostalgia.  Their songs also introduced me a new vocabulary; I guess you could say that in that time I was “feelin’ groovy.”

Simon and Garfunkel album (1966)

I kicked off my shoes and felt the good earth under my feet.

I loosened my tie and felt what it feels like to breath.

I found the secret to life,

I took some time for living.

I took off my watch and found I had all the time in the world

I opened my arms so I could hold life like a beautiful girl…

–The Association from “Time for Living”

Another folk-inspired musical group that I discovered during my time at Purdue was We Five.  They only had one hit song (“You Were On My Mind”) and one popular album, yet something about their vocal qualities touched me, and I listened to their album long after it fell out of favor.  I was also taken by the rich harmonies of a group known as The Association.  Almost every song on their albums resonated with me.  In 1966, I even made a trip to Chicago to see that group in concert.  It is interesting for me now to realize that some of the most memorable lyrics from these various groups’ songs emphasize the importance of paying attention to one’s life and to people who make it special.  Those continue to be important themes for me.

We Five album (1965)

The Association album (1967)

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Minuteman Missile

Air Force missile alert duty uniform (1972)

Outside myself, pretending to know me,

Inside myself, where is the soul of me?

Who am I?  What am I doing here?

–The 5th Dimension from “Broken Wing Bird”

After graduating from Purdue in 1968, I entered the Air Force and began a four-year tour of duty as a Minuteman Missile Launch Officer at a base in Wyoming.  It was one of the most difficult periods of my life.  It was the height of the Cold War, and my job as a launch officer was to be prepared to launch ten nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles at a moment’s notice.  Giving such responsibility to a twenty-two year-old straight out of college is still hard for me to comprehend.  I recall being troubled by it even then, and especially the thought of a total nuclear war.  I sometimes sat at the launch console in the control center during my alert duties and gazed at the green “on alert” lights that represented the missiles under my command.   I wondered about their targets and intended purposes, although as a launch officer I was never given information about such things; it was not considered necessary for me to do my job.

I did know that each missile under my command carried a one-megaton nuclear warhead, which was many times more powerful than the weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I knew that my ten missiles were only a small fraction of the one-thousand that existed within the entire Minuteman system.  I knew there were even more nuclear warheads deployed on submarine-launched missiles, as well as the land-based Titan missiles within the U.S. nuclear arsenal of that time.   Plus I knew there were young men, much like myself, who that very moment were seated in launch control centers within the Soviet Union and monitoring lights that represented missiles targeted to destroy my base–and me.  It seemed absurd to me, yet I mostly lived in denial that my missiles would ever be launched in a war, and thankfully they were not.

Within this poignant backdrop of my life in the late 1960s, it’s not surprising that I was moved by popular songs and lyrics that asked deep questions about the state of the world–and about the meaning of life.  For example, there was Barry McGuire’s hit song “The Eve of Destruction,” the lyrics of which addressed the dilemma I lived each day:

Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say?

Can’t you feel the fears that I’m feelin’ today?

If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away,

There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.

Take a look around you boy, it’s bound to scare you boy…

The song that was most meaningful to me in this context was on an album titled “Stoned Soul Picnic” by a popular singing group of that time, The 5th Dimension.  I bought that album sometime in 1969, and although it contained several of the group’s pop hits such as “Sweet Blindness” and “California Soul,” the track that came to me like none other was a song titled “Broken Wing Bird.”

I learned much later that this song had been originally composed to describe the condition of someone trapped in drug addiction.  That, of course, wasn’t my situation–far from it.  Considering the highly sensitive job I had in the Air Force, any brush with an illegal substance would have resulted in a court-marshal and prison time for me.  Yet it’s meaningful to me now that, in some respects, there were similarities between my situation and that of a drug addict.  I felt trapped in a life and a purpose that were entirely alien to my true self.  And like one trapped in drug addiction, I felt there was no way out so I continued with my life and hoped for the best.  The thought of declaring as a conscientious objector and removing myself from my missile launch responsibilities never entered my mind then.

During a skiing adventure at St. Mary’s Glacier in Colorado (1969)

Although my time in the Air Force was a stressful one for me from the perspective of my job responsibilities, it was also one of the most carefree and exhilarating periods of my young-adult life.  I spent much time downhill skiing and hiking in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming.  On any number of occasions, I set out alone with no firm agenda.  I brought along a few articles–a sketchpad, my camera, my Bible.  There were times during such trips when no one knew where I was.  This would not have been good if I had experienced an emergency, but it was very exhilarating–and the polar opposite of my heavily-monitored and controlled life on the base in my missile work.

One more song from that 1968 album by The 5th Dimension came to me in the context of this carefree side of my life then.  Its lyrics were:

I’m on a sailboat ride,

see how she takes the wind…

I let the sea take me places

I never have been.

Stars dance upon the night,

clouds balance on the wind,

the phosphorescent light

of water I can wander in…

–The 5th Dimension from “The Sailboat Song”

During my “on the loose” excursions to the mountains and elsewhere, I lived the spirit of this song as much as if I had been sailing the high seas.  I let such times “take me places I never have been” as I wandered–and wandered–and wondered.

5th Dimension album (1968)

Between 1969 and my discharge from the Air Force, my musical tastes changed somewhat.  The musicians from my college days still remained favorites, of course, however I also discovered new favorites that I would best describe now as bluegrass or country.  One was banjo player, John Hartford, who issued a number of records during that time but never was regarded as a major performer.   His music was artistic and quirky and it did not attract a large popular following.  However, I found a resonance with it, and especially his down-to-earth natural manner and his clothing.  During my off-duty hours, I sometimes dressed just like John did on the cover of one of his albums–bell-bottom jeans, a work shirt and a leather jacket.

I also developed an affinity during this time for other country-rock musicians such as James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash (later also including Neil Young).  I found their songs delightfully fresh and entertaining, although they did not carry deep meanings for me like “Broken Wing Bird.”

John Hartford album (1969)

Crosby, Stills & Nash album (1969)

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He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year,

Coming home to a place he’d never been before.

He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again.

You might say he found the key for every door…

–John Denver from “Rocky Mountain High”

I was discharged from the Air Force in June of 1972 and entered graduate school at nearby Colorado State University in Fort Collins.  I was married to my wife, Mary Ann, by then and we were ready to move on to a new phase of our lives.  We did not appreciate at first what a time of wonder the next two years would be for us.  That period included “the summer of my twenty-seventh year,” and just like John Denver’s words from his hit song “Rocky Mountain High,” I felt like I had been born again.  Memories of the stresses during my Air Force time receded, and we took every opportunity to explore the majesties of the nearby mountains.  We hiked, camped, skied, canoed, and bicycled from one adventure to another–and John Denver’s songs served as the sound track to our new life.  John’s songs were at the height of their popularity then and I purchased several of his albums.  Songs like “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Starwood in Aspen,” and “The Eagle and the Hawk” helped describe and define that special time for me.

John Denver album (1973)

By a mountain stream in the Snowy Range, Wyoming (1973)

Within the span of those two years, we experienced a number of noteworthy milestones.  In August of 1973 we climbed to the summit of 14,255 feet elevation Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.  We also visited Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rainier for the first time.  And most significantly, we welcomed our first daughter, Jill, into our lives in May 1974.  Oh, and by the way, I completed my Masters degree in agronomy during March of that year, and we made  plans to move to Minnesota after our baby arrived where I intended to pursue my PhD at the University of Minnesota.

Writing my Masters thesis under the watchful eye of Spunky the cat (1974)

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After moving to Minnesota in June of 1974, I lost most of my interest in contemporary popular music.  I seldom bought new records, although I did continue to listen to “oldie” favorites in my collection of songs from college, the Air Force and my time in Colorado.  Slowly I began to discover a few new artists whose music touched me.  One of them was John McCutcheon, a folk and bluegrass musician who, like John Hartford, shunned the spotlight of celebrity and never became a high-profile pop musician.  I was introduced to John’s music at a bluegrass festival where he often played at St. Johns University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  Mary Ann and I regularly took our daughters (Lara was born in 1977; Dawn in 1981) to this event.  McCutcheon’s signature instrument was the hammered dulcimer, and I’ll never forget how enthralled I was then by his artistry.  I suppose we’ve seen John in concert a dozen times since then, and his music never gets old for me.  He is a master.

John McCutcheon album (1977)

It makes me think of the good old days,

Happy Birthday to you!

You sure grew out of your baby ways…

So cut the cake, and let’s eat some more,

Happy Birthday to you!

–John McCutcheon from “Cut the Cake”

John McCutcheon has contributed another important aspect to our family over the years besides attending his concert appearances.  In the early 1980s, he composed an alternative song for use at one’s birthday celebrations.  We were introduced to the song soon thereafter, and we’ve sung it to each other almost every birthday since then.  It’s fair to say that this song is now woven into the fabric of our family traditions, and it’s difficult to celebrate a birthday in our family without singing “Cut the Cake.”

“Cut the Cake” at Dawn’s 3rd birthday celebration (1984)

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About the same time I was introduced to the music of John McCutcheon, I also became acquainted with another lesser-known musician.  His name is John Michael Talbot, and although I can’t remember how I initially found his work, I ended up buying just about every album he issued during the 1980s.  A former country-rock musician during the early 1970s, Talbot later became a devoted Roman Catholic and helped found the “Little Portion” Franciscan community in Arkansas.  While wearing a habit during his performances, John’s perfect-pitch tenor voice, his beautiful guitar playing and his humility sets him apart.  His music has touched me in ways I still don’t fully understand.  The songs are often set to poetry or texts of Scripture and some utilize a full orchestra as well as guitar.  At this point in my life, I was beginning to follow a more contemplative path within my own spiritual journey, and among other things I began participating in silent retreats.  I think that part of my attraction of Talbot’s music then was its resonance with my own inclinations towards a more quiet and tranquil way:

Lord, my heart is not proud,

nor are my eyes fixed on things beyond me.

In the quiet I have stilled my soul

like a child at rest on its mother’s knee…

Come and still your soul completely.

                       –John Michael Talbot from “Come To the Quiet”

John Michael Talbot album (1980)

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There was yet another wrinkle in my new musical interests upon moving to Minnesota.  I became interested in learning more about and connecting with the music of the 1930s and ’40s–the songs of my parent’s generation.  Once again, I can’t say exactly why this came about; perhaps it was a subliminal desire to connect with my parents in a way I had never done before.  My father died in 1986, and I expect that had something to do with it.  He and my mother had been young adults during the Big Bands era, and although they seldom spoke about it, I know that the songs and musicians of that time were a special part of their life stories.

One artist from that era who especially captured my interest was Hoagy Carmichael.  He had grown up in my home state of Indiana, and had attended Indiana University just a few years before my parents arrived there as students in the 1930s.  When I began listening to music from that time, it was natural that I was drawn to Hoagy Carmichael’s songs.  I also learned later that his song “Old Buttermilk Sky” ranked #1 on the US Billboard charts during the last quarter of 1946, the same time when I was born.  I guess it’s just natural that I should be drawn to that song too:

Old Buttermilk Sky

I’m telling you why now you know

Keep it in mind tonight

Keep brushing those clouds away…

–Hoagy Carmichael from “Old Buttermilk Sky”

Hoagy Carmichael (1940s)

I developed an liking for the “standards” and other musicians whose songs defined the American Songbook of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s–singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Judy Garland, as well as instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.  I also became interested in some of the jazz classics of the 1950s and ’60s by the likes of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, and Brazilians Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrid Gilberto.  Jazz pianist Bill Evan’s song “Peace Piece” touches me unlike any other song I know, and because of my fondness for that song, I selected it as my final “sound track” when offering a pictorial retrospective of my years at the university at my retirement reception in 2008.  It’s final note–a middle ‘C’–seemed to provide just the right punctuation to my career.

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Midwestern forest in autumn

There is yet another twist in the path of my musical journey–“classical.”  I held off telling about it earlier because it doesn’t exactly fit with considerations of popular music in the decades of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, although much of classical musicwas itself popular music at the time of its creation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In fact, some of the composers like Mozart, Handel and Beethoven were celebrities in their day.

I had, of course, been introduced to classical music as a child through my piano teachers and other music influences.  My mother had also seen to it that my brother and I attended occasional performances of the Terre Haute Symphony and I also saw at least one performance of Handel’s Messiah.  It’s fair to say that most of these made little impression on me at that point in my life.

When I moved from Indiana in 1968 to my Air Force duty station in Wyoming, I left behind more than just college friends and family.  I also departed from my beloved Midwestern deciduous forests, and I wasn’t prepared for what that meant to me.  Each October from 1968 to 1974, while I lived in Wyoming and Colorado, I found I greatly missed the autumn changes in the leaves I had known during my younger years.  While it’s true that the yellow aspen groves in the Rocky Mountains during September and October are special, they are an entirely different experience than a typical Midwestern forest in the fall.

Sometime in 1969, I went to a record store.  I don’t recall that I was looking for anything in particular, but as I leafed through the albums in one of the display bins, I came upon one with a scene of a deciduous forest in the autumn on its cover.  I was taken by that picture, and I bought the album just because it reminded me so of the forests I had known in Indiana.  The album was of a recording of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, and although I recognized the name Beethoven, I knew nothing about this piece of music at that time.  I’ve listened to that recording many times, as well as to subsequent recordings and live performances, and I can say now that it is my favorite Beethoven composition and one of my fondest classical pieces of all.  I still have that original album, and although the picture has faded and lost some of its photographic appeal, the 6th Symphony continues to come to me in special ways.

I knew from the title that Beethoven’s 6th Symphony was also composed in the key of F major.  I don’t pretend to know much about the significance of this except I’ve learned that the titles of many classical pieces include their dominant key; this helps to distinguish one composition from another.  The designation of a key also helps suggest a mood of the piece.  For example, a minor key creates a very different feel in a composition than a major one does.

One of the reasons that Beethoven’s 6th has become so significant for me, I think, is the context of its creation.  It is also known as the “Pastoral Symphony,” and was written by Beethoven in 1808.  He, like me, was fond of nature.  He, like me, appreciated taking walks in rural areas.  The 6th Symphony musically describes one such walk through the countryside near Vienna, Austria.  Beethoven himself described his work as “the expression of feeling,” and his annotations at the beginning of each movement elaborate on this idea:

•  Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country

•  Scene at the brook

•  Happy gathering of country folk

•  Thunderstorm

•  Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

Considering that I discovered this symphony at about the same time I was finding such fulfillment by taking spontaneous “on the loose” outings into natural places in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, I guess it’s not surprising I developed such a fondness for it.

The symphony ends with two F major chords after a peaceful interlude that one analyst has described as “a brief period of afterglow.”  I might describe it for me as like a brief period of thankful prayer–and it leaves me smiling.

Beethoven 6th Symphony album (1969)

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Carrie Newcomer (2008)

My life with music continues.  I still have not re-developed any interest in “popular” music.  I don’t think I could even name three of today’s popular singers.  Yet every now and then a lesser-known musician and her music crosses my path and comes to me in a very special way–much like Beethoven’s 6th Symphony did in 1969, or John McCutcheon’s and John Michael Talbot’s songs during the 1980s.

My most recent such encounter occurred last December.  I had received as a gift a DVD of a public broadcasting program featuring the writings of Scott Russell Sanders, an Indiana-based essay writer with whom I am acquainted.  From the description on the jacket of the recording, I knew the program also included songs by five singer/songwriters from the Midwest.  One evening late in the month, I sat down to watch the program for the first time fully expecting that my principal focus would be upon Scott and his readings.

Instead, one of the songwriters in the program stole the show for me.  Her name is Carrie Newcomer and through her songs and singing during that program, I was captivated.  I’ve since purchased much of what Carrie has recorded in recent years and I’ve even had an opportunity to meet her at a writing workshop.  I don’t yet understand all that Carrie’s words and voice mean for me, but I will say that no singer or songwriter has ever connected with me so completely–and that’s saying a lot considering all that has gone before in my journey with music.

It’s not possible for me to select a favorite Carrie Newcomer song at this point; each one speaks to me in different ways and contexts.  For example, her song “A Gathering of Spirits” speaks of the context of death, and it especially came to me through the passing of my uncle earlier this year.  The song “There Is a Tree” is significant to me in relation to my writings about my great-great grandparents of Martin County, Indiana.  “Leaves Don’t Drop” offers helpful perspectives on the seasons of my life while “Betty’s Diner” and “Geodes” connects me to my interests in the power of place and my Indiana homeland.

Although I have no clear “favorite,” there is one of Carrie’s songs that has special meaning.  It’s titled “Stones In the River” and it speaks of the importance of continuing to do good even when there is no evidence (or way of knowing) if prior deeds has been of any consequence.  Her words include:

So today, I’ll drop stones into the river,

and the current takes them out into forever,

and the truth is most of us will never know

where our best intentions go,

and still I’ll drop another stone…

Coincident with my discovery of Carrie Newcomer’s music, I joined forces with my good friend and musician Jeff Kidder to offer two “performances” at a coffeehouse in my community.  During the two evenings, I read excerpts from some of my essays while Jeff played and sang his songs.  We also joined forces in singing a few songs together, including Carrie’s “Stones In the River.”  These times performing with Jeff were well-received by those who gathered with us, and it may suggest that additional performances will be in our future.  One thing I’ve already learned from these experiences is–I still got rhythm!

Performing with Jeff Kidder at J. Arthur’s coffeehouse (2012)

   *******

Playing harmonica with grandson Samuel (2011)

Whether Jeff and I will do more ‘gigs’ together is not known, but there is one other person with whom I will be performing music in the future–my grandson Samuel.  He lives 2000 miles from me, and ever since he was born I’ve been thinking of ways that he and I can connect despite this distance.  I’ve considered music to be one such option, and especially when I realize that I’m the only person in Sam’s life who plays harmonica and mountain dulcimer!  Whenever Sam and I are together in person, one or both of these instruments is certain to make an appearance.  I bought him a small harmonica and we enjoy “jamming” together.  My private aspiration is that someday we might play music together in a more public way–and now that I think about it, maybe we already have.  Just this past Christmas, while Sam and his parents were visiting us in Minnesota, he and I joined forces to perform a mean rendition of “Jingle Bells” on my mountain dulcimer.  I fingered the strings and he did the strumming; we were quite the duet.  Based on this, I can say without hesitation:  Sam’s got rhythm too!

Samuel and Grandad play “Jingle Bells” on the mountain dulcimer (2011)

___________________

Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012.  All rights reserved.

Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana (2012)

The mountains made a singing undercurrent

Then overtones

Then sing with you.

—Cedric Wright from Words of the Earth

18 Responses to I Got Rhythm

  1. Norma welty says:

    Steve, what a nice essay! Seeing the names of so many songs and singers familiar to me was surprising. Nice ending with grandson Sam, too. Making music to gether, Wwhat a neat grandparent-grandchild connection. Nortma

    • steverobert says:

      You’ve captured the essence of it, Norma. Thanks for reading my new essay. Let’s talk sometime about which of the songs/artists connected most closely with you. 🙂

  2. Don Coon says:

    Steve, this brought back many memories of my own life. I played in the band in Jr. Hi and high school, sang in the church choir and various singing groups such as quartets and during college, made spending money singing folk music with a couple other guys. Jeane and I went to see Peter, Paul, and Mary and the 5th demension in concert. I, unlike you, danced in Jr. Hi so I was into rock and roll. I still have a number of the albums that you feature in your essay. In my later years, I also went back to Big Band music and Jeane and I took ballroom dance lessons and still get out every once in a while to “cut a rug.” One of our favorite singers, that you didn’t mention, is Neal Diamond. Enjoyed the pictures of you at various stages of your life. Thanks again for this essay and the memories it brought to me.

    • steverobert says:

      You are always such an affirming reader of my work, Don. Thank you. I thought about inserting the Serendipity Singers in there JUST for you, but thought better of it. We can talk in more depth about it all when we are next together in person. 🙂

  3. Fred Schneider says:

    You are a talented writer. I loved the story of your adventure through life described through the music and songs of the times. Such a wonderful way to share your life.

  4. john gibbons says:

    Doubtful our neighbor Becky Pate would have participated in the kiss either.

    • steverobert says:

      I’ll bet you are right, John. Maybe she beat me to the teacher that day and had already declined her role if she had to kiss me! Maybe that’s why the teacher was so ready with an answer. I never thought of that before. 🙂

  5. Denise Gamble says:

    Hi Steve 🙂

    The photo of you in the little conductor’s uniform is so adorable, I felt compelled to read the rest of your essay. As always – well done.

    There is a rhythm to your writing as well. Of course writing is composition. We take classes in English Composition, but we don’t get to wear the fancy jacket and have various people before us each speaking words and phrases at the tilt of our baton. (Which, now that I think of it, could be pretty cool.)

    Have you considered putting links at the end of the piece to some of the songs? Most likely YouTube will have many of these. WordPress may even have a widget that allows you to put up a little “playlist” of selected songs. Next time you see your grandson, make a little recording of the two of you on harmonica and add that to the mix! (It will also give him some artifacts for his essays about his awesome grandpa some day!)

    I think you touched on one of the universal experiences of modern day westerners. It’s as though we’re always building a soundtrack to our lives. (Hey, look at me! I’m Ken Burns!)

    Many blessings and thanks for sharing.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for reading my essay and posting your response, Denise. I really appreciate your affirming comments. 🙂

      I have thought of using a “multi-media” approach to my essays, and this “I Got Rhythm” one especially lends itself to that. But for now I’ll stick with just words and photos. I believe that this invites the reader’s imagination to participate in the creative process in a way that would not happen if I was to post an audio recording of Sam and me making music together, for example. Perhaps I’ll change my view on this over time. I would be interested in hearing others’ views on this matter.

  6. Jan Christensen says:

    Hi, Steve – I really like your blog and totally enjoyed taking the musical trip with you while reading this piece! It brought back many memories and the feelings certain singers and song titles bring up. I loved participating in the little rhythm bands in the elementary classroom, too – although I was never lucky enough to be the conductor like you were – and I’m happy to say that the experience still goes on, at least for our grandchildren here in Northfield :} I’m forwarding your site to Jim. I know he’ll be interested. Jan

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for reading my new essay, Jan. i really appreciate your taking time to do that and to post a response.

      I didn’t realize that rhythm bands still exist; that’s news to me. I would love to attend a concert by one sometime just to refresh my memory a bit. 🙂

      Steve

  7. Scott Lightle says:

    Steve – I’ve enjoyed all of your writings but “I’ve Got Rhythm” is a classic. This essay is a virtual symphony of beautifully crafted prose. It speaks to that part of us where music and experience converge. For me, it’s difficult if not impossible, to review my life’s story without the unique and personal soundtrack that’s been written for me by artists over the centuries.

    Marty and I were happy to share those “Rocky Mountain” years with you and Mary Ann and those happy times were enhanced beyond measure by the music of John Denver. Even now, when I hear those songs, I’m once again hiking high in the mountains on strong legs and pushing on to the next ridge. “The hills are alive with the sound of music”. So wrote Oscar Hammerstein and I would add so too are all the places of my life.

    Well done Steve.

    Scott

    • steverobert says:

      How well I remember how intertwined our lives were with yours and Marty’s back in those Air Force and Colorado days, Scott! And although we haven’t seen each other as often since then, that time served to form a deep bond between us that persists to today. Thanks for your kind affirmations of my new essay. It is gratifying to know that you find so much resonance in it and in your own connections to the soundtrack of your life. There will be more to explore here the next time we are together in person. 🙂

  8. Debi Potts Dandrea says:

    Hello cousin,
    as usual you have done it again,your essays always amaze me,and it is all so natural for you,when i seen the photo of the little conductor Steve i said oh how cute ,you no music has been an important part of my life as well even though i don’t plat any instarments it is like my therapy.
    I didn’t no that you played the harmonica my brother Mike also played a blues harmonica he was so very good i put it in his top pocket when we buried him.the photo of you and Sam is just priceless,he is so lucky to have such a good grandpa in you and what you can teach him and expose him to.
    so sweet talanted cousin i look forward to your next reading

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for your affirming response to my essay, Debi. I was especially touched by your story about Mike’s harmonica. I have a hunch that he and I would have connected around our mutual interest in this instrument. Thanks for sharing. Cousin Steve 🙂

  9. Michael Mallinger says:

    What a delightful and thoughtful trip down memory lane. I think our generation was possibly the first in Western culture that was defined by its music. Maybe it was similar in the renaissance era of Bach-Beethoven and later Mozart. Your assignment as “Conductor” reminds me of my assignment in our sixth grade multi-class production of “A Christmas Carol.” I was given the role of “Director.” At the time, I proudly accepted that mantle in accord, I thought, with my acute organizational abilities. However, I think it was probably more due to my lack of acting ability.

    -Mike Mallinger

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