It was an upright, already second-hand when my grandparents purchased it back in the dark ages of 1930s, Depression-ridden Detroit. The piano had mahogany-coloured veneer: not even Grandfather, one of the happily employed few, could afford real mahogany, however battered and well-used.
In the 1970s, I played it moodily, if not well, teenaged angst drenching every yellowed key. Mainly in the evenings, preferably on Fridays, when a Saturday lie-in meant I could indulge my maudlin adolescent feelings, and often bizarre fingering, far into the night. In those days, that generally meant no later than 11 or 12. My night owl tendencies had not yet been awakened by a partner who thinks there should be an “ungodly hours act” which would allow people to sleep in til 11 am if they wish. Nor had shift work come along to knock my body clock skew-whiff.
Occasionally, I played “Lord Randall” or “Black is the Colour”, and sang along. This put me in good stead decades later, when I started attending Doncaster Folk Club. The singing, that is, not the playing. I’ve yet to see someone bring a piano into the “Mason’s Arms”, though I’d love to buy a glass of red, then sit back, and watch them try.
Music didn’t form nearly as big a part of my life as you might expect, considering I grew up in 60s and 70s Detroit. It took moving to S Yorks in the 80s to discover that Alice Cooper, Madonna, Iggy Pop, and more came from my home state. Even I, uncool kid that I was, couldn’t miss the local roots of Bob Seeger, and Ted Nugent, let alone such Motown greats as Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye.
Thanks to my parents’ inability to move the radio dial from WJR (“from the golden tower of the Fischer Building”), it wasn’t til my teens that I discovered other stations: WQRS, the local classical one; a jazz one whose call sign I forget; NPR, and whatever station the velvety-voiced Alan Almond, who mainly played soft rock, worked for.
Strange how songs stick with you. When I’m in my dotage, will I be singing “Downtown” in some mid-21st century, Yorkshire care home? Will the staff realise that the town I’m singing about is Detroit, and not Doncaster, let alone London? One of my earliest memories is of standing on a wooden buffet, specially placed so I could reach the sink to brush my teeth, whilst Petula belted her heart out from the depths of the small, muddy-pink radio in our kitchen.
At least those future nurses may recognise “Downtown”. What might they think if I start singing “Bone Sweet Bone”, or the “Tuna Fish” song? Lyrics: “Tuna fish, tuna fish, sing a song of tuna fish! Tuna fish, tuna fish, it’s a favourite dish. Everybody likes it so, from New York to Kokomo. Tuna fish, tuna fish, it’s a favourite dish.”
The piano links my mother, brother, sister, and me as do the “John Thompson” music books, which contained such greats as “Bone Sweet Bone” and “Tuna Fish”, not to mention the “ice cream cone” song. Lyrics: “I would like an ice cream cone” (right hand, aka treble clef), “I would like an ice cream cone” (left hand, aka bass clef), “I would like an ice cream cone” (right hand again), “Right away…” (treble and bass together). All four of us learned on that piano, and from those books.
My father gave the piano away when he moved Mom and himself to someplace where Mom could get better care. She died within the year, the day he told her he’d sold the house.
In the kitchen of my memory, Mom is singing a hymn. Listen, do you hear her? She’s washing up after dinner, having finished her coffee, and the funny papers and sports section of the “News”.
Must stop now. There’s something in my eye.