Once upon a time there was little girl who was enchanted by the piano. She ran out and danced around when she heard her mother playing. She wanted to do that, too.
Her grandpa would sit down without a lick of sheet music and thump out old songs with an oom-pah beat. She wanted to do that, too.
Her mother stopped playing, she never knew why, but she passed on her old how-to-play books and showed her Middle C. A piano player was born.
Sixty-four years later, I am sorting boxes and crates full of sheet music, mine and my mother’s. I have the books and sheets I bought at Campi’s music store in the old Valley Fair shopping Center in Santa Clara, California back when you could get a single song for 99 cents. The best thing in the world was to buy a stack of new songs or a book full of the hits of the day and hurry home to sing and play them, each page turn a new wonder.
I’ve got titles like “World’s Great Hits of the Seventies” and “All-Time Hit-Paraders, music from Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Doors, Barry Manilow, “The Best of Broadway,” “Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” and stacks of country, folk, and church music.
I inherited my mother’s music, which had been stored in a closet for years. As a teenager, she used to go to the music store once a week to pick up the featured song. Her collection, mostly from the 1940s, includes songs by folks like Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Judy Garland. There’s a heavy classical book, a volume of Shirmer exercises, and the beat-up beginner’s book from which I taught myself with one-finger ditties that gradually built up to full songs.
I have always said my family was not musical, but all this music proves that’s not true. I know my father played the saxophone in a traveling youth orchestra as a kid. He also played a little harmonica. From Dad, I inherited an orange-covered cowboy book with songs from the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and a thick falling-apart book that truly has all the songs someone would have wanted to sing around 1940.
I own a ridiculous quantity of sheet music. I have stacks of music for guitar, mandolin, ukulele, recorder, harmonica and flute, but the piano is the magnet that draws me when I’m supposed to be working or sleeping or when I have a few minutes before the kettle boils. Sorting the music takes forever because I want to play each song. It’s like those old days with the slim paper bags from Valley Fair with magic inside.
Today, sheet music stores are rare; everyone downloads their music. It’s not half as fun as opening a box and finding musty sheet music with big pictures on the front and copyright dates in Roman numerals. Many of my music books and sheets are signed. Mom’s say Elaine Avina and list the date, mostly in the 1940s.
I don’t know why she stopped playing for us. Was she too self-conscious? Too busy? When we were at school, did she sneak in a few tunes between baking cookies, washing clothes and watching her soap operas?
My father told tales of his family gathering around a piano at his uncle’s house, everyone pulling out an instrument to play for hours. People played music for fun in those days before World War II. Now we’re too busy staring at screens.
Why keep all this old sheet music? Because songs have no expiration date. Styles change, but a good song is a good song, whether it was made famous by Rosemary Clooney, Janis Joplin, or Beyoncé.
My throat was raw yesterday from singing “Shambala” over and over, looking for a good key that is neither too high nor too low. I settled on Bb. Never heard of “Shambala?” Have a listen to Three Dog Night singing it on YouTube. Wow, look at those outfits, that hair, the primitive sound equipment. But it’s still a catchy tune. Makes you want to sing along, doesn’t it?
What is Shambala? It’s a mythical paradise where everything is beautiful.
It’s not just music; it’s memories.
Happy Mother’s Day, and happy 74th wedding anniversary, Mom. I’m still playing.