I started piano lessons at the age of seven. That would be a lot more impressive had I been practicing steadily since then, which, sadly, I have not. My grandmother bought our family a spinet piano in the early 1960s. Years later I came across the old installment loan papers in the bench, revealing that Grandma had paid the princely sum of $1300 for the piano at a time when the average annual family income was all of $6,691. Ever since, I have felt the slow but steady amortization of a guilty conscience goading me to make good on her investment.
My mother worked two jobs to afford me, among many advantages I scarcely appreciated at the time, lessons in music theory and piano at the preparatory school of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. I suppose they should have seen trouble coming when my audition piece was an improvised boogie woogie. A few years later my professor politely asked me not to return for repeated failure to practice the classics. More’s the pity. As a consequence I never got to be really good. Although I have always flattered myself that if I had only practiced I might have become an accomplished pianist, now that I have been practicing like a madman in my old age I think the jury is finally in: It’s very well I became a lawyer and not a musician. But I still suffer the curse of people who played just enough piano as children to realize how enjoyable it could be. Such folk are doomed to buy grand pianos to furnish their living rooms and their grandiose delusions that “one day” they will “get back to it.” I have at long last done just that, and the result—warts and all–are the piano recordings made in London that you find here.
Now, to practice . . .
Canon in D
This beloved piece was written of course by Johann Pachelbel (Germany, 1653-1706). This lovely arrangement for piano was written by Michael Silverman. I learned this piece during the COVID-19 lockdown in London and made this recording on 1 June 2020. It is dedicated to my son Kip whose 30th birthday arrives this month.
This beautiful, silken waltz was written in 1904 by the ragtime impressario Scott Joplin. Desperate for money, he sold it to a publisher for $10 when he could find no other buyers, only to die a few years later in obscurity and bankruptcy. Joplin would never know the worldwide acclaim that came to him and his music in the 1970s after several of his songs were used to score the movie The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. More than a century later, in 2008, Bethena would become the sountrack for the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchet that would gross nearly $400 million worldwide. The movie is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, another artist of enormous genius who, like Joplin, was often down on his luck. Jill and I watched the movie one night during the COVID-19 lockdown in London. Like the protagonist in the story, in my old age I find myself striving to make the most of what’s left of my life and refusing to be beaten by Father Time as the years race onward. Haunted afterward by this melody and unable to sleep, I went downstairs, found the sheet music, and began to learn it. It now becomes another addition to the Lockdown Album, recorded on 2 June 2020.
This classic by Franz Lizst, which I consider to be the most beautiful piece of music ever written for piano, is performed here as Lizst might have imagined it if he had written it to be played by a chimpanzee. A good many notes are missing and others are in the wrong places, but the chimpanzee wants you to know this is a damn difficult piece and he did the best he could. If only he had spent more time practicing as a young chimp instead of getting into all that other monkey business, he might be a lot further along in his music than he is today, but that’s life.
Cast Your Fate to the Wind, Charlie Brown
Apart from Scott Joplin, American jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi was perhaps the biggest influence on my musical style. (Oscar Peterson was another, but his playing was so far up in the heavenly realms that I had not a prayer of ever reaching such heights on my own.) Guaraldi was both cool and accessible. As the musicians who gave sound and rythym to the antics of Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” characters in the animated TV specials that aired every Christmas and Halloween, the Vince Guaraldi Trio had a signature sound that was instantly recognizable to Americans everywhere. This recording is an improvisation melding two of Guaraldi’s most beloved compositions: the pop chart hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Linus and Lucy” from the Charlie Brown TV series. The latter tune was a favourite of the children in my family. We would play a game in which I banged out this song on the piano while the kids danced in the living room until I abruptly stopped. Anyone caught still dancing after the music ended was caught “out” and had to sit down until the last child standing was declared the winner. Those were the days, my friend . . . Recorded in London on 5 June 2020.
Babes in Toyland
This was my mother’s favorite song and the one she constantly begged me to play. To my great regret I never bothered to learn it until years after her death. So, Mom, if you’re listening, here it is at last and better late than never, I hope. Thanks for the piano lessons, your love and kindness and concern, and a great much else besides. Recorded in London in November 2019.
You’ve Got A Friend in Me
My son Kip was five and my daughter Caroline was nearly four when the movie Toy Story came out, featuring this iconic Randy Newman tune. One of the great gifts of fatherhood was the permission it gave me to be silly and relive with my children my own childhood. I certainly hope they know they will always have a friend in me. Recorded in London in November 2019.
Theme from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
This song played at the start of every episode of the famous TV series that aired in the US from 1968 to 2001. In testament to the worldwide popularity of Mr. Rogers and his message, when I played my interpretation of this iconic tune in my London living room in November 2019, a 22-year old British woman who is probably too young to have ever watched the program when it aired recogized the music and recalled the name of the show instantly.
This is my interpretation of the signature tune composed and made famous by one of my earliest musical idols, Fats Waller. Recorded in London in October 2019.
Our Love is Here to Stay
The immortal tune was the last one written by George Gershwin before his death in 1937. The version I have here improvised was recorded in one take at home in London on January 8, 2019.
As Time Goes By
The song, written in 1931 by Herman Hupfield, was made famous by the pianist played by Dooley Wilson in the film, Casablanca, and immortalized by Ingrid Bergman’s line, “Play it again, Sam.” It has been a staple of my cocktail repertoire since I was about fourteen years old. I learned it from a family friend who, like so many others back then, learned it after the film came out in theaters. Casablanca was reportedly John F. Kennedy’s favourite movie. According to Wikipedia, As Time Goes By is second on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 songs in American Cinema, exceeded only by Over the Rainbow. Recorded at home in London in November 2019.
This song, written in 1954 by Erroll Garner, was one of several jazz standards I learned in the early seventies. Most of the others I have forgotten, and this one I have forgotten and relearned several times over the years. It was one of two standards I could still play reasonably well by heart when I met my wife Jill, in December 2015. Friends had invited us that year to their home for a New Year’s Eve party. When I sat down to their grand piano, one of the guests half-jokingly shouted the famous line, “Play Misty for me,” and I did just that. Lucky for me, I remembered it well enough to fumble it out and stop before anyone asked me to play anything else. Recorded at home in London in November 2019.
Saturday Afternoon Jazz
This is just a little trifle I improvised on a Saturday afternoon at home in London (6 June 2020 to be exact) whilst Jill was out grocery shopping, we’d had a walk in Greenwich Park, and the fruit on the trees was just starting to ripen in time for the birds and squirrels to eat them all. Perhaps we’ll save enough to remind ourselves that life, like this little song, really can be just a bowl of cherries.
Hurry Up Boogie
When I was in third grade, I discovered that my teacher would let me skip class if I pushed a spinet piano on wheels through the halls my primary school and played boogie woogie for the other classes of children. My piano career rolled mostly downhill from there, but in this short improvisation I have tried to recreate those glory days. Recorded at home in London on 6 June 2020.
There is something magical and otherworldly about this ethereal classic by Franz Schubert, albeit brought firmly down to earth by my rather terrestrial playing. Still, it is saved from a harsher landing by the wonderful, round softness of the Bosendorfer concert grand. Recorded at home in London in February 2020.
Ihave a far better excuse for my guitar playing, which I didn’t take up until after I was 40, than my piano playing. My first wife Julie gave me a classical guitar for my birthday that year—one of the many serendipitous gifts of our relationship. I was immediately enthralled with the warm sounds but confounded by the difficulty of the instrument. Still, I perservered long enough to pluck out the memories I have stored here. They are, to be sure, of little musical merit. It’s all too obvious I can’t really play or sing. But I have placed them here in the vain hope that my children might one day listen to them, perhaps after I’m gone, and remember that for a time they lived in a magical world where a silly man who loved them sat with a guitar at the edge of their beds, singing them to sleep.
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
If like me you are a Baby Boomer who grew up in America, you were likely weaned on television shows like Gunsmoke, Daniel Boone, The Rifleman, and Bonanza. The cowboy is an American ideal and was the model for millions of young children. My own children were born in Texas, the original home of the lonesome cowboy whose favourite son, Willie Nelson, wrote this iconic tune. It was Caroline’s bedtime favourite. Recorded in Raleigh in 2003.
The Big Rock Candy Mountains
This was another bedtime favourite of my daughter Caroline. She and I recorded this together in 2003, when she was about 12, on a four-track tape recorder in our den. We discovered this time-honored folk tune after it appeared on the soundtrack of the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” in the year 2000. I changed the words a bit to make it more appropriate as a bedtime lulabye for a child. That’s why you hear us singing about “little streams of Yoo-hoo” (an iconic southern chocolate drink) instead of alcohol and lakes of Mountain Dew (an American lemon-lime soft drink) instead of whiskey. I couldn’t think of a suitable replacement for “cigarette trees,” however, so that stayed.
The Ballad of Kip Hurley
Between 1995 and 2003, when I was writing and publishing “Hurley’s Journal,” my son Kip was my constant companion on canoe trips all over North America along with, to a lesser but just as welcome extent, his younger sister Caroline. This ballad is an ode I wrote to my plucky son when he was about 11 or 12. I managed to mortify him by sharing it with all his friends’ parents. He has forgiven me since then and I hope will cherish this memory of his younger self and a wonderful boyhood spent in the woods. This was recorded in Raleigh, I’m guessing, in about 2001.
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys
My daughter Caroline and I had a fair repertorie of Wille Nelson cowboy songs, and this was one of her favourites. We recorded this duet I would guess when Caroline was about ten years old, in 2001, in Raleigh. Years later, I find myself haunted by the words, “He’ll never stay home and he’s always alone, even with someone he loves.” That perhaps would be a fitting epitaph for my failure in marriage. But Caroline will learn in time that life is often messy and imperfect, and so are people. She stopped speaking to me six years ago, in 2014. This remains a source of deep sadness but not bitterness, for me. I write this here because I have no other way to reach my daughter—and because life is short. I can only hope that these words and the memory of this old song will bring more understanding than judgment, in time.
A Smile and a Tear
This sweet and mournful tune was written by Nashville songwriter Jerry Vandiver. I met Jerry, who is a canoeing enthusiast in addition to a talented musician, at a book signing in Nashville for “Letters from the Woods” in 2004. He and his wife later came sailing with me in North Carolina. Jerry taught me this song whilst we were anchored in the harbor at Oriental. He also told me this joke: “How do you get a Nashville songwriter off your porch? You pay him for the pizza.” Recorded in Raleigh in 2006.
Puff the Magic Dragon
This timeless hit from the sixties by Peter Paul & Mary was the perfect foil for a duet with Caroline and another perennial favourite of the bedtime songbook. Recorded in Raleigh in 2001, when Caroline was about nine years old.
The Garden Song
This wonderful song, made famous by Pete Seeger and beloved by children everywhere, also happens to be a favourite of my sister Sherry. It is offered here in thanks to her for all the Eskimo kisses, all the love and attention, all the kindness and understanding, without which I could not have carried a tune of my own or much of anything else in this life.
My wife Jill, who is British, taught me that’s extremely poor form for an American to try to put on an Irish accent, much less sing one. I recorded this Irish folk song, sadly, before I learned that valuable lesson. Thankfully my children were none the wiser after hearing it for years at bedtime. It was one of their favourites. I have a memory of singing this song to a living-room floor full of fifth-grade girls who had come to our house for a sleepover on Caroline’s birthday, one year.
This Old Man (Loves Caroline)
I wrote and recorded this adaptation of the famous paddywack nursery rhyme for Caroline’s tenth birthday. She’s now 28 with children of her own, but for me the words are as true today as they were then.