Chapter 4

 

My walk down to University Place took me through friendlier streets with shorter buildings. Neighborhood trees that had outgrown their grates rustled in cleaner air under wide openings of crisp blue sky. In my recent anticipation of this moment, I had not expected jubilation. Only a week had passed since last walking into work at the bank lugging a satchel full of papers, and now, with my guitar hanging from my shoulder, being rid of a life living others’ dreams instead of mine offered a small but significant consolation of Dad’s passing.

When Nehemiah and I were young, it was a special treat for us to spend the night with Aunt Louise, Mom’s maverick younger sister in whose care many of our dreams took shape. She had a Monopoly set, a great record collection, and a Wurlitzer electronic keyboard. She lived alone in a small house in Mount Pleasant, NC, a thirty-minute drive from the old Lowder Farm, and her irreverence was like a religion to us. She despised any rule in life that started with “You can’t …” or “Don’t ever …”, particularly if it stifled creativity and open-mindedness. When she was younger, her independent streak outdistanced her from the thinking of the day, especially around the subject of a woman’s place, and she dropped out of St. Mary’s College quickly once she realized her education there was intended merely to improve her domestic skills. “The only good I got out of St. Mary’s was learning how to smoke cigarettes,” she said. She went on to become the general manager of a large hosiery mill in Concord.

We played Monopoly on her living room floor in front of the stereo console, rolling the dice and working our way slowly around the board. Aunt Louise would sway her head to the music, silently mouthing all the words as the records dropped down the record player’s spindle in succession — one side from Simon & Garfunkel, the next from Joni Mitchel, and so on with more artists, like James Brown and the Carpenters. Once the last record had finished, she eagerly flipped them over to listen to the other sides.

“Harmonies,” Aunt Louise liked to say. “I just love the harmonies. Harmonies tie it all together.”

The next morning as she would get ready, I’d sit at her small Wurlitzer to peck out melodies and make up chords, a ritual that pleased Aunt Louise but annoyed Nehemiah, who sat on the couch trying to watch TV. Occasionally, I’d hit on something pleasing and imaginative, and Aunt Louise would yell from her bathroom down the hall: “I like that, Dal!” And if it was particularly good, Nehemiah would say under his breath, “Finally.” After she’d gotten ready, Aunt Louise would sit next to me on the bench and I’d watch in amazement as she played some of the songs we had listened to the night before.

“I can’t play the piano right,” I said one morning as her fingers stretched back and forth quickly among the keys.

“Oh Dal, honey, there’s no right or wrong,” she said. “What you’re doing is as right as rain, and the more you do it, the more right it’ll be.”

I decided that on each of those mornings at Aunt Louise’s, I would teach myself to write a song — whether a little right or a lot right. Before long, I was able to string together simple verses, choruses, and an occasional bridge, emulating the structures of some of the songs from the night before. Nehemiah’s annoyance began to dwindle, and when Aunt Louise would join me on the bench, she wouldn’t play, she’d listen to what I was working on and offer encouragement.

I wrote my first real song on that Wurlitzer. It even got radio play, thanks to Aunt Louise. One morning as I sang lyrics to my newest idea, the sound of the TV stopped. I looked around to see Nehemiah staring at me from the couch and Aunt Louise standing in the doorway with her hair still in curlers.

“Don’t stop, Dal,” she said. “That’s really good.”

The following week, she picked me up from school one afternoon and took me to play my song for the manager of Mount Pleasant’s AM radio station. Before I had finished performing the song on the station’s upright piano, the manager began scrambling about, setting up microphones to record it.

“Folks have got to hear this,” he said. “This is a barrel of monkeys.”

The song was a novelty — a ten-year-old boy singing of his love-hate relationship with what we discover is his homework — but it was one the station manager knew his listening audience would call in for. And they did. People requested it for over a week. The first few times the station’s DJs played the song, the manager alerted Aunt Louise who alerted Mom who rushed me to the car so we could ride around and listen to it on the radio. For a musician, which is what Aunt Louise had started calling me, there is no greater thrill than hearing yourself for the first time on the radio.

But Mom was wary when Aunt Louise tried to encourage her to get me a piano, having grown up in a house with her sister banging on one day after day. And so my parents were quite relieved when I said I’d rather have a guitar anyway. I could learn to play that alone in my room.

I toiled for hours in the beginning every afternoon after school trying to get something musical out of the guitar. Learning to play it was a lot harder than the piano, and because discouragement came more easily, I often rode my bike into town, snuck into our church, and sat at the grand piano in the sanctuary to feel something more familiar under my calloused fingers. With the lid open, sound escaped into the nave and bounced off its hard surfaces, producing thunderous etudes out of anything I played and creating rapturous moments that reconfirmed for me the role music would always play in my life.

Another musical accomplishment came during high school chorus with my mashup of the songs “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Amazing Grace.” Their similar chord structures jumped out at me, and once I’d adjusted time signatures and worked out the arrangement, I asked our choir director if we could perform it.

“Well, that sounds crazy,” he said before adopting a more constructive tone. “I mean, look Dal, why don’t we just make it a medley?”

But he finally agreed to let the chorus rehearse my arrangement.

“We’ll see how it sounds,” he said, “but don’t be upset, now, if the other kids don’t want to perform something like this at the concert.”

I first heard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” on a bluegrass recording. “Amazing Grace” was stamped into my memory by the choir at Esther’s church, who performed it during a service I attended when I was five years old. (Attending church with Esther was another special treat.) I thought about Esther a lot and about Nehemiah and all that had happened, and I felt that the gesture of combining a blue grass hymn and a black spiritual would help me, in my own way, atone for the circumstances that had given me my brother.

The performance of the mashup got a standing ovation at the school chorus concert — which surprised our choir director, who reacted by taking a few too many bows — and the following week, WBTV in Charlotte invited us to perform it live on air on the “Carolina Camera” segment of its popular midday variety show. The show’s producer placed me on the front row so that after the performance I could easily step from the riser and stand beside the choir director as the host interviewed us.

“What a wonderful arrangement,” the host said as he walked into the frame at the end of the performance. He approached our choir director and turned him to the camera.

The host never called me forward. I watched as our choir director gushed about his music program at school and gave cringe-inducing answers about the piece we had just performed — he never mentioned my name — while all but falling apart from nerves under the hot studio lights. It became clear to me in that moment that discussion of the work is never as important as the work itself. From then on, I thought of myself less as a front person and more as a songwriter.

I struggled with my songwriting in college, obsessing over every idea, wanting each to be brilliant. I often sat on my bed with my guitar in my hands waiting for inspiration and never strumming a chord. Dad, who never took my songwriting seriously and who had only a passing interest in music, sensed my frustration once and pulled from the shelf his Everly Brothers collection, insisting it contained the finest examples of pop songs ever written. Mom, whose musical interests were broader and more sophisticated, introduced me to Bach fugues to show the importance of establishing themes, and to Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein to help me with writing lyrics. I listened to every record they owned, from Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Albert Collins to Beethoven, Max Bruch, and the Platters, and I wore out my own rock records by playing them over and over on the small stereo in my room.

After college, with my songwriting craft better honed, a local group from Charlotte agreed to record two of my songs. The former members of the Funtime Band, a 1970s one-hit wonder group who had tired of life on the road, had stopped releasing albums — none of them sold — but occasionally put out singles written by others. Because they performed only locally, and only when either the money was good or the crowd was big, they earned the nickname the Sometime Band, at which point they changed their name to the Mollies. The Mollies’ recordings of my songs earned local radio play; a station in Charlottesville, Virginia, placed one on rotation. I never saw any royalties, but I didn’t care; in spite of my entry-level job at the bank, I was officially a songwriter.

 

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