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Friday, June 13, 2008

For Father's Day...

One of my favorite things to do is to listen to a song over and over and write down all the chords so my dad can play along on his banjo. Like writing novels, I’d love to this anyway, but I love it so much more knowing someone else will enjoy it too.

And I want to give back to my dad, who gave me my love of music in the first place. His dad, who passed away Memorial Day weekend at the age of 98, played trumpet in his high school band, led the George Washington University Glee Club to a first-place finish in a contest at Carnegie Hall in 1930 or so, and worked as a church organist until he was 95. My dad grew up just as immersed in music. He played trumpet in the high school band too. In college he played guitar in a folk quartet that recorded a few radio commercials here in Birmingham. And when he went to medical school, he taught himself to play the banjo. Now that he’s retired as a doctor, he wishes he’d worked as a musician all along.

But there is no accounting for taste. I was a music major in college, and ever since he’s been bringing me songs and asking me to figure out the chords. Then he blasts the chosen song on his stereo (seriously, you can’t stay in the same room with him when he does this, it’s that loud) and follows along with my notations until he has the banjo chords memorized. The chosen song could be absolutely anything. I’ve figured out the chords to bluegrass and country songs--as you might guess because he’s a banjo player--but also rock songs and classical tunes, anything he decides is worthy. Probably the song he’s blasted loudest and most often over the years is the Whitney Houston version of “I Will Always Love You,” and now I can’t hear that song on the radio without banjo notes echoing in my head.

Unfortunately he’s developed an elbow problem recently. He is banned from playing the banjo for a few months until his arm heals. But he hasn’t stopped his search for worthy songs. He can’t play along with them, but he still wants to blast them on the stereo. A few weekends ago when I visited, he told me he’d heard the most gorgeous song by what had to be the best singer ever, and he sang a few bars for me.

Me: “Uh, Dad. That’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ by Bette Midler.”

Dad: “Yeah! Can you--how do you say it--get it off the computer for me? Do you know how to do that?”

So I downloaded “Wind Beneath My Wings,” threw in “The Rose” for good measure, and burned them to a CD for him. He was elated. Later in the week my mom called and said my dad wanted me to download “The Navy Hymn” for him. When she told him she wasn’t sure I could download something like that, my dad told her, “Jennifer can do anything.”

I went through the versions of “The Navy Hymn” on iTunes to pick the one I thought he’d like best. I played, “Oh hear us when we lift our prayer/For those in peril in the air,” over and over, until I swear I could hear the Blue Angels flying in the missing man formation over my house. Finally I settled on an instrumental version by the Marine Corps Band with a kick-ass low brass arrangement (I have been in marching band myself, so I am allowed to say things like “kick-ass low brass arrangement”) and took my dad the new CD. He was beside himself with joy. He cranked up the stereo. The windows of his house rattled for about an hour. Finally my mom and I went in to check on him. He was lying on the sofa in the living room, letting the chords wash over him. When he saw us, he yelled over the music to us:



Later he wanted more versions of “The Navy Hymn,” so I showed him how to use iTunes and burn CDs. I haven’t checked on him since last weekend. God knows what he’s downloaded, but I hope his elbow feels better soon so I can write out the banjo chords for him.

What do you enjoy doing with your dad?


Kelly Parra said...

Wonderful post, Jenn!

My father was a jokester and I basically just used to laugh and witness his crazy antics. :)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

I love the stories of your musical family, Jenn. That was an absolutely amazing post and I'd love to meet your dad.

My dad and I, we aren't all that close unfortunately, but I think my favorite activity with him will always be going to a baseball game.

Danielle Joseph said...

Jenn, I am so jealous that your dad can play the banjo! He sounds really cool. Umm...I remember my dad taking me to the movie Jimmy the Kid (starring Gary Coleman) and snoring halfway through the movie. I guess, I can't blame him!