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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

88. A life long passion for Music

I’ve always loved music. Even when I was a little kid. Mrs Coventry lived next to us, her house separated from ours by a brick wall. She remarked to my mum that I was a very happy little boy; told mum how much she enjoyed hearing me sing when I was in the bathroom.
Mrs Coventry even offered to teach me to play the piano. But I was only eight years old, and I found the keyboard intimidating, and her instruction incomprehensible, so I gave up after one lesson. But I still loved to sing.

Get out of here with that BOOM BOOM BOOM
Before I call a cop

I’m looking over a four leafed clover
That I overlooked before

Besides, I wanted to learn guitar. Now THAT was a popular instrument. Every morning I’d listen to hillbilly music on the wireless: Smokey Dawson’s song, Riding, and Careless Love:
Love, oh love oh careless love.

As a young child – maybe 7 or 8 - I’d often wake in the morning to the sound of my father coughing up phlegm into the gulley trap - a result of his life long addiction to roll-your-owns - just outside my bedroom window, and to the strains of Old Shep on the wireless:

Just a boy and his dog
We were both full of fun
We grew up together that way.

I listened to the sad story of Old Shep being put down:

Old Sheppy, he knew he was going to go
For he reached out and liked at my hand
He looked up at me just as much as to say
We’re parting and I understand.

Now Old Shep has gone where all good doggies go
And no more with Old Shep will I roam
But if dogs have a Heaven, there’s one thing I know
Old Shep has a wonderful home.

Is it any wonder that my mornings were often tearful!

I wanted to learn guitar, but my parents could neither afford the instrument nor the lessons. Instead they enrolled me in the Victorian Banjo Club, and bought me a banjo mandolin. From that year of lessons, all I can recall is playing Lady of Spain at a huge concert at the Melbourne Town Hall:

Plunk plunk plunk plunk plunk plunk plunk-plunk

We played note-by-note. I didn’t enjoy it.

I had one more attempt to learn to play guitar. I was teaching English at Glenroy Tech, and asked the Music teacher, Ron Veal, if he could teach me to play. In was 1969; I was 26 and just married. Ron came around to the flat. He explained that I’d need to understand some basic theory. He began with chords, major and minor chords, moved on to fifths and sevenths and ninths. Ron was a lovely bloke, and he tried his best. But I couldn’t take it in. My eyes had glazed over in the first 10 minutes, and his explanation went for over an hour. Then he had me practice the notes, working my way down the strings. I gave up after one lesson.

In 1973 I was working in the Curriculum Branch of the Education Department, as a Technical School English consultant. In those days, all primary teachers were expected to teach Music, and to play a musical instrument. At Teachers’ College, they had the choice between the recorder, the melodica (a sort of wind-version of a piano accordion) and guitar. The Education Department also provided after school classes – at the Curriculum Branch.

Mike Hammerston, Graham Scott and I made enquiries. Yes, we could sit in, as long as we brought along our own guitars. I bit the bullet, and went out and bought a Yamaha G80. We rolled up to our first lesson. There were two or three teachers and maybe 80 learners.

‘By the time we’ve finished today, you’ll be able to tune your guitar, and you’ll be able to play a couple of songs,’ the teacher explained.

They taught us how to tune our guitars, and by the end of the session we’d not only learned two chords, but we’d been given song sheets that we could practice on: Cockles and Mussels, Skip to my Lou, lots of others.

Now THIS was the kind of teaching that I could respond to: hands on, sing along, straight-into-what-it’s-really-about teaching.

‘You need to practice at least 20 minutes every day,’ our instructor told us. I practiced for an hour, sometimes two. The next week, we learned a third chord.
‘You can now play about half the folk songs and half the popular songs ever written,’ our mentor told us.

He gave us more sheets, more songs we knew. I think I attended three lessons. The rest I learned through practice, and through trial and error. I bought songbooks, discovered that they had dozens of chords that I simply couldn’t play. I knew D-G-A7. These book had chords like F, Bb, Gb, Ab, B7 … Then I discovered the magic of transposition: that if the book said the chords were F, Bb and C7, you could transpose them – that is, change them into the equivalent chords that you COULD play. Thus F - Bb - C7 meant the same as D – G – A7. The difference was, I could play D – G – A7!

With three chords, the sky was the limit. All manner of songs became possible: Me and Bobby Magee (my favourite song at the time), Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire, Happy Birthday … dozens – no, hundreds – no, thousands (!) of songs could now be added to my repertoire.

Not only that, I could slowly expand my command of chords. Em, Am, Dm and the like joined the basic chord progression D – G – A7. And I added some of the harder chords: C and F and B7. When you’re learning guitar, one of the hard things is being able to make smooth transition from one chord to the next.

Tom Dooley is a very simple song; it’s just two chords (D and A7). You have to play 12 Ds – that is, 12 strums on the D chord - followed by 16 A7s, and ending with 4 Ds. Once your fingers are in place, both D and A7 are easy to play. Once your fingers are in place!
When I first sang the song, accompanying myself on my Yamaha G80, it went:

Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and ……(chord change)……………………………cry
Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Poor boy you’re bound to …………(chord change)…………………. die.

How do you get to sing it in the same rhythm throughout, and without the long pauses to reposition your fingers?
Practice. It’s the only way. Consolidate the neural pathways through repetition. Practice till it becomes second nature.

I bought lots of song books, particularly collections of folk songs: Australian, American, English folk songs. During the late 60s – early 70s there was a resurgence of interest in folk songs. In America, groups like The Weavers – Pete Seeger was a member - and Peter, Paul and Mary were giving the traditional songs new popularity. In Ireland, Tommy Maken and the Clancy Brothers, and later, The Furies were reviving the Irish tradition. In Australia groups like The Bushwhackers and The Cobbers were riding a wave of interest in Australian and Irish folk music.

I learned to play guitar over 30 years – in 1973. My love of music and of singing haven’t diminished. Quite the opposite. I began writing songs in the late 1970s. These days I write one or two songs a week, on average. But that’s another story.

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