Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Memorizing ... Realizing ... continued

I started a post the other day about memorizing poems by Emily Dickinson, and the next thing I knew (digressive little fellow that I am), I found myself writing about my experiences with Miss Emily in high school (don't think I had any--or, at least, I don't remember any) and in English 101, Freshman English, at Hiram College in the summer of 1962.

A day or so later, I remembered another experience I'd had with her my senior year at Hiram College. My roommate, Charlie Rodgers, and I, caught up in the folk singing craze of the era, began singing together. He had a very nice lead tenor voice; I could stay on pitch--most of the time. I'd also acquired a guitar and was painfully teaching myself how to play some chords. I say "painfully" for more than one reason: Obviously, the sounds emanating from that guitar--at least initially--were painful to listen to, but, as beginning guitar players know, it soon hurts to hold the strings down to the relevant frets--at least until your fingers develop some callouses, acquired only after much practice and a bit of suffering.

I had an acoustic classical guitar acquired from Sears (looked like the web image above)--the nylon top strings were easier on my fingers than steel--and pretty soon, after lots of listening and screwing up--I could move quickly through the standard chords of folk songs--in several keys; I could even do a little finger-picking--the "Travis pick" was the one I favored. (Here's a link to a YouTube video that shows you how to do it! Oh, where were you, YouTube, when I really needed you!?!)

Anyway, Charlie and I began by doing covers of other popular folk songs by Dylan; the Brothers Four; the Kingston Trio; the Limeliters; Peter, Paul, & Mary; et al. In our repertoire: "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," "Greenback Dollar" (always our opening number), "I'm Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor" (really), "San Francisco Bay Blues." Somewhere I have a recording of us doing all of them; I hope I can't find it.

But Charlie thought we had a better shot at the Big Time if we had some of our own material, too. He asked me, doughty English major that I was, if I knew any poems we could set to music. I did. We had recently read Emily Dickinson's "If You Were Coming in the Fall" in Dr. Ravitz's class, and I thought that would be a great one to sing. (I'm blaming you for what ensued, Prof. Ravitz!)

Our method of composition was for me to play standard chords while Charlie tried to figure out a tune. He eventually did--it was fairly lugubrious, but singable--and soon we were performing the piece at various Hiram venues--there was a Hootenanny out at Sugar Camp one time (a maple-sugar barn out in the nearby woods), and the Hub (the local coffee shop/soda fountain) had a "Folk Night" now and then where we groaned and moaned to my sick Travis picking.

Later, I acquired a Guild 12-string (my fingertips were really tough now!), and that (very expensive) guitar added a bit of cachet, if not music, to our sound. Soon, though, we graduated (1966). He headed out to grad school at the University of Wyoming, eventually earning a Ph.D. in psychology (presumably learning along the way about our craving for the Big Time); he still lives in Wyo.  I started teaching in Aurora, and we saw each other only rarely after that. The most recent time was on June 17, 2011, at our 45th class reunion at Hiram. I didn't go to the reunion festivities, but we met for dinner at the nearby Welshfield Inn and had a great time. And you can bet we talked about our singing--and we even launched into "Greenback Dollar" out on the Welshfield Inn porch (no, I hadn't been drinking). I didn't see any approaching Welshfield customers turn around and go home--but I wouldn't have blamed them.

I wrote here much earlier (February 2012) about how Charlie and I nearly made an appearance on a TV show, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, in the fall of 1966 (link to that earlier post). But that came to naught. Later, I played occasionally for my students--sometimes even accompanying them in some of the shows I staged at Harmon Middle School--but my callouses had disappeared (playing hurt!), and there were far better musicians at school (real ones) who helped me out, so the 12-string went into my closet, where it now leans like a derelict against a wall, waiting to be sold or played by a descendant.

Here are the words to the Dickinson poem we used for our song ...

If you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,
I’d count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, til my fingers dropped
Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—
That yours and mine, should be
I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—
That will not state—its sting.

TO BE CONTINUED ... I promise I will get to the memorizing thing next time!

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