The Speckled Piano
I was a tiny little toddler, crawling up onto the shiny round mahogany piano stool that invited me to play the piano in front of it. This was no ordinary piano.
My mom had longed for a piano, and my parents came across a studio upright that had been somewhat scorched in a fire. They bought it for next to nothing, and my dad proceeded to apply some kind of speckled paint to its exterior to cover up its fire scars. I can still see it vividly in my mind, its grayish white color with speckles of black, gray and yellow in it. It was definitely unique from that moment on!
My dad was and remains quite tone deaf. Standing next to him in church and hearing him sing in some other key that wasn’t even close to the intended version would make any kid go crawl under the church pew. Somehow I did survive.
So why am I bringing this up? Well, now that you know this tidbit about my dad, you will appreciate the interesting outcome when he and my older sister, who was probably 9 or 10 years old, set about tuning the speckled piano themselves. You might imagine that along with the speckled paint, the tuning also had its own unique character to it.
The sweet innocence of youth, though, was a tremendous blessing because it didn’t matter to me one single bit that our piano had so much interesting character and a unique tuning.
I just couldn’t get enough of playing our speckled piano, and even at that tender young age I had already found my passion in life. It would remain my steadfast, life-long passion, my base, my center, my focus, my expression throughout my entire life to this point. Let’s just say many moons have passed since then, and I was playing the piano long before I knew how to walk.
Tom Dooley, which became a major hit in 1958 and also ended up making a gigantic impact on American music, was one of the first songs I taught myself how to play by ear when I was a toddler, complete with left hand chordal accompaniment. My feet were miles off the ground as I sat on the piano stool, and I couldn’t reach the piano pedals. I was determined to make the music sound like what I heard on the radio, TV, and records.
Tom Dooley and the appearance of the speckled piano in my life would forever mark my life in some very significant, powerful and magnificent ways.
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry.
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy, you’re going to die....
Wait a minute. Is that any kind of song for a young toddler to be playing and singing? Some guy who murdered someone was being hung to die!! Well, Hansel and Gretel isn’t exactly a non-violent story, with kidnappings, etc. It’s amazing we survive our childhoods with such fairy tales of torture, poisoning, kidnapping, wicked witches, and wolves gobbling us up....and Bambi’s mother gets killed. So a hanging was actually pretty tame in comparison.
Well, two Christmases ago I was feeling nostalgic and thinking of these former times of youth, especially since my mom was close to death. (She left this earth May 1st, 1999, just a few months later.) I made a concerted effort to let her know everything that I appreciated about her, all that she had taught me and shared with me, and all the important life lessons she had passed on to me. I found a CD that included the Kingston Trio’s remastered original version of Tom Dooley, so I bought a copy of it for my mom and dad for Christmas, and an extra for myself, of course.
It wasn’t long before I also played Tom Dooley for them on the piano once again, exactly the way I’d played it as a toddler. My feet reach the pedals now, though. We laughed and cried, much like I’m doing right now as I write this story.
All these memories flooded into my head when I was reading and listening to the NPR Morning Edition’s NPR 100, a listing of what they see as the 20th century’s most important American musical works. It is a delightful collection of music through the last 100 years, complete with audio, so you can listen to the stories behind all this influential music that have become classics in Americana.
So what became of that little toddler who played Tom Dooley on the speckled piano? I became a professional musician, a mom, I run a Web site design business, and a few more hats.
And where’s the speckled piano? When I turned 12 years old I’ll never forget my dad taking me to the store to pick out a new piano. I guess he realized I was going to play the piano forever (and he was right!). The speckled piano was traded in for the new one. Later, when I was working on my master’s degree in piano performance my now ex-husband bought me a beautiful grand piano, which I love every bit as much as the speckled piano that I played as a child.
The mahogany piano stool has a special place in my living room these days, where I see it every single day and still remember how I’d crawl up on it and spin around and around when my parents weren’t watching.