Everybody's life has a soundtrack, including mine. It all started
back in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario.
Chatham was once a terminal on the Underground Railroad, so there
were a number of negro folks around there, and also in Dresden and
Kent County. Back in the 50's when I was coming into my teen years
there was an unspoken kind of segregation going on. There was a black
restaurant and a white restaurant. No signs were put up but everybody
knew. White, middle-class kids went to one restaurant and black kids,
rebels and working class kids went to the other.
The music we were exposed to at home as children was primarily classical
and mainstream stuff. My mother had trained in opera singing and piano.
My dad loved classical music and opera and was a self-taught pianist.
His signature piano piece was Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring"
In his younger days my father had worked in sales at the Heintzman
piano factory in Toronto, and that's where he taught himself to play
piano by ear. When Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist, was in
town he was hired to play at her Revival Meeting. His specialty (and
hers) was Almost Persuaded which was used to lure the shy up to the front
so they could be publicly saved.
Almost persuaded now to believe;
Almost persuaded Christ to receive;
Seems now some soul to say,
Go, Spirit, go Thy way,
Some more convenient day
On Thee Ill call.
Almost persuaded, come, come today;
Almost persuaded, turn not away;
Jesus invites you here,
Angels are lingring near,
Prayers rise from hearts so dear;
O wandrer, come!
Almost persuaded, harvest is past!
Almost persuaded, doom comes at last!
Almost cannot avail;
Almost is but to fail!
Sad, sad, that bitter wail
Almost, but lost!
At night, in Chatham, when the AM radio signal was better, you could
hear the black radio station signal from Detroit, Michigan - some
50 miles away. That sound would come trolling down into southern Ontario
and it was very, very different. I stuck with it, learned to understand
it a little. I even began to imitate it.
This was several years before Elvis hit the airwaves and popular
music of the time was very, very white - with some notable exceptions
like Nat King Cole. Little Willie John singing All Around the World
over the AM radio waves coming from Detroit, late at night defines
this whole musical period for me.
I went to the library a lot. My first job was working as a page in
the school library in Grade 6. Then, I went on to work in the same
capacity at the main Public Library downtown.
I started to get out books on folk music. I brought them home and
my mother would play them for us on the piano and I'd learn the tunes.
I plucked some of the easy ones out on my ukulele. They were, as I
say, folk tunes which were the best tunes for me because they had
3 chords, if you really stretched it there might be 4 or even 5 chords
for the fancier numbers. But mostly it was 3 chords and Chunka, Chunka,
Chunka and away you go. Maybe that's why the bit of guitar I do play
now is mostly rhythm guitar :-)
When I got to live on New York City's Lower East Side folk, gospel
music and the blues helped to sustain me through some difficult times.