I took saxophone lessons in grade school. At the slightest provocation, I’d perform for family and friends. It was a character-building experience. Perhaps not so much for me, but certainly for the adults feigning interest in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. It’s a pleasant instrumental piece I learned to play well enough for people to recognize by its more popular adaptation, Stranger in Paradise from the musical Kismet.
I taught myself to play guitar. Like many boys my age, I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star. My first acoustic guitar had twelve strings which, if nothing else, made it twice as difficult to keep tuned. Fortunately, it made a very sweet sound on those occasions when it was in tune. I practiced on it more often than on the sax. Recognizing their son was not destined to become the next Boots Randolph, my folks traded in the sax for a piano. I got to keep the guitar.
My parents wanted to visit Boston one summer. They’d received an invitation from some old friends with whom they once socialized in our hometown. The friends had moved to the northeast in search of greener pastures. My parents took them up on the invitation and didn’t think twice about piling themselves and four kids into a big old Pontiac sedan to drive there. Surprisingly, they allowed me to bring along my guitar. Cars were larger then.
The friends had two kids of their own, a girl two years my junior and a boy the same age as my younger sister. I confess to having had a crush on the girl that began before she moved away. Bringing along my guitar was partly a ploy to woo her despite already having a girlfriend back home.
We arrived on a warm summer day and made ourselves at home thanks to the gracious hospitality of our hosts. We might have resembled the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation. One rainy evening, while sitting around with little to do, I was included in a conversation with the adults that somehow wound up on the subject of folk music. Someone asked me to play a song. Perhaps they expected 500 Miles or Lemon Tree. I probably should have selected something other than the one I played. Instead, I performed Lay Down Your Weary Tune by Bob Dylan. I played and sang all the verses, very dirge-like, each preceded by the chorus, “Lay down your weary tune, lay down. Lay down the song you strum. And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings, no voice can hope to hum.” I was not asked to play another song for the adults. I did, however, manage to play a Beatles song privately for their daughter after she proudly showed me her new Rubber Soul album. That was the last time I ever saw her.
A couple years later in college, I brought the old twelve-string to a girlfriend’s home for a weekend. One morning her father invited me to the local country club to complete a foursome for a round of golf. I tried to beg off, claiming I didn’t golf and had no clubs with me. I jokingly offered to bring a guitar instead. He thought that was brilliant and the next thing I knew, my guitar and I were tooling around on a golf cart. It was about the same time I was entering my “protest years.” Naturally, I played a couple of Dylan songs for them. One in particular was The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. It’s s serious song with many verses of depressing lyrics. Not your typical upbeat entertainment for a golf outing.. Later that evening, while gathered in the family room watching TV, her dad tried to poison me by repeatedly pouring Scotch whiskey into my often half-full glass.
Today, if I were forced to choose between drinking Scotch or singing Lemon Tree, I’d happily choose the latter. I learned a lesson about trying to entertain adults back then. If truth be told, I’m still learning.
Lay Down Your Weary Tune by Bob Dylan, covered by the Byrds. (It’s still among my favorites.)