Music could always be heard in our house when I was growing up. My father, who played piano by ear, was the only musician—everyone else sung, most of the time in tune. I remember curling up on the couch with a blanket and listening to him playing. To my young ears, it all sounded magical and haunting. In retrospect, I believe it must have been tuneful; otherwise, it would have grated on the ear of even a four year old. By the time I was perhaps 5 or 6, the piano was gone, possibly to make room for other furniture? I didn’t know. Nor did I think to ask my father how he learned to play the piano by ear and who had inspired and mentored him.
In the late 1940s, we had a radio in the house which saw a lot of use. From the early morning news to a late-night show called “Book at Bedtime,” our radio was on. We listened to record request programs to radio sitcoms, broadcast dramas, and soaps; we listened a lot. It was on the radio show “Children’s’ Choice,” or similar that I first heard Vernon Dalhart singing “The Runaway Train,” an immediate hit with me. I would listen every week in the hope someone would have requested “Runaway Train,” and usually, the show’s host did not disappoint.
My Mother was very taken with ballads from around 1900 to the late 1930s. She would sing on her own or along with the radio when everyone except me was at work or school. My brothers became jazz fans in the late 1940s when they started buying 78 rpm records. Around that time, I inherited a Columbia brand windup gramophone and maybe a dozen 78 rpm records. The records must have at one time belonged to my brothers. Perhaps they had grown tired of these particular ones and gifted them to me? I don’t know. All I do know is I ended up with them.
One, in particular, made a big impression on a pre-school music aficionado. It was “The Old Music Master” by Hoagy Carmichael. I saw myself as “the little colored boy” who stepped “right out of nowhere” to say, “you gotta jump it, Music Master, you gotta play that rhythm faster.” Until I saw the written lyrics years later, I always thought Hoagy sung “little curly boy.”
The B side of the record was Hoagy singing “Hong Kong Blues,” a song with a haunting, oriental themed melody, overtly about opium addiction. I liked this song almost as much as “Music Master.” No adults or near adults in the house ever said anything about the opioid connections, so I must assume they didn’t know. It took several years for the meaning of the lyrics to click with me. I had guessed someone was jailed in Hong Kong for “kicking old Budah’s gong.” Well before I reached my teens, I had strong suspicions there was a little more to “kicking old Budah’s gong” than just “kicking old Budah’s gong.” And “sweet opium won’t let me fly away,” was a dead giveaway, even to a six or seven-year-old.
I loved the gramophone because I didn’t have to listen to the radio and wait, hoping someone had requested the song I wanted to hear. With the gramophone, I could play the same record over and over again to my heart’s content. That is until my Mother either pleaded or sometimes ordered me to either stop or play something different. Of the dozen or so records in my somewhat eclectic, pre-school 78 rpm record collection, a few others remain in my memory. Albert Ammons “Boogie Woogie Stomp,” Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” and trumpeter/band-leader, Harry James, playing Rimski Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”