Whenever I drive along the streets of my home town and pass by the sturdy, two-story clapboard house on 13th Street where my dad was born, I smile to myself and call to mind his stories of what life was like when he was young. A bona fide son of the swing era, Dad’s youth was saturated with that jumping, big band beat. Jazz and jive flooded the airwaves, and Dad grew up loving it. In 1940, when Dad was fifteen and a sophomore in high school, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw topped the charts. In a fit of youthful exuberance, Dad wrote a catchy, boogie-woogie piano tune of his own and dubbed it the 13th Street Blues. A song was born, a moment captured. He couldn’t know it then, but he had created a musical portal to a time that has all but vanished.
When I was a child, I used to love to stand near the piano, just to watch my daddy play. Sometimes, he’d grin and break into his 13th Street Blues. Wide-eyed and worshipful, I was his biggest fan. I was mesmerized by the dexterity of his enormous, slender-fingered hands as they flew up and down the keyboard. His casual delivery made the syncopated bass and lush cluster chords of his up-tempo melody look easy.
By the time I reached high school, I begged Dad to teach me his song. Since he had never written it down, my only means of preserving the piece was to commit it to memory. He agreed, and over the slow course of a summer, he taught me to play his 13th Street Blues. Some evenings, he’d come home from work to hear me laboring over a section. He would lean over me with his long arms and adjust my fingering, show me the correct sequence of notes, or help me work on my tremolo. After hours of practice, frustration, and dogged determination, I finally succeeded in stringing the sections together to approximate the piece. Although my version would always lack Dad’s signature fluidity, it was a thrill to fudge my way through his upbeat song to entertain friends and family.
One memory of performing Dad’s boogie-woogie stands out among all the rest. In 1981, I was a student teacher in Scotland, and my new friend, Wendy, invited me to come to Aberdeen to spend a weekend with her family. While in Aberdeen, I found out that Wendy was a talented pianist. She played an array of lovely music for me one evening, then asked whether I played. When she discovered I did, she and her family persuaded me to take a turn at the piano. I launched into the 13th Street Blues, and to my surprise, her family clamored for an encore. While I waited, the living room rug was rolled up and carried out of the way. Then, with shrieks of delight and gales of laughter, Wendy’s mother and auntie jitter-bugged together on the hardwood floor to the snappy, American beat while the rest of the family clapped and cheered. What a moment.
Wendy’s mum and auntie catch their breath after jitter-bugging to the 13th Street Blues.
My darling daddy is eighty-eight now, an age he refers to as “piano keys.” (Why? Because, he says, there are eighty-eight keys on a piano keyboard.) Dad has numerous interests, but he doesn’t spend much time at his piano anymore. This past Christmas, after all the dinner dishes and dessert plates were cleared and our family was relaxing together, our children asked me to play the 13th Street Blues. I regret to admit that I was rusty – very. Dad tried to play a bit as well, but he was rustier. Margaret and Clare began begging me to teach them his song, and I promised to try. Later that evening, I set aside some extra moments to practice, to bring that memory back again, section by section. I spent part of Christmas night teaching both girls how to play the bass and treble parts of the first section. They worked hard, asked innumerable questions. Despite their eagerness and desire to learn, both girls were having trouble. Of course they were. This is no song to be mastered overnight.
A day passed. Returning home from some afternoon shopping, I pulled into the garage, turned off the motor, stepped out of the car, and stopped in my tracks. From inside the house, I heard the familiar sound of the 13th Street Blues. I opened the door and walked in. What I saw next took my breath away. Margaret and Clare were side by side at the piano, their arms looped around one another. Clare was playing the boogie-woogie bass line while Margaret practiced the rhythmic melody written by my father, their grandfather, so many years ago. I stood there, rooted to the floor, reeling through time, my heart in 1940, my head in 2013.
Dad and I, and now, his granddaughters, have become part of a beautiful continuum. From one generation to the next, Dad’s musical time capsule is in an active state of transfer, and I’m blessed to have walked in to witness it. It’s an astonishment to realize that Dad’s boogie-woogie – an outburst of joy from the lively boy who would grow up to become our family’s beloved patriarch – has set toes tapping across seven decades, and, so far, two continents. Seventy-four years after its creation, the opening notes of the 13th Street Blues still have the power to make the easy-going, jump-jive days of 1940 reappear. I can almost catch a glimpse of him there, in his house on 13th Street – my young daddy, his head bent over the piano, writing a song.
Dad and a friend, from his 1942 high school yearbook.