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  • My mother was a great musician and singer, at least to one of her biggest fans – me. Since she played piano by ear, she could literally hear a song on the radio and after a couple of tentative attempts at chord progressions and left-hand bass runs, could be playing and singing the song in a matter of minutes. I still don’t understand how she or anyone else could do this.

    She told me that when she was a teenager she took a few piano lessons and her teacher became exasperated with her because her sight reading was terrible. I suspect that she just didn’t like to follow directions. She wanted to play the tunes the way she heard them, not the way somebody else wrote them. This was a personality quirk that she also exhibited in the rest of her life.

    She could also play a few rudimentary chords on guitar, primarily G, C and D and, not surprisingly, she chose songs that she could sing with these chords. Thinking back, I wish I had known about Hank Williams’ explanation of how he managed to write so many hit songs. He’s reputed to have said: “All it takes is three chords and the truth.”

    Since I have brown eyes and she knew I was her biggest fan, my mom sometimes used her three chords to play the song “Beautiful Brown Eyes” especially for me. Needless to say, I loved it.

    Of course, this was the first song I learned to play on guitar. My hands were too little and not strong enough to properly play a bar chord or even the simple three finger version of a G chord, so she showed me how I could use my thumb on the lower E (bass) string and my third finger on the higher (treble) E string. It worked like a charm. C was tough, at first, and D was tougher, but I practiced for hours. Beautiful Brown Eyes is played in 3 / 4 time and I still love songs that are played in this “waltz time.”

    Later, when curiosity led me to search the internet for the lyrics and composer of of this song, I found out that she had sanitized them a little for a 5-year old’s consumption. Instead of the original lyrics, written by Alton Delmore of the famous Delmore Brothers (hillbilly stars in the 1940’s), she changed them slightly.

    Until recently, I always thought the lyric was “Down to the barnyard he staggered.” In fact, it is “Down to the barroom he staggered.” Had I thought about the context a little, I might have wondered why the heck someone was staggering down to the barnyard! Barnyard or barroom, it didn’t matter to a 5-year old, budding musical genius.

    Over the years, my mom encouraged my brother, sister and me to pursue music. She insisted that we take formal lessons and play in the school band. My sister is an excellent pianist and my brother can play just about any instrument and sing well-enough to get paid for it. My musical talent is somewhat limited. I played in the usual garage bands through high school and college and have made an effort at writing lyrics with my son who has been a professional musician since he was in high school. He is clearly the best musician in the family and you've already guessed the first song I taught him to play.
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