August 16, 2010

A Musical Education

And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker. There you have something – the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little footsteps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight and then he sang “Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat.” And the circle sang softly with him. And he sang, “I’m leaving Old Texas,” that eerie song that was sung before the Spaniards came, only the words were Indian then.

And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep. He sang the “McAlester Blues” and then, to make up for it to the older people, he sang “Jesus Calls Me to His Side.” The children drowsed with the music and went into the tents to sleep, and the singing came into their dreams.

And after a while the man with the guitar stood up and yawned. Good night, folks, he said.

And they murmured, Good night to you.

And each wished he could pick a guitar, because it is a gracious thing.

(John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).
The power to enchant; to bring together; to bond through common voice; to discover humanity through melody; to bare one’s soul to strangers and thereby to gain their confidence: this sounds like a rare power. But such is the power of the musician, and particularly the guitarist. I have had the pleasure to be the man in Steinbeck’s description on a number of glorious campfire-lit nights in dusty America, and in those moments of shared song, and in the thrilled eyes of the listener who discovers you can play his favourite ballad, I have experienced something akin to pure joy.

It is a long road to that moment, of pain and practice, of failure and frustration. To play fluently, spontaneously, and with abandon, takes years of deliberate action, muscle memory, and dedication. Hours each day of tuneless fumbling, the sound near to the dying wails of a wild animal. No one wants to listen to you, or even to be around you in your obsessive and compulsive need to get it right. But the glimmer of a future moment, when the sparks of a fire will be sucked into a sky untainted by another manmade light, and when the assembled faces of new friends and old will hang on every note, convinces you that the struggle will be worth it. And not only for you.

To play is to have learned to play. And to learn to play is to understand that life does not come ready made. One doesn’t necessarily need a music teacher, but one would be strongly advised to get a musical education.


  1. I'm still at the causing pain to all who hear stage, after ten years, but boy do I love my guitar. There is something decidedly naturaly about strumming away, decidedly personal and intimate about it, you don't need a song to play to be able to get your thoughts out.

    I hope the damage to your guitar is not recent!

  2. Quite right Peter. It is a place one can retreat to, but interestingly others can follow you there.

    We had a little rock and roll moment a couple of years ago, but not to worry. It was my travelling instrument, and of little value. It is now a worthy anecdote.

  3. All due respect to Steinbeck, but this was the first thing I thought of when I read that excerpt.


  4. My dear C.S., I don't know what to say, save that in that particular instance, Belushi was right in every way except for saying 'sorry'.

  5. It must be quite an anecdote. I've worried about the same thing happening to mine when carrying in a soft case, but never due to rock and roll moments.

  6. I've picked up my violin recently, my parents delivered it after a three-year absence, and have really enjoyed it.

    It's always nice to be able to liven up a gathering with a song or two. especially at a campfire!


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