I must have been about three. My sister was at school. Christmas time was coming and it was cold, so I was playing on the floor under the telephone right next to the hot air register. Mom was in the kitchen doing mom things at the sink. I was singing “Silent Night,” but I didn’t know all the words. So I got up from my play and went out to the kitchen and learned a line or two from Mom. I went back to the toys and sang some more till I could add those lines to what I knew. I repeated the process, and leaned another line or two. This went on until I knew all three verses to Silent Night. In my memory it took me all morning to learn the whole song, and I’ve never forgotten it. I wish I could know Mom’s memory of how I learned my first folk song.
For a few years in the 1970s, I borrowed an autoharp from someone and learned to play it. As Christmas time approached in 1980–a few month’s after Mom died–I remember sitting on the davenport in my living room in Bloomington and playing “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” (Mom’s favorite) on the autoharp while tears streamed down my face. I know I cried at other times, but that’s the time I remember. Shortly after that, I returned the autoharp to whoever it was who loaned it to me.
Now as Christmas time again approaches, and we get ready for our 12th annual Songs of Good Cheer singalong at the Old Town School of Folk Music, I brought to the group a song that cries out for autoharp. So I borrowed one again, and after thirty years I can still pick out melodies with some facility. I’d like to use it on Silent Night, but the instrument I’ve borrowed has no button for an A major chord, and that’s our key. I might have to get my own autoharp and customize the chord bars.
BTW for any one who is nearby and interested, I’m playing the One Mic Stand at the Grafton (two doors south of the Old Town School) on Tuesday, Dec. 14 some time after 9:30. When I played there last Spring, it was the public debut of my Folksong Autobiography. Folks seem to like it. This time I intend to have some help from my buddy, Steve Rosen, as well as from my wife, Gail. I’ve got a few more stories in mind.