I originally said that I was going to play it in Bb. But when push came to shove, I ended up playing it in the key of D on that particular day – last Saturday, down along the Conestoga River, the dog and me – because it just happened to be the harp with the hot hand that moment. It was right. It was the right one. And that’s why I was there.
You knew that I had long ago made it my personal responsibility to go out into a quiet place with my harmonica and play “Taps” with all of my heart for anyone who I’ve known closely on some level who has passed away. I’ve done it on Bolinas Ridge it for a buddy killed in a car crash, at the shore of Lake Michigan for my dad. I’ve done it for in-laws and out-laws. I’ve done it for four decades, all over this country, for old men, stupid kids, and lots and lots of old ladies. (Also hamsters, baby possums, tadpoles, and broken dreams...) Sometimes I’ll slip quietly into old abandoned cemeteries and play it for anyone that I might have known in some former life.
Your email said that your brother had finally passed away after a long and painful decline. You asked me if I would.
Yes, I’d be honored.
So I did.
On that Saturday the dog and I followed the old path down along Mill Creek to the quiet grassy meadow on the flood plain just upriver from where it spills out into the Conestoga River – on its way to the Susquehanna, then the Chesapeake Bay, and then the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a magical place that I’m convinced has been settled from time to time for probably 7,000 years. There are spirits there.
The day was luscious, brilliant, vibrant, beautiful. I pulled my harpoon from a dirty red bandana, as the lady once sang, and coaxed out the first strains of Taps. It was awkward at first: forced, breathy, military, dirge-like. I looked figuratively at your brother and he smiled politely but I could tell he was a little disappointed… given your build-up and all.
But I knew your brother was a man of music and I knew that he knew that this was just a process. So I invited him to take a walk with me. We’d work it out together.
We started by spinning in a dollop of doo-whop, just a little, just enough to change the timing and we tried it again. It was better but it still wasn’t where we wanted it to be, so next we played it ooompaaa – ooompaaa like a tuba band, then we tried a reggae version that was embarrassingly lame and then we finally said what-the-heck and cranked it up really tight and then played as flat-out-fast-as-we-could.
It’s a process.
Eventually, after walking almost all the way to the old lock, we settled into a version that was something of a cross between Louis Armstrong and the Allman Brothers with a touch of Johnny Rivers leaking out the
side. We ended up rocking “Taps” every which way but Sunday and then, just for the hell of it, we launched into “WhammerJammer”,“Take The A Train,”, “Hush Hush”, and “Rocky Mountain Way”.
Finally, we – your brother and I (and the dog who was off barking at something) - had Taps right where we wanted it. We were in a groove.
That’s when it occurred to me.
“So,” I asked your brother, “do you mind if we
play this for my Mom?”
You see, my Mom died last year (on Halloween Day), and I hadn’t yet mustered the gumption to play for her. She was, hands down, my biggest music fan and I knew that she’d love anything I played for her… she IS a mother after all. But there had been something large and powerful holding me back. It was a combination of not-right moments, stark finality and sadness that had held me back.
But it was now time to put her to rest. I was warmed up and ready. So we summoned her up (your brother is quite good at that) and we played the Johnny Rivers version as soulfully as we could. We wrang it out, the two of us (plus the dog). Then we turned and played gleefully, all the way back to the meadow, like a New Orleans jazz band returning from a funeral.
So my dear, it all worked out really well. I ended up taking a walk in a beautiful place, on a beautiful day with your brother and my mother (and the dog.) We played some music, had some laughs, and watched the dog swim in the sparkling river.
Your brother said to tell you “hi”. He really looks great. My Mom says “hi” also, (I can’t remember seeing her that young and refreshed.)
Your brother was quite amused; he plans to become a little more serious about learning to play the harmonica now that he has the time.
And Mom, she was so proud. She loves anything I play.
They’re a lot alike – my mom and your brother.