Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Play Something Simple

Some people collect stamps. I collect moments. Those poignant, startling, quirky, just-darn-funny moments that make life worth retelling.

Several years ago we profiled 91-year-old Merle Shupe, matriarch of the musical Shupes of Ogden. Merle came from pioneer fiddler stock. In Mountain Green, she played piano in a dance band to support her family. She taught music to her children, who taught their children and, at the time, of 20 Shupes, there were 16 fiddlers. Ryan Shupe, the popular fiddler with the Rubberband, is her grandson.

For the benefit of the TV camera, Merle's sons had arranged an informal concert at the nursing home where she lived. Her kids and grandkids played fiddles and bass. And Merle, despite a stroke that disable her left hand, played the piano. She was old and frail, but still had that mix of spunk and cantankerousness.

Toward the end of our interview, she asked "Do you play?" I told her yes, I do play piano. "Play me a tune."

I sat down at piano.

"Don't play one of these modern sounding things with a lot of stupid sounding notes in it. Play a tune that I can understand."

I realized later, "modern" meant something after the 1930's

I played a little Ellington. Trying to impress a woman who's probably heard it all, I threw in jazzy flourishes and blue notes.

Merle looked disgusted. "Play something simple. Something that everbody enjoys, not the hair long stuff." I suppose she thought I was trying to emulate New Orleans bluesman Professor Longhair.

I played Gershwin. Soft and sweet. And then I couldn't help myself. I hit a seventh. (Might've been a major seventh, the worst kind.) One of those jazzy notes.

"You hit a wrong note," she told me.

After I finished, the piano teacher in her chastised me again, "Don't hit those sour notes."

"Those are jazz notes," I told her.

"Yeah I know. Crazy." I think musical dissonance turned her stomach. "Nothing in melody or anything else. Trash."

Her son, Jim, walked over. "You like Rachmaninoff," he told her. "He changed music quite a bit from what Bach and Mendelssohn did."

"As long as it's in melody," she replied, "but he hit a note that wasn't in harmony with anything on the piano."

Merle and I made up and played three-handed "Chopsticks."

The episode had me laughing for a week.

I was told that after the broadcast, she watched a tape of the story nine times. And when she died not long afterward, they played the story one more time at her funeral.

No comments: