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Kentucky by Heart: There’s probably a song about that, but please don’t expect me to sing along

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at KyForward.com on January 29, 2019.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

I generally enjoy the subject of music, but I’m a slow learner when it comes to understanding it. And, it should not be surprising that I’m not good at performing it, either. It’s almost like I have a mental block, much like many claim to have in learning math. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a visual rather than an auditory learner; what I read and see, I pick up quickly… but what I hear takes a lot of extra work to absorb.

My deficit became apparent as far back as the third grade.

Young Stevie (Photo provided)

I recall the time in Mrs. Fardo’s third-grade class at Grant’s Lick Elementary School when she involved us in some choral singing activities. Two songs I remember stick out. One was about John Henry, that “steel-drivin’ man”…or was it “he’s still driving, man.”? Anyway, the students standing around me sure must have been annoyed because I had trouble keeping up — as in “no rhythm” and “no soul.”

Then, there was the Johnny Schmoker song she taught us. It went something like this: “Johnny Schmoker, Johnny Schmoker, can you sing, can you play?” I could handle those words, but Johnny followed by responding to the question in the song. The beat seemed to pick up rapidly as he answered the question in a proud and demonstrative way, which our class sang. Or, more honestly, to which most class members sang and I muddled through, always being a few words and actions behind everyone else. And to make it worse, my classmates seemed to be enjoying themselves!

I hardly knew what was going on in anything resembling music performing, but a few years later I started to get into listening to Beach Boys songs on radio, mainly because they often had simple lyrics: “Ba Ba Ba, Ba Barbara Ann,” or “Help, Help Me Rhonda,” or how about “Dance, Dance, Dance” repeated continuously?

No pain involved with that, and I could even pantomime those words when nobody was around to laugh at me. But I later avoided any serious thoughts of taking trombone or clarinet lessons from the itinerant teacher at Grants Lick School. I wasn’t much of a risk taker at that point in my life, and I sure didn’t want to be further embarrassed.

Johnny Schmoker sheet music

Years later, I took a music appreciation course early in my tenure as a student at EKU. Our class listened to lots of symphony music on records (remember those?) and we were tasked to identify music movements. I think I learned what a sonata was…something about a movement imitating another movement inside the musical piece.

Thankfully, the fact that the teacher was a nice guy helped me to get a “B” in the class. That’s because he gave us extra credit for attending and writing one-page reports of campus recitals. I loaded up on them, as many as allowed. Being completely clueless about writing an insightful analysis, I employed my innate ability to engage in, respectfully, the art of writing bovine manure on the printed page.

A few years afterward at EKU, I took a required course for my elementary teaching major called, as I recall, “Teaching Music to Elementary Students.” The part I liked about the class is that it included mostly young women. The part I didn’t like was that you were expected to gain a rudimentary understanding of music (most already had that)… along with doing some simple musical “performing activities.”

I really got off to a bad start in the class. The teacher, I guess, figured it would be both educational and fun to have each class member “sing” our names as a novel way of taking class attendance. Well, it may have been pedagogically sound (for some), but it sure wasn’t fun for me. To say I sang off-key is not fair; how can you sing “off-key” when you don’t even know what “on-key” is?

And to submit a First World problem extraordinaire, it was humiliating to present vulnerable self in front of all those eligible women.

In the same class, we had to procure and bring a small, plastic horn with holes in it to play notes, plus a cheapish keyboard. I can’t recall the song we were asked to play on the horn, but I probably messed it up. I remember well, however, that we were expected to adequately play “Hot Cross Buns” on the keyboard.

How can anybody mess up Hot Cross Buns?

I did, but I somehow passed the class, ego deflated nonetheless.

Then there was the community education class I took on beginning guitar playing; the teacher seemed to lose patience with me very quickly and I left with a sore thumb.

And recently, a musically-gifted friend of mine invited my wife and me to a local eatery in Lexington where he was performing. Things were going great until he asked for song requests. Since he did a lot of country, I asked for Waylon Jennings for no particular reason. No problem, huh?

Then my performing friend asked me to come up aside him and sing “I’ve Always Been Crazy” with him. I didn’t want to appear a bad sport, so I stupidly took his challenge.

It would have been better if I had appeared to be a bad sport.

Like, I tried humming along with him as he sang and couldn’t even stay on track. Mercifully, he let me off the hook and allowed (encouraged?) me to sit back down as I looked for a hole in the floor to hide in. I honestly think the audience felt sorry for this grown man.

Oh, help me, Rhonda.

Today, as I stand for hymns in church and silently mouth the words, I muse about my days with Mrs. Fardo back in the third grade.

“Stevie Flairty, Stevie Flairty, can you sing, can you play?”

Nope… probably not in this life.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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