The little girl in the photo playing the piano is me, Connie Carlisle. I’m about ten years old. My Dad and I are in our basement in the Churchill Downs neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. It is one of the many houses my family called home in this part of the city. This old upright piano has a great story.
Dad must have bought this piano in a shop of misfit instruments discarded as needing too much work to bring them up to playing condition. I don’t know where he acquired it, but he wanted a piano to play, as he grew up in a family that played various instruments almost instinctively. So, I wasn’t asking for a piano. Dad was buying it for himself.
As soon as it came into our house our unfinished basement became his workshop for taking the piano apart. Wooden keys that were missing their “ivories” found themselves refitted with pale smooth coverings which were legal to buy and sell in those days. All the wooden keys that were black were taken out of the keyboard and dipped in fresh ebony paint. Hammers inside the instrument that wouldn’t fall back as they were supposed to were weighted with tiny metal bolts. Now let me tell you that Dad had never before taken a piano apart nor was he a piano technician. But that didn’t stop him from achieving his project. His brain was highly skilled in figuring out how mechanical things worked.
After the piano was back together, my Dad tuned it with the help of a tuning fork. And as his fingers made their way over the keys, producing beautiful melodies and harmonies, I watched and listened with fascination. And I thought, “You know what? I want to learn how to play.”
Dad was my first piano teacher. He said he “played by ear.” I “played by imitation” and by practicing the two songs he taught me—songs played almost entirely on the black keys. His right hand played the melody with thumb and little finger striking keys an octave apart. As his fingers were not all that long and an octave reach was quite a stretch for him, he many times played with the little finger and thumb toggling back and forth in a waving fashion, striking the higher octave note first. His left hand played the harmony using three basic chords which I later learned are called I, IV, and V.
The two first songs I learned to play were a spiritual and a love song. The spiritual was “Amazing Grace,” and the love song was “Those Enduring Young Charms.” I play both from time to time when the family gets together to keep my children’s “Papaw’s spirit” alive. And when I’m alone and play one or the other I say, “Dad, this one’s for you!”
There are at least three pianists in the family. I need to say to them, “Come on over and let me teach you my Dad’s two songs the way he played them. I have, however, passed along a modified version using black keys to my two school-age granddaughters when they have been here for what we call “Nonny Camp” in the summer. I’ve been told when the now teen girl was younger, she was known to play Amazing Grace when girl friends came for a sleep-over (many times a birthday celebration). And her mom told me she even led those girls in singing it!
My Mom and Dad had a habit of leaving behind perfectly good items when we moved from one house to another. That was the fate of my first piano. The next one Dad bought was supposed to be new and I’m sure he thought he was making an upgrade with its purchase. However, it never produced the dark rich tones that I had grown to love on my first piano.