The Lone Recorder

laura-recorderI still have my recorder, circa 1975. And I can still play it, badly. It’s just another page in my personal nerd file.

Recorder lessons were new that year in my Catholic grade school, offered by an overzealous and underpaid music teacher who favored folk songs and skiffle bands. At that age I thought I wanted to be a music teacher when I grew up, so I sought a variety of melodious experience. I’d ditched piano lessons by then, believing I’d mastered the ivories well enough, and grabbed this opportunity to widen my musical horizons. I was intrigued by this plastic wind instrument, and not recognizing the nerdiness with which it would brand me, I signed up.

No one else did.

But the overzealous and underpaid music teacher gave me lessons anyway. I even played my recorder at a school concert.

Playing the recorder may or may not be my nerdiest accomplishment as a youngster. My early life is filled with competing examples. For instance, I was a student safety patrol. And student council secretary. Twice. And yearbook co-editor. I went to science camp. And student council camp. And so on.

I could say, “That was then.” However, I’m still a nerd now. But I’ve confessed enough for one day.

Laura Sternweis


40 Past Elvis

I’elvis-clockm not an Elvis apostle, or even a disciple. Although I’m a fan, my devotion to the King has never reached religious proportions.

Granted, in my teens I was a bit Elvis obsessed. I was 15 when he died on Aug. 16, 1977, and at the time the loss affected me deeply. But life went on and so did I. I never became Presley possessed.

Yes, I still like his music, and I still have a small assortment of Elvis crap — records and CDs, a few books, a clock, and some figurines that my mother gave me. But to finish the analogy I started with, in terms of Elvis Presley, I’m more like an occasional Christian who shows up in church on Christmas and Easter and calls it good.

Another year has gone by, and now it’s 40 past Elvis. Time to pay my respects once again.

Laura Sternweis

Songs in My Head

old-radioAlthough I’ve never been to L.A. International Airport, I know that it is “where the big jet engines roar.” I didn’t know I knew this until I experienced a road trip revelation. When I heard that classic country song on the radio, to my surprise I started singing along. I didn’t recall being much of a Susan Raye fan, good 1970s singer that she was, but I knew the words to her airport lamentation. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

As I sang along with Susan, no longer was I in the car, tooling down a Midwestern highway with my husband. Instead I was transported via audio back to the dairy barn of my youth. Evidently L.A. International Airport imprinted on my brain back when I used to milk cows, feed silage, and carry out other farm chores with my father and my family, all while listening to the barn radio. Whenever my dad was in the vicinity, that radio was tuned to the country music station.

Classic country music accounts for many of the songs in my head — and by classic country I mean mainly 1960s and ’70s country. It’s cow-milking music, the music of my farm-kid youth. It rattles around in my head along with ’70s rock (from when Dad wasn’t in the barn) and ’80s pop from my college years, as well as hymns and gospel music — from church and my parents’ record collection.

But most often it’s that old country music that I’ll find myself singing along to, whether I hear a song on the radio or in a random YouTube video. Sometimes a song starts playing in my mind for no reason I can discern. Then come the memories — of home and farm and family.

Once in a while, a song will trigger a memory strong enough to make me cry, as was the case with L.A. International Airport. I don’t know why that particular song affected me so. Perhaps because I hadn’t heard it in decades. Maybe when I was a kid I had liked the song more than I realized. Or possibly the repetition of the last line of the chorus — “I won’t see him anymore” — was enough to spark my tears. (My dad died 12 years ago.)

Although L.A. International Airport and the other songs in my head occasionally give rise to tears, they do not lead to sadness. Instead the songs in my head transcend space and time and reconnect me to days gone by.

Laura Sternweis

Music Lessons

studio-fenceAll that remains of my music studio is a fenced-in lot between two taverns. I’m not sure how long it’s been gone from my old hometown; I’m guessing several years at least. The location surprises me now. Back when I was 8 years old, I never noticed the drinking establishments serving as beer-sign laden bookends for what had been an unassuming brick store front. As I approached the studio each week for my piano lesson, I was focused on getting to the keyboards inside.

The front room was the show room, with an assortment of pianos and electric organs on display. If I arrived early for my piano lesson, I was allowed to plug a pair of headphones into one of the organs and play until it was time for my lesson. Then I’d head to the lesson room just beyond the show room, to show Mr. Piano Teacher how well I had learned whatever songs I’d been assigned.

I played from Robert Pace “Music for Piano” and “Skills and Drills,” as well as from “easy” piano books featuring 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s pop tunes. Mr. Piano Teacher had taught me to read music and I diligently practiced the songs as written in the books. But I preferred to play the music I heard on the radio, in church, or from my parents’ record collection. I discovered early on that I could listen to a song and then play a reasonable facsimile of it on the piano. These were the songs I learned not by notes on paper, but by ear and, as I prefer to say, by heart. And lucky for me, Mr. Piano Teacher encouraged me to build this skill.

I took lessons from him for about a year and a half. Then he moved his studio to another town. I continued my musical education with other teachers for two more years, but it wasn’t the same. The other teachers preferred their students to learn piano by book rather than by heart. By that time I knew I wasn’t that kind of student. I’d had enough of uninspiring teachers and boring drills. I still wanted to play piano, but I wanted to do it my way.

So I did then, and I still do. Besides those old pop tunes, I play classic country, gospel, 1970s Catholic folk Mass songs, polkas, and waltzes. I collect and play old sheet music, garnered on the cheap from my public library’s used book sales. And I still play the songs that I know in my heart — from the radio and church and old records.

I am not an accomplished pianist. But I’m an OK piano player. I lean more to easy Cs and Gs than multiple sharps and flats, and my song choices are decidedly low brow. Now that I think about it, the location of my music studio is not so much a surprise as it is a revelation. I consider myself lucky to have learned my music lessons between two taverns, because now I have a story to tell.

Laura Sternweis

Way Down in Iowa

Way-Down-in-Iowa-sheet-music“I’m gonna hide away on a little farm in Iowa.” The words sang out to me from the aging, yellowed paper I held in my hand. I first had felt drawn to the pale pink flowers and cozy cottage on the front cover of the sheet music I’d found in a bin at an antique store in Plover, Wisconsin. It was fall of 1987 and I already knew that I would be moving to Iowa the following June.

Iowa was to be my next adventure. By June I would be quitting my job as an agriculture news reporter in Wisconsin, getting married, moving to Iowa, and starting graduate school at Iowa State University. So given the song’s title, “Way Down in Iowa I’m Going to Hide Away,” I had to retrieve the music from the bin for closer inspection.

A lively little song about going home to Iowa, it was copyrighted in 1916. The lyrics were written by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, and the music by George W. Meyer. Although the original price was 16 cents, I didn’t mind paying the dollar the antique dealer demanded to have it for my own.

I took the vintage sheet music home, framed it, and hung it on my apartment wall — an icon for my future. In June of 1988 it traveled with me and my new husband to Iowa, where it adorned the walls of two apartments and one old farmhouse that we rented during the early years of our marriage. (Yes, I actually did hide away on a little farm in Iowa.) For the past 20 years it has been on display in our own little house in an Iowa town on the prairie.

My original plan was to live in Iowa for two years, only until I completed grad school. But then I got a fulltime job at Iowa State. And I really liked it. For more than 26 years now. It seems I’ve taken that old song to heart. As the chorus says, “I’ll never leave, I’ll take an oath, I’ll hide away, way down in Iowa.”

Laura Sternweis

P.S. You can listen to “Way Down in Iowa I’m Going to Hide Away,” on YouTube.

Bringing in the Sheep

burl-ives-recordBurl Ives lives on in my record collection, right next to Iron Butterfly. (I arrange my albums alphabetically.) Some people know Burl only as the voice of the “Holly Jolly Christmas” snowman from the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” holiday TV special. Granted, I watched Rudolph every year when I was a little kid. But I first knew Burl’s voice from my parents’ long-playing albums.

One record featured folk songs and children’s tunes, which I liked well enough, but another featured old-time hymns and songs of faith. “Shall We Gather at the River?” Burl asked, and he told of “The Sweet By and By” and “The Unclouded Day.” But my favorite song on Burl’s gospel album was farm-related.

Because I couldn’t yet read and my vocabulary was accordingly limited, I mistook the song’s crop harvesting terminology for animal husbandry. For years I thought Burl was “Bringing in the Sheep.” When I realized that Burl wasn’t singing about livestock, and instead was “Bringing in the Sheaves,” I was disappointed.

My family raised dairy cattle, but I knew what sheep were — “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and all that. But sheaves? I had no idea. My dad embraced modern farming technology. He had a swather. Nobody was bringing in any sheaves on our farm.

Sheaves or sheep, I like old-time Gospel music. It speaks to both my faith and my doubt far better than any contemporary “I Love Jesus” Christian pop or praise music. But when I hear Burl sing, I still tend to replace sheaves with sheep — I just prefer the imagery.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Burl’s birthday is coming up soon, June 14. Make your celebration plans now!

Dusting off Memories

As I cleaned my plastic Elvis collection one recent winter day, I contemplated why I keep these often dusty figurines. Many of them are Christmas ornaments, though they’re always on display. All of them were gifts. Most were from my mother — and there you have the reason for my all-year Elvis season. I find it hard to rid myself of things with any connection to her.

elvis-shelfThe little statuettes inhabit a 2-foot-long shelf up above the linen cabinet in the hallway, about 6 feet up from the floor. It’s a height at which it’s easy to ignore how grimy they become. But a few times a year I take them down from the shelf, one King at a time. With cotton swabs and a rag cut from an old cotton bed sheet dosed in lemon-scented furniture polish, I dust the Elvi.*

My Elvis-sortment includes several versions of Jumpsuit Elvis and 1968 Comeback Special Black Leather Elvis. Hound Dog Elvis and Teddy Bear Elvis hang out with Blue Hawaii Elvis and Gold Lamé Elvis. There’s a Louisiana Hayride Tour Elvis and Serving the Country Army Elvis. Some play music — Blue Christmas or Burning Love — but most are silent on the shelf. One by one I remove the dust from each Elvis and from the shelf, recalling how my mother came across boxed sets of Elvis ornaments in the Fleet Farm Christmas aisle a dozen or more years ago. Thinking of me, she snatched them up. She often bought me Elvis stuff because she thought I would like it. And she was right, though she probably never knew how important it was to me that the items came from her.

One by one I rearrange the relatively dust-free figurines on the shelf and call my cleaning efforts good enough. My mother is gone, but my Elvi are still here — a tribute to my memories.

Laura Sternweis

*My preferred plural of Elvis

Those Spanish Eyes

Al-MartinoHearing Al Martino sing “Spanish Eyes” still can make me cry. I hear his smooth voice, those touching lyrics, and all I can think about is my mother. Al Martino was Mom’s favorite singer and his “Spanish Eyes” was one of her favorite songs.

I confess, I didn’t always appreciate this Italian crooner from Philadelphia. When I was a little kid I’d throw a fit when Mom played her Al Martino records on our family’s stereo in the living room. I’m not sure why I had an early aversion to Al. Luckily by the time I was 8 years old, my musical taste had matured and I began to appreciate his music. I had started taking piano lessons about that time and had discovered that I could listen to a song and then play a reasonable facsimile of it on the piano. “Spanish Eyes” was one of the first songs I learned to play this way — “by heart.” And Mom liked it when I would play “Spanish Eyes” for her.

Mom had nine Al Martino albums on vinyl, circa 1963 to 1975, plus a CD of his later work that I had given her in 2003. After she died in 2004, I claimed her Al Martino collection. From time to time I’ll listen to “Spanish Eyes” or “Love Is Blue” or one of the other albums. Sometimes my eyes well with tears and sometimes they don’t, but in any case Al Martino transports me to a sacred place of memories with my mother.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Al Martino died in 2009. I imagine Mom has front row seats at his heavenly concerts.

Fair Enough. Enough Fair.

Laura-at-fairI know that in Iowa, “Our state fair is a great state fair.” There’s even a musical to prove it. But that doesn’t mean I particularly like fairs, because I don’t. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy an occasional funnel cake or something deep-fried on a stick, because I do. And I like the 4-H exhibits, particularly the woodworking and home furnishings projects. I also like to look at the farm machinery and take in a concert or two. However, after a couple hours at a fair, I’m hot and sweaty and ready to go home. I’m tired of the crowds — and I’m just tired. You might say my fair tolerance is fairly low.

I wasn’t always fair averse. As a kid I went to the annual Central Wisconsin State Fair, at first with my dad and older brother and sisters, and later with my friends. I’d check out cattle in the World’s Largest Round Barn, collect vendors’ trinkets in the old Exhibition Building, and try the carnival rides on the midway. But then in the mid-1980s as a Wisconsin farm reporter, I spent a good chunk of each summer covering every county fair and livestock show in my 10-county area. By the time I moved to Iowa in 1988 I had had enough fair and no longer felt the need to make an annual trek to any fairgrounds.

To those of you who love going to whatever fair you love going to, have a good time. Just don’t make me go with you.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Need one more fair fix this year? Check out the Central Wisconsin State Fair in Marshfield, Sept. 2-7, 2015.

Searching for the King

elvis-montageI don’t remember when I started searching for the King. I think my fascination with Elvis Presley dates back to seventh or eighth grade. That’s when my mother began letting me stay up late on weekends. Now this was the 1970s, and there wasn’t a lot to choose from on late night television brought in by an antenna on the roof. But Friday nights at 10:30 offered me a steady stream of Elvis movies. Besides, Mom would watch Elvis movies with me, and I enjoyed her companionship. That’s also about the time she gave me half a dozen Elvis records for Christmas, and shortly thereafter, something from the King became her standard gift to me.

I was 15 years old when I heard the news that Elvis had died. It was 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1977. I was doing chores in the milk house, listening to the regional rock station on the barn radio. The disc jockey interrupted regular programming with the news. He kept repeating that it wasn’t a joke, that Elvis really was gone. And I cried. A lot. That’s when my Elvis obsession kicked into high gear.

I clipped all the newspaper articles I could find about his death and funeral. I bought the magazines that told his life story. I collected bubblegum cards featuring photos from throughout his career. I wrote a speech about him when I was in high school, and I wrote an essay about him when I was in college. My Elvis music and book collection continued to grow. In the 1990s I dragged my husband and kids to Graceland. We toured the mansion, the airplanes, and all the museums. That’s also when I started collecting Elvis impersonators, though today most of these guys call themselves tribute artists.

I heard my first pseudo Elvis at the Iowa State Fair, a free concert with the price of my fair admission ticket. This guy was Young Elvis, gyrating before the crowd in the beer tent. He wasn’t bad. It was as close to an Elvis concert as I was going to get. I’ve seen eight Elvi (the plural of Elvis) so far — facsimiles of ’50s Elvis and ’70s Elvis, Movie Elvis and ’68 Comeback Special Elvis. But I’m partial to Jumpsuit Elvis, because that’s the living Elvis I knew when I began my search for the King.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. Several years ago I decided I didn’t want to become one of those old ladies with three tons of Elvis crap that my kids would have to deal with after I moved to a nursing home. So I occasionally cull my collection. I’ve thrown away the newspaper clippings. I’ve thinned out my books and records. And I limit myself to one small shelf of Elvis figurines.

Friends and family still give me Elvis stuff, but that’s OK. Because they know as well as I, that Elvis has never really left my building.

Laura Sternweis