Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Danny Boy
Mom’s love of music and its influence on me started at an early age, and it became a large part of my life. I became aware of Dad’s love of music, especially Irish tunes and the harmonica, as I grew older. I remember him singing to me when he would put me to bed as a toddler, ballads he knew by heart. He sang in a beautiful, soft baritone voice, with a reverence for any music Irish, almost like a prayer. I loved it, and that appreciation for Irish music and traditions has been part of me, and has been handed down to my children. Dad always sang the first verse of “Danny Boy”. I don’t think he knew the second verse, the ending of a beautiful story of love and parting that completes the song, but the song was his favorite.
Dad always had a harmonica, a little Marine Band, key of C harmonica close by. He would play familiar tunes in the evening, in his own style, which is the politically correct way of saying he put his own rhythm and time to the songs. He always wanted to play along when Mom played the piano, but it usually ended when Mom reached the limits of her patience, never able to keep in time with Dad. That never stopped him from enjoying his harmonica though. In fact, he started collecting harmonicas of all sizes and keys, chromatic slide harmonicas capable of producing intricate chords as well as pocket instruments including blues harmonicas. When he died, I discovered a clothes drawer full of harmonicas, well over thirty, different sizes and different keys. He tried to improve his playing, buying instruction books and tapes of famous harmonica players he emulated. There was always a cardboard box next to his easy chair full of music and harmonicas.
When my daughter Kris was in grade school she took piano lessons. Dad bought a small electric chord organ for her and Mom to play so they could have a family band of sorts. My younger daughter Jackie was always there, and Dad didn’t want her to feel left out so he bought a tambourine for her to shake. They spent many hours playing music, Kris on the organ, Jackie tapping the tambourine, and Dad playing the songs, always a little ahead or behind, but enjoying every minute of it.
Dad was always in the background when I started singing, never saying much, maybe congratulating me after singing at graduation or on the 4th of July. Mom was the cheerleader. After I learned to play the guitar, I would sit on the folk’s deck in the evening, playing and practicing, and once in awhile Dad would play the harmonica on a familiar tune and I would follow him, letting him set the rhythm. I would sing some of the old Irish tunes, secretly hoping he would sing along, but he never did.
When Dad died, I wanted to sing one last song, just for him. “Danny Boy”. A song that says goodbye with the sure knowledge of meeting again. Mom felt it would be too much of an emotional strain on me to do, convincing me that our good friend Darrell McCombs could do it instead. I relented, grudgingly. Darrell was an excellent singer, but he wasn’t familiar with the song and had only one opportunity to go through it before the funeral, and that was with his wife accompanying him. The organist at the church was going to play the song at the funeral. Without practice, Darrell struggled keeping the time throughout the song, not sure whether to follow the organist or whether she would follow him. I smiled, thinking of how Dad always struggled with his rhythm. Darrell felt bad about his performance, but I assured him Dad was happy.
I have many regrets in my life, some small, some big, some forgettable, some life changing. The biggest regret, one that never lessens or goes away, is that I didn’t sing that song at Dad’s funeral. My consolation is in the words of the song; words that say to me, “I love you Dad, and when I see you again we will sing “Danny Boy”, keeping perfect time, together, forever.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 16, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News