I started piano lessons at the age of seven after my family noticed me picking out by ear a few fiddly notes of a tune that my sister Suzie was learning at the time. My grandmother, in whose rented house we lived at 3039 St. Paul Street in Baltimore and who made ends meet running a beauty parlor on the Eastern Shore, had bought Suzie a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet piano. Years later I would come across the old installment loan papers in the bench, revealing that Grandma had paid the princely sum of $1300 for the piano in the early 1960s, when the average annual family income was all of $6,691.
I took piano from my sister’s teacher, then later in primary school. When I was old enough to audition, my mother applied to get me into the Preparatory School of Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. All in all, I studied piano at Peabody and elsewhere for some eleven years. I loved and hated it all at once. Like so many others, I neglected to practice classical music and as a consequence never really improved or learned to sight read. Perhaps unlike so many others, though, I had a keen interest to play by ear, and it was jazz that really grabbed my attention.
I would fall asleep listening to the Harley Show on Baltimore AM radio play all the old greats: Earl “Fatha” Hines, Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson. In high school, I would take my girlfriend not to rock concerts but to the King of France tavern in Annapolis for intimate jazz performances by Charlie Byrd, Ethel Ennis, Monty Alexander, and Herb Ellis. When I turned eighteen, for two nights the “Mike Hurley Trio,” consisting of a piano, drums, and a stand-up bass, played Cockey’s Tavern in Westminster to farmers wishing they were listening to Charlie Pride tunes instead of Satin Doll. Occasionally during college I found a date while playing wine and cheese parties in faculty lounges.
But that was about it.
I never got to be really good, though I tell myself I might have been. I suffered the curse of many people who played just enough piano as a child to realize how enjoyable it could be, but never “applied themselves.” Such people are doomed to buy grand pianos for the rest of their lives, promising themselves that “one day” they’ll get back to it. Which brings me to my present life in London and this web page with the unlikely title, “Music.”
As I write this, it is January 2019. Two months ago I bought a Yamaha CLP695GP digital grand piano and, for the first time in over fifty years, have maintained a faithful schedule of practicing at least an hour a day, every day. Through the miracle of digital technology, Yamaha has made a grand piano that fits beautifully in a 4-foot/8-inch cabinet with an actual wooden, grand piano action and weighted keys that reproduce flawlessly the feel and sound of a Yamaha CFX Concert Grand at one-twentieth the price.
To improve myself, I have decided to employ two of nature’s biggest motivators: vanity and fear of humiliation. I have resolved to post to this page from time to time my improvisations on piano, mistakes and all, as well as the pieces I am studying by notation.
And oh yes—below the piano music you’ll find some old recordings on classical guitar I made more than a decade ago, on many of which I conscripted my young children to sing. I was never very good at guitar, either, but for that I have a better excuse. I first took it up after receiving one as a gift from my first wife for my 40th birthday—one of the many life-changing gifts she gave me. These songs aren’t going to make it onto anyone’s Desert Island Disk, but they are of sentimental value to me. So, here you go. Enjoy. (Sort of.)
I’m in the Mood for Love
The beloved standard that forms the bones of this improvisation was written in 1935 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, who labored in the obscurity well known to many of America’s greatest songwriters. But many popular singers, Frank Sinatra chief among them, made this tune immortal. My rendition, recorded in London on May 23, 2019, takes a musical journey from the innocence of that first glance onward through passion to ribaldery and finally to the peace of true love.
Cast Your Fate to the Wind
Vince Guaraldi was a hero of my childhood and a model for my piano improvisations. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which he wrote and recorded, was perhaps his greatest commercial hit, but he is best loved for writing and recording the jazz piano soundtrack of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts television specials of the 1960s. His playing brought “Linus” to life and epitomized the “cool jazz” sound of that era. This recording, which I made in London on May 23, 2019, is a first stab at an improvisational tribute to Guaraldi that I hope to improve and extend later to include the famous riff he called “Linus and Lucy” and that everyone in my family for years remembered with the request, “play Charlie Brown.”
Thursday Jazz Improv
This is the first thing I sat down to play on Thursday, May 23, 2019, with the recorder going on top of the grand piano in London. It’s not written down, has no name, and I couldn’t play it exactly the same way again if my life depended on it. Call it whatever you like.
Our Love is Here to Stay
The immortal tune was the last one written by George Gershwin before his death in 1937. The version I have here improvised was recorded in one take on January 8, 2019, on the new Yamaha CLP695GP digital grand that seems to have swallowed whole the parlor of our London Victorian cottage.
As Time Goes By
The song, written in 1931 by Herman Hupfield, was made famous by the pianist played by Dooley Wilson in the film, Casablanca, and immortalized by Ingrid Bergman’s line, “Play it again, Sam.” It been a staple of my cocktail repertoire since I was about fourteen years old. I learned it from a family friend who, like so many others back then, learned it after the film came out in theaters. Casablanca was reportedly John F. Kennedy’s favourite movie. According to Wikipedia, As Time Goes By is second on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 songs in American Cinema, exceeded only by Over the Rainbow. Recorded at home in London on May 23, 2019.
This song, written in 1954 by Erroll Garner, was one of several jazz standards I learned in the early seventies. Most of the others I have forgotten, and this one I have forgotten and relearned several times over the years. It was one of two standards I could still play reasonably well by heart when I met my wife Jill, in December 2015. Friends had invited us that year to their home for a New Year’s Eve party. When I sat down to their grand piano, one of the guests half-jokingly shouted the famous line, “Play Misty for me,” and I did just that. Jill likes to tell people of her surprise at this and how she then began to wonder if there might be more to this American than meets the eye. Lucky for me, I remembered it well enough to fumble it out and stop before anyone asked me to play anything else. Recorded at home in London on May 23, 2019.
Smile and a Tear
Jerry Vandiver is a Tennessee singer/songwriter and canoeing enthusiast who subscribed to Hurley’s Journal. We met when he came to a book signing for Letters from the Woods at a bookstore in Nashville in 2004. He and his wife, also an accomplished guitarist, joined me later that year for an overnight sailing trip in North Carolina, aboard the Gypsy Moon. We spent the night at anchor in Oriental Harbor picking out songs, and he taught me this one that he wrote with another Nashville songwriter. I recorded Jerry’s song in 2006.
We Happy Men
This is the first song I wrote for guitar, composed around the year 2000 when I was taking lessons at Harry’s Guitar Shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. My son Kip gave it its title. This recording was made in 2006.
The Garden Song
This is my take on the tune written by David Mallett, made famous by Pete Seeger, and beloved of children everywhere (mine included). Recorded sometime around the year 2001. The second voice on the track is also mine, added for a bit of effect.
All I Wanna Do (Is Paddle My Canoe)
I composed the music and lyrics and recorded this song in the summer of 2006. It is a bit of satire about a man whose scolding wife does not share his fondness for life in the woods. As if that weren’t funny enough, I added a kazoo bridge for good measure.
The Ballad of Kip Hurley
I composed the music and lyrics to this song as an ode to my son Kip, who, from the age of five, was my constant companion on canoe trips all over the United States and Canada. Between 1995 and 2003, We sang and recorded this together when he was probably nine or ten. Back then, I was spending upwards of two months in the woods, researching, photographing, and mapping trips for Hurley’s Journal. Kip’s younger sister Caroline joined us when she was old enough, but she didn’t share Kip’s insensibility to rain, mud, muck, camp cooking, and rough living. One of my favorite stories of Caroline came from a trip in Maine. We were out for four days, retracing Thoreau’s journey down the West Branch of the Penobscot River when, during a particularly muddy portage, Caroline was overheard by her mother, muttering under her breath: “When I grow up, I’m going to marry somebody normal–someone who likes to play golf, and stay in condos, and go shopping and out for dinner.” Caroline was true to her pledge, but before she was married off she had a few more adventures with her father and got to sing some songs of her own.
The Big Rock Candy Mountains
Shortly after the hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou came out with its hugely popular soundtrack of Southern American roots music, Caroline and I began singing this song from the film together before bedtime. Unbeknownst to her, I changed a few of the words to make the song more appropriate for children. Hence, “there’s a lake of stew and whiskey too” became “a lake of stew and Mountain Dew,” and the “little streams of alcohol” that come “tricklin’ down the rocks” became “little streams of Yoo-hoo,” a favorite chocolate soft drink from our pit stops at gas stations throughout the South. Hearing her flex her lovely singing voice on this track is a treasure. She was probably only 11 or 12 when this recording was made.
Grass River Bound
It was sometime around 2003, if memory serves, when my good friend Dr. Wright Shields and others joined me for an extended trip down the Grass River in Upstate New York. A great length of the river which had for more than a century been privately owned and closed to the public had just been purchased for many millions of dollars by the people of the state, and we were one of the first people to paddle it after it was opened. Its spectacular beauty inspired me to write and record this ode to a great wilderness.
After his mother and I separated in 2006, Kip and I tried to cling to some sense of normalcy by getting together regularly to play guitar and show each other the new riffs we’d learned since the last time we played. When he was 17, in 2007, he wrote the music and I wrote the words to “Only Love,” and I rented time in a professional recording studio in Raleigh for us to sing and play it together. Kip accompanies me on vocals, guitar and harmonica.
This Old Man (Loves Caroline)
Adapted from the classic nursery rhyme and recorded for my daughter Caroline’s 10th birthday in 2001, this song captures the bittersweet sentiment of a beloved daughter growing all too soon into young womanhood and the milestones remembered along the way.
Puff the Magic Dragon
Written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, this song became a favorite excuse for putting-off bedtime while I sat at the foot of mychildren’s beds, guitar in hand. This recording features Caroline’s voice in accompaniment to mine when she was about nine years old.
Alleluiah Sing to Jesus (Hyfrydol)
I sung this beloved hymn, written by Rowland Prichard in the 19th century, at mass at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in North Raleigh with Julie and our children when I was first learning guitar. When we got home, I tried to pick out the chords with difficulty until Kip, who was learning violin in the Suzuki method, picked up my guitar and played the song perfectly. I memorized his version and recorded it in 2006.
Aweigh, Aweigh Boys
I wrote and recorded this song around 2006, in a fit of self-pity, while imagining all sorts of metaphors to absolve myself of responsibility for my looming divorce. My melancholy was pretty pointless, but out of the gloom did come this wistful little sea-chanty.
Blow the Man Down
While vacationing in Maine in 1991, we stopped at the Bath Iron Works and, in a museum gift shop, found a CD of traditional sea-chanties. Singing them made good fuel for rowing dinghies back and forth to our sailboat, for in those days we never had a motor. Ten years later, I had a go with this one on the guitar.
My repertorie for my children’s nighttime lullabyes was quite varied and a little weird in spots, including these two Irish ballads. Nowadays, Jill tells me it’s nearly a war crime for me to try to sing in an Irish accent, but alas, these tunes were recorded before I met her. Pity.
I chose the title ‘Blue Million” for this tune I wrote in the early 2000s because the bell-like notes in the opening bars reminded me of the deep blue water far offshore. This title would later become the name of the ocean sailboat race that features in my first novel, The Prodigal.
Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
There is a bitter sweetness in the memory of this cowboy-song-cum-lullabye, written by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. I used to sing it to my daughter Caroline at bedtime, and we later recorded this version together when she was probably about nine or ten. The song speaks of cowboys who, unlike “doctors and lawyers and such,” “never stay home and are always alone, even with someone they love.” There wasn’t much little Caroline could have known or done to keep me, her father (and a lawyer at that), from my wanderings. As the song rightly warns, that wanderlust is something no mother would wish to see in her child, and that no child would wish to see in her father. But perhaps in time, mothers and daughters will come to understand, “he aint wrong he’s just different, but his pride won’t let him, do things to make you think he’s right.”