I started piano lessons at the age of seven after my family noticed me picking out by ear a few fiddly notes of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy 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. (To understand why the Acrosonic was so well loved, have a look at one player’s video tribute.)
Music had become important to our family for a very particular reason. My grandmother’s youngest daughter, my Aunt Betty, had struck out for Manhattan at the age of 19 in the 1940s, right after the war. She found work as a shop girl at Saks Fifth Avenue, where her good looks and girlish figure got her the job of modeling lavish ball gowns for New York’s elite. While living it up in the Big Apple, she met and fell in love with the young, ambitious and handsome concertmaster of the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, Jose “Pepito” Figueroa. Jose was by then already world-renowned as a violinist and the scion of the musical Figueroa family, with whom he performed all over the world. Years later, Betty would tell her enthralled nieces and nephews of those glory days in New York, when she and Jose dined with the Vanderbilts, and how dozens of Rockettes (the glamorous chorus dancers of Radio City Music Hall) had come to the hospital to welcome the arrival of their first son.
I well remember the rare treat of Jose’s visits to our house in Baltimore, when my grandmother, a country girl from Tennessee, would implore this great maestro to play “Turkey in the Straw” on—little did I know at the time—the rarest, finest, and most expensive violin in the world. After Jose had made a name for himself as a young man by winning an international violin competition in Spain attended by the King and Queen, tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen in Puerto Rico raised the money in nickels and dimes to buy him a Stradivarius.
And yes, Jose played Turkey in the Straw, flawlessly and without the slightest sign of annoyance, to our delight and amazement. He also cautioned my mother, when he heard of my interest in piano, not to “let Michael listen” to the new music known as Rock n’ Roll, as it would poison my ear for real music. Ah well . . .
I took piano from my sister Suzie’s teacher, then later in group lessons in primary school. Two third-grade pals and I got to skip class when we persuaded the teacher to let us roll a piano from room to room playing boogie woogie for the other students. When I was old enough to audition, my mother applied to get me into the Preparatory School of Peabody Conservatory. 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, Vince Guaraldi, and Dave Brubeck. 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. More than once 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.”
Fresh from “The Leap” that led me to sell everything (including my grand piano) and leave the USA in 2015, walk 500 miles on the Camino across France and Spain, spend two years sailing 7,000 miles before the mast aboard Nevermore, walk 500 miles back across the Camino, and improbably to begin a new life in London, I am up to my old tricks. One month 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. Among the many gee-wiz features it has that I couldn’t care less about, there is one that I do rather like: it has a built-in recording facility. You just plug in a USB jump drive, and what you play is saved as a file.
So, to improve myself at piano I have decided to employ two of nature’s biggest motivators: vanity and fear of humiliation. I have resolved to post to this page each month some of my improvisations on piano, mistakes and all, without apology, and without endless retakes.
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 a classical guitar as a gift from my first wife for my 40th birthday—one of the many life-changing gifts she gave me. More portable than our piano, it got to ride along on canoe and sailing trips and became the favorite medium for bedtime lullabies. 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.)
“Our Love is Here to Stay,” lyrics and music by George and Ira Gershwin
Improvisation by Michael Hurley, recorded in one take in London (it sounds cool to say that), on January 8, 2019, on a Yamaha CLP695GP digital grand.
“As Time Goes By,” lyrics and music by Herman Hupfeld
The song, written in 1931, 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 January 18, 2019.
“Misty,” music by Erroll Garner, lyrics by Johnny Burke
This song, written in 1954, 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 January 18, 2019.
“Smile and a Tear,” lyrics and music by Jerry Vandiver
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,” music by M. C. Hurley
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,” lyrics and music by David Mallett
This is my take on the tune 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),” lyrics and music by M. C. Hurley
Written and recorded in the summer of 2006, this song 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,” lyrics and music by M. C. Hurley, additional vocals by Kip Hurley
From the age of five, Kip was my constant companion on canoe trips all over the United States and Canada. Between 1995 and 2003, 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,” traditional, additional vocals by Caroline Hurley
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.
“Grass River Bound,” lyrics and music by M. C. Hurley
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.
“Only Love,” lyrics by M. C. Hurley, music by Kip Hurley, additional vocals, guitar and harmonica by Kip Hurley
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)” traditional, additional lyrics by M. C. Hurley
Adapted from the classic nursery rhyme for 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” lyrics and music by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow, additional vocals by Caroline Hurley
It was a favorite ritual of putting-off bedtime to sit at the foot of the children’s beds, guitar in hand, and play children’s and country songs. This favorite of Caroline’s features her voice in accompaniment to mine when she was about nine years old.