Over breakfast this morning, I was telling my sister Suzi about how three old friends and I wound up singing the “Fifty States Song” at a memorial service recently. This anecdote led to an unfortunate digression about songs my sisters and I had sung as kids and the places where we sang them.
I had little to contribute, having done all of my childhood singing in standard kid venues, like school cafeterias and classrooms.
But back in the late 1970s, my sister Suzi and the fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes at Orange Hunt Elementary School somehow landed at the Jefferson Memorial, performing selections from a lesser-known musical called “Tall Tom Jefferson.”
And then there was my sister Lynne. As a child, she performed strictly by appointment and only on the landing between the first and second stories in my parents’ home. This exclusive gig was a truly lamentable byproduct of the piano lessons I began taking when I was seven. As all newbies do, I had spent the first several months learning to read music and just playing with just my right hand.
When my left hand finally figured out how to play a few notes from the lower half of the keyboard, the whole family celebrated, having grown sick of life in the treble clef. It was even bigger news when I mastered not just a two-handed piece but a two-page piece from the John Thompson Instruction Manual called “Swans on the Lake.”
I must have been showing off this accomplishment to Lynne, because she somehow noticed that the song had lyrics, which I replicate here in their entirety:
Stately as princes the swans part the lilies and glide,
under the willows.
Are they enchanted men soon to be free again here,
under the willows?
Oh how I would like to be
here when the fairy wand
touches the leader and
changes his looks!
Would he be handsome and brave as the heroes that live
hidden in my fairy books?
Don’t ask me to explain how or why, but these lyrics spoke to my sister. She took it upon herself to make “Swans on the Lake” not just her vocal piece de resistance, but also the vehicle for her opera debut. To give you a feel for Lynne’s style, think: Maria Callas meets Miss Piggy.
The first time my parents heard it, they probably would have given Lynne a standing ovation had they not been off in search of thread, having laughed so hard they split their sides. Mom and Dad demanded an encore, which my sister was happy to give them. But only for a price, and only if she sang from her perch on the landing, where she could be heard — oh, could she be heard– but not seen. (And no, I did not get a cut of this action.)
If that seems inexplicable, then good luck trying to understand how Lynne became the main event, entertainment-wise, when my parents would invite their friends over for dinner. At the time, I was so excited about showing off my piano skills that it didn’t occur to me to question why my parents were paying my sister to belt out “Swans on the Lake” from halfway up the stairs. In hindsight, I am forced to conclude that they didn’t like their friends.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard my sister’s rendition of “Swans on the Lake.” Maybe this year’s Yank family Christmas dinner will be the perfect time for a revival. I think I’ll stockpile a few bucks just in case.