The Songs We Carry by Joe Mills

An iconic scene in the Tom Hanks’ film Big takes place in the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz. There is a long piano mat stretched out on the floor that plays notes when the keys are stepped on. Hanks, a child in a man’s body, walks on it, then slides across it, then starts tapping out part of “Heart and Soul.” He’s joined by his boss for a duet, and they jump gleefully around. When they finish “Heart and Soul,” they go into “Chopsticks.”

There is much to note about this scene, including the joy at music-making, the use of the whole body to play, the connection that stems from collaboration, the appreciative audience that gathers around, and the fact this moment helps get Hanks promoted in the company. However, what interests me are the song choices. The characters are decades apart in age, even more so than one of them realizes, yet they both know the songs. In fact, many people, even if they don’t know how to play anything else, can do a rough version of “Chopsticks” on the piano because someone showed them when they were young.

The songs we learn as children remain with us. In addition to “Chopsticks,” a neighborhood friend taught me the opening of the Pink Panther theme song. More than forty years later, when we bought a piano and I sat down, it was one of the first things I worked out. I had long ago forgotten the names of the notes, but I could remember the sequence. When my daughter passes a keyboard, she sometimes will sit and work out “Fur Elise.” I suspect that she will continue to do this her entire life, but even if she doesn’t touch a piano again until she’s elderly, she’ll still be able to do it then.

Music goes deep into our bodies. My mother has dementia. When it was in its early stages, we were amazed at how a jukebox in the assisted-living home could snap her into lucidity. Even when she could no longer recognize certain people, she would recognize “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Then, when she could no longer remember the lyrics, she still remembered the melodies. When a song would play, her head would lift.

Curious about what songs other people carry around inside, I did an informal Facebook survey, asking: FB Friends — What, besides Chopsticks, did you learn to plink out on the piano as a kid? The one you can still do years later?

Fifty people responded. The two songs mentioned the most were “Heart and Soul” — nine times — and “Fur Elise.” In the “classical” category, there was also: “Ode to Joy,” “The Blue Danube,” “Mozart Sonata in C,” “Swan Dance,” and, as one friend noted, “A Bach Two-part Invention that sticks with me decades later like a bad ear worm. Would much rather remember all of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.”

Folk or traditional songs included “Tennessee Waltz,” “Danny Boy,” “The Entertainer,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Country Gardens,” “The Snake Charmer,” “Comin’ through the Rye,” “Doe, a deer…” “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater duet,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “Twinkle Twinkle.” There was also the patriotic “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “Yankee Doodle.”

In the pop/rock division, “Lean on Me” was popular, and people mentioned Natalie Cole’s “Our Love,” Frank Mills’ “Music Box Dancer,” Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” which had the comment, “[because] my parents are awesome. Also learned how to play CSNY’s ‘Our House’ at a pretty young age.” Other songs were Chilly Gonzales’ “Never Stop,” “Layla,” Winnie the Pooh, “Clocks” by Cold Play, “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue” and “Let It Be.”

Some, like me, learned theme songs, including “The Peanuts theme song,” “The Flintstones theme song,” the theme from “The Young and the Restless,” and the Banana Splits Show theme. Movie songs included the main theme from Jurassic Park, the James Bond theme song, “Chariots of Fire,” “Arthur’s Theme,” and “Cruella DeVille.”

One person mentioned “Silent Night,” and another said, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and then noted ruefully, “If only I’d retained a Christmas song that people actually sang…” There was also one post: “Beginner piano book 1946, “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.” I can still play a few of them. Book still available.”

If I knew more about music and music education, and if I was smarter about writing about it, I might be able to make insightful connections and observations about these songs. I would dazzle with my insights. However, reading the list mainly makes me want to have a party where my friends come and play what they’ve been carrying deep in their bodies.

The party could be called something like: “Big: Songs from the Child Within.” It would be a “recital” that no one would have to practice for, or dress up for, and, unlike the recitals of our youth, alcohol would be served. (In fact, that might be a key element as it would make the playing and the listening easier.) Maybe instead of using the piano, we could even spread a keyboard mat on the floor.

The nice thing about this idea? There’s no rush. We can do it at any time, even years from now. Those songs aren’t going anywhere.

Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.


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