Life Sketches: Whistling with my fingers, thinking of songs

Life Sketches

Whistling with my fingers, thinking of songs

By TERRY BERKSON • Special to

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

These days, much more than ever, there seems to be music playing in the background of almost every dramatic television program.

Years ago an experimental show called Cop Rock was aired for a while. It blended the drama with musical numbers. The songs were about what was happening in the story.

I thought it was a great idea but at that time it didn’t catch on. I was thinking of writing a story for several weeks but I wasn’t sure where to send it. In the meantime, a spontaneous score for the story kept playing in my mind. In fact, there’s always some kind of music going through my head — depending on the mood and situation I’m in. This was true of the title character in the movie “The English Patient” and I was wondering if this phenomenon was what jump-started the recent trend of music once again prominently being blended into a story. Again, unlike scores for cinema, this type of musical background also has words and the words reflect what’s going on in the plot.

We’ve all heard thousands of songs and melodies. At certain times and in certain situations many of us whistle, hum or breathe an appropriate song that is stored in our mental hard drive and is brought up by our subconscious. For several weeks I haven’t been able to get Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” out of my head. The other day I was humming it while on my way down to the lake when I realized that the title character in the story that I’ve been thinking of writing is named Sally.

Later, when I got home I sat down at the piano and played the refrain of “Lay Down Sally,” I didn’t have to think about it. My fingers played just the right notes to bring out the melody. It was like whistling. You don’t think about how to whistle a tune. You just whistle it. I guess over the many years that I’ve been playing by ear, I’ve developed the ability to whistle with my fingers, so to speak. A trained musician knows that if a song is in a certain key, specific notes don’t belong in the melody and when figuring out a song he avoids them. Without having studied musical theory, when I play a song by ear, I rely on intuition—just like I do when whistling. Sometimes I’m dead on to a melody and sometimes I have to hunt and peck. Occasionally, I fill in what I don’t know or can’t remember with my own rendition. That’s when Alice tells me that I’ve got a tin ear. But, it isn’t that I don’t hear the melody right, I just don’t remember all of it.

So, I’d been playing “Lay Down Sally” for weeks, just the refrain because I couldn’t remember how the rest of the song went. I got all of the words from the Internet, but my landline at that time wouldn’t deliver the melody. I called local musician Pete Hutchins to ask him if he knew the rest of the song, but he couldn’t remember. Then another tune started to play in my mind. It was by the Eagles and must have been filed in my head in the same subconscious category as “Lay Down Sally.” The song was “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and I realized that singing the words from that song filled in what was missing from “Sally.”

What I came up with was: “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight.

“With a million stars all around. So … Lay down Sally, and rest here in my arms. Don’t you think you want someone to talk to?”

Alice heard my rendition and started shaking her head.

“That’s not right!” she said.

“I know that.” I returned. “But now I have a soundtrack.”

“Soundtrack for what?” My wife asked.

“For my next story.” I said.

“Stories don’t need sound tracks.”

“Oh yeah. There’s music in everything! Power lines hum, trees sing. Forget about birds.”

“Is it a true story?” Alice asked suspiciously.


“So, who’s Sally?”

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