07 March 2012

"Barn Music"

Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around music. I grew up in Wisconsin, and we had five acres of trees and meadow and a huge storage shed (we called it "The Barn"; I think it was actually a storage shed, a workshop, and an abandoned horse stable all connected into one). Such lovely days those were...talk about being able to roam free and be a kid. I blame it for my hyperactive imagination.

Picture something along the lines of this...
...And this. With dozens more trees and long, shimmering grass
My most frequent memories of my childhood there inevitably involve the barn. My dad seemed to always be in the barn, and my younger siblings and I loved to play nearby as he tinkered with this engine or that tire or rebuilt the enormous 4020 John Deere tractor he'd bought for a bargain at the Minnesota state fair (we didn't have a farm, but he's a farmer at heart).

He'd like as not have a basketball game playing on the dusty, paint-splattered, 12-inch black-and-white tv with a turn-knob remote, and though we could hardly see anything for the static, my dad liked to tune in as the scores tallied. The tv sat on his workbench amidst oily rags, assorted screws, bolts and washers, wrenches, hammers, grease cans, screwdrivers, wadded paper towels and small car parts, and my siblings and I would stand on our tiptoes, lean on our elbows, reach as far as we could, and play with the light-dark monitor on the tv. One minute everyone on the screen would be from darkest Africa; the next instant it would look like an albino convention.

This was the family Harley/Corvette project
I remember the smells of the barn—car grease, paint, wood shavings, and fuel from the small plug-in heater unit in the winter. My favorite was the lovely orangey smell from the solution we rubbed in our hands to wipe the car grease off them.

I remember my dad sitting on a bucket or one of those wheeled boards he got under the cars with (what are those things called? I even asked a couple guys once, and they couldn't tell me), building benches or changing the oil in his truck. He always wore his faded Levi's jacket with sheepskin lining and collar, worn at the elbows and stained here and there with car oil.

It was cold in the barn, warm in the workstation, and if we did not bring our own coats out we were sorry. Often it would be dark outside when we played in the barn, for in Wisconsin the days grow short quickly, and by the time my dad was home from work the light would be gone. I remember the cold and the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, the more yellowish glow of the spotlights he used to check engines.

We kids would take his wheeled stools and chase around the room or spin them around until he'd tell us to stop. We played with his hammers (and lost them), fooled around with his screwdrivers, and had sword fights with PVC pipes. We'd play outside in the frigid weather and then rush back in every once in a while to get warm. Or we'd stand around the spotlight stands and watch mesmerized as sparkling dust danced around the bulbs.

And always, it seemed, there was music in the background.

Aside from the Mayberry tv set, my dad had an enormous multi-cd stereo (this was the day before computers), and he listened to music constantly while he worked. If he was in a good mood, the music was soft and lyricless. If he'd had a bad day at work the music would have a beat. Sometimes, when it was too cold to work on the tractor, he would get it into his head to organize the barn, and it made my head spin wondering how he was going to delve through the mountainous odds and ends on his workbenches. It must have frustrated him too, because during cleaning time the barn rocked.

I couldn't let you believe that back then, at age seven, I was really that in tune with my dad's moods. But he still does it; and what's more, I've followed in his footsteps.

I've also inherited his eclectic musical preferences. They span decades and continents. But it seems the magical '70's and '80s identified with him most when he was in his barn moods. Three artists in particular I remember listening to over and over again while my dad worked on the tractor or on various building projects in the workshop.

I had no idea who the artists were, and didn't until a decade later when I loaded my first iPod. But I recognized the songs, and for years they played in my head at random moments, and I looked forward to Saturday mornings when my dad didn't have to go to work and would turn on his music; I still do, for it reminds me of the home that childhood is.

Multiple years and music movements later I still listen to these workshop artists, and they bring back the smells, the hair-freezing cold, the hardness of the cement floors and the nostalgia of being young and short(er) and safe again and having nothing to do but play and look up to people and things:

An Irish rock star (from Dire Straits) turned film composer. This piece still says "Saturday Morning" to me like nothing else...except maybe Looney Tunes and frying bacon.
Yes, he did the music for The Princess Bride too.
Mark Knopfler's "Irish Boy"

This arrangement of haunting wood flute and strings section still resonates years later, proving the genius of the Italian composer behind 20th century's timeless Spaghetti Westerns. To me, this brings back the feeling of childhood most; the Old West genes I got from my dad thrill right down to my toes.
"Cockeye's Theme"

For years my siblings and I referred to this album as "The Barn Music." This one is still our favorite song from this bridge '70s/'80s band.
"Dialogue, Parts 1 and 2"


  1. Way to capture memories with words. I never quite know how to do that. Thanks for bringing me some happy nostalgia.

  2. I didn't think I did too good a job of it. Thanks!


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