Interlude 3: Parlez-vous guitare?

In my senior year of high school, it seemed clear that I was bound for college and then law school. I’d become a very successful debater, winning regional and state tournaments and placing in the nationals. Scholarship offers came in from several good schools, but somehow I knew that I didn’t want to debate my way through life. I was really, really good at it, and I loved being good at it. But I didn’t love it. The thing I loved was music. So when the acceptance letter from Concordia College arrived in the spring of 1974, I decided that’s where I was going to go. I’d major in music, sing in that wonderful choir, and become a choral conductor.

But here’s the thing. I loved science too—until a high-school physics class drove it out of me. As spring turned to summer and I started to get ready to leave for college, I felt a rising panic. What if studying music drove the love out of me in the same way?

By the time I arrived in Moorhead for my first semester, I’d decided I wouldn’t major in music. I took the usual freshman courses: writing, an art history survey, astronomy. I had taken and enjoyed French in high school, so I continued that as well. With a musician’s ear, I had an aptitude for it, a good accent, and I was able to muster a sort of shameless exhibitionism that made me comfortable speaking it. That got the attention of my instructors, which is how I ended up teaching in the Concordia Language Villages program, which is how I ended up majoring in French, which is really how I got into classical guitar.

At the end of my freshman year, I took a month-long trip to France with a group of sixteen classmates and spent the rest of the summer working at Lac du Bois, the French summer program for the Language Villages. In the fall I moved into La Maison Française, the off-campus housing for students majoring in French.

One of my new housemates at La Maison, David, played guitar and mandolin and was into what today we call “roots music” like bluegrass, Americana, and blues. Those interests rubbed off on me and we played a lot of music together. I learned some flatpicking and more complex fingerpicking styles, and we formed a bluegrass trio with a fiddle player and performed at coffeehouses. Another French student told me about a singer/guitarist named Michael Johnson who was going to perform at Concordia. He sang the kind of sad, earnest love songs that any college sophomore would love, with intricate guitar accompaniments. But instead of the usual steel-string, he played a classical guitar and had studied in Spain. When he came to campus his guitar playing really impressed me.

I’m not sure why classical guitar hadn’t attracted my notice earlier. I got my first classical guitar album while I was still in high school—Christopher Parkening’s Parkening Plays Bach, which is where I heard the Chaconne for the first time. I loved that album because it was Bach, but the technique was so different from what I knew that it seemed like a completely different instrument. I recall buying a book of simple Bach arrangements and playing them on my steel-string and my electric, but it never crossed my mind to take up the classical guitar. It took a different album to change that.

In 1975 Columbia Records issued a double LP of guitarist John Williams playing Bach’s four lute suites. As with the Parkening album, my interest was driven more by the fact that it was Bach than the fact it was guitar. I took the album back to La Maison, put it on the stereo, and started washing the dishes. The music kept drawing me in, and when Williams arrived at the Double of the gigue from BWV 997—fantastic playing, fast and clean, like nothing I had ever heard—I dropped the dish I was drying and it shattered on the countertop.

This was guitar playing. This was what I wanted to learn!

The next day David and I went across the river to a small music store in Fargo where I bought my first classical guitar— an Alvarez-Yairi from Japan, with a top made of cedar and back and sides made out of some exotic wood called jacaranda. It was beautiful, but at $600 it was really more than I could afford. Once I played it, though, there was no question in my mind. Fortunately, the woman who ran the store took a liking to me. In the end I gave her $300 and she hired me as a guitar teacher to work off the rest.

The following summer I returned to France, this time as a co-leader of a Language Villages cycle tour of Brittany for high-school students. Then it was back to Lac du Bois, where one of my responsibilities was to teach French folk songs to the campers and lead song sessions after meals. There were a couple of native French speakers at the camp for the summer, and it was one of them—a young woman from Provence named Anne—who taught me my first real classical guitar piece: an anonymous Spanish Romanza that became well-known in France in the 1950s when it was used as the theme for film called Jeux Interdits.

This piece launched my classical guitar career and figures prominently in a future Interlude.

I had gone to Concordia to major in music, deciding not to because I feared losing my love for it. But as things turned out, thanks to the French connection, it was at Concordia that I really fell in love with the guitar.


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