Scarlet Ribbons by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By Lessons

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In the summer of 1965 I decided I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. I was turning 14 at the end of the summer, and it was my second year at a leftist work camp called Lincoln Farm. One of my favorite aspects of camp was the singing we did — at campfires, during construction or forestry projects, or riding in the back of open trucks. We sang folk songs, and civil rights protest songs, and labor movement songs, all to the accompaniment of one or sometimes many guitars. So I signed up for a guitar class. The featured image is from parents’ visiting day that summer, when I was showing off my newly acquired skill for my parents. I am sitting on the porch railing of one of the “motels” that we campers lived in, which I had helped to build the summer before.

Unfortunately, like piano and art and so many things that I started, I didn’t stick with it long enough to get good. I think I only mastered three or four chords. However, there were quite a few songs I could strum using some combination of those chords. The most complicated song I learned how to play was “Scarlet Ribbons.” The arrangement I was taught required plucking the strings individually during each verse, and strumming chords each time the bridge came around. I was very proud of mastering it.

After that class at camp, I never took any more official lessons, although friends who played guitar would give me pointers. The problem was that wherever I was, there was always someone who could play much better than I could. So I would end up singing while they played. That was a lot easier, and therefore more fun. In my twenties I even did a few gigs with a couple of guys, where both of them played the guitar and all three of us sang. That was a pretty common set-up in those days – think Peter, Paul, and Mary, where Peter and Paul both played the guitar and Mary stood in the middle and just sang.

Still, I can’t help thinking that had I kept on with it, I could be really great by now. I see that there are many programs online that enable you to teach yourself to play the guitar at home. I might try that. After all, I still remember how to play “Scarlet Ribbons.”

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Characterizations: been there


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Go for it, Suzy! I always wished I could accompany myself on piano or guitar (I took one year of piano, but like any respectable 5th grader, wouldn’t practice). Amazing that you still remember how to play “Scarlet Ribbons”. I am sure you were proud when you strummed it for your parents, and rightly so. It is fun to sing along with others, but now it would be fun if others could sing along with us, right? Even though I sing every week during the school year, I am losing the ability to really read notes, a truly terrifying thought. I was so good at it once upon a time. Go back for it while you can.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Betsy! We’ll see if I actually do or not. So many things I said I would do once I was retired, and I haven’t gotten around to any of them yet.

  2. John Zussman says:

    I’m struck by the can-do spirit of your youth—our youth, really—that whatever we put our minds to, we could do. I’m just sorry it had to be “Scarlet Ribbons.” In 8th grade music class, we were studying musical form (A-B-A, A-B-A-B, etc.), and “Scarlet Ribbons” was the song we learned it on. The teacher played it over and over, ad nauseam. So I’m going to picture you, on that porch you remarkably built yourself, singing “If I Had a Hammer” or “The Times They Are A-Changin'” or “Early Morning Rain” or “I’m Going to Say It Now,” if you don’t mind. Anything but “Scarlet Ribbons.”

    • Suzy says:

      I apologize for putting this earworm into all of our heads. And such a ridiculous story the song tells, now that I think about it. I like your suggested songs better, especially (of course) Phil Ochs and another fave of mine, Ian & Sylvia.

  3. Don’t I recall that your musical career didn’t stop with three chords on a Sears-Roebuck mail order guitar? Certainly the apt and clever titles to your Retro stories suggest more than a passing relationship with music.

    • Suzy says:

      I don’t recall if the guitar in the picture was mine or Lincoln Farm’s, but I’m pretty sure it was higher quality than the phrase “Sears-Roebuck mail order” suggests. And yes, I have had (and continue to have) a long and varied musical career, it just hasn’t included playing the guitar.

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