My beloved song book has traveled approximately 7,600 km with me in the late 70s, from Singapore to Melbourne, then to Sydney and back to Melbourne within a month. In the early years of my stay in Melbourne, it sat in my suitcase while I moved around a dozen places – from shared accommodation to pensioner boarding houses, rented flatettes and apartments, looking for work. I lived the life of a nomad, but my song book never complained. Once I had a room with a little bookshelf which could hold several books. My song book would share the bookshelf with my other books.
The song book was purchased in the late 60s, an era before the arrival of the CD, DVD and computer. For most beginners on the guitar, song books like these were the only source where chords of songs could be found.
My song book has over 650 pages, divided in several categories: folk, pop, yuletide and rock songs. In the middle section, there are several pages of chord diagrams, for the guitar, ukulele and banjo as well. There are music sheets at the end of the book for the more advanced musician.
As a beginner I relied completely on the chords which sat on the top of each line of the lyrics. Years later, I learnt that not all the chords were correct. However, I was not in a position to question the accuracy of the chords; if it didn’t sound right, I’d blame my strumming, or perhaps I was singing out of tune.
One afternoon I was shopping in Chapel Street, South Yarra, with my friend Anne. I stood outside a music shop, looking through its glass window at the guitars on display. I pointed to Anne the guitar that I liked. Later she surprised me with the guitar while I was sitting on the chair of the hairdresser having a hair trim. That was the early 80s, five years after I left Singapore. Now that I had a guitar, my old song book once again became my regular companion during the many nights when I would serenade myself while imagining I was one of the Gibb brothers (Bee Gees) or the Everly Brothers. My song book was no longer tucked away in my suitcase. It now sat on my study desk, coffee table or sofa. It was a familiar and comforting sight, a constant reminder of the times I had first struggled with learning the guitar back home in Singapore.
One night I was enjoying a few beers in my rented room of a boarding house, strumming the guitar with my old song book. Most of the residents in the makeshift rooms built at the back of the house were aged pensioners. As the night wore on, the more I drank the louder I sang and the more off-key my strumming became. It wasn’t long before Don, the ex-Korean War veteran from next door, popped his head into my room and asked if I was alright. He was probably concerned with my mental state as I was doing a Janis Joplin act, wailing on “Will the circle be unbroken”. Or was it “Me and Bobby McGee”? Yeah, we shared a few beers and a good laugh. That was in 1983.
In recent years I discovered the internet – lyrics and chords of songs are now readily available and you can hear most songs on YouTube. My song book has since been relegated to the top shelf of my wardrobe. Each time I open the wardrobe door, it looks at me with forlorn eyes from its state of exile. Occasionally it’ll be taken out of the wardrobe when, in a nostalgic mood, I feel the need to look at all the old songs I used to play.
My old song book will never be forgotten. It will always have its special place in my heart for being my faithful companion throughout the vicissitudes my early years in Melbourne. With the passage of time, my song book has aged, lost its front and back covers and several pages. Many of its remaining pages have faded to a yellowish hue, fallen apart and dog-eared. Its physical deterioration makes it so much like us. Of all the things I’ve brought with me from Singapore, only two remain ... a brown suit case, and my beloved song book.
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