#musicalchairs #facesofmusicalchairs #bud
That man staring ahead with a look of confidence and optimism is my uncle, Bud. His birth name is Cornelius Smith, named after his father – my grandfather – but he’s always been known as “Bud.” I’ve never called him anything else and I’ve never heard anyone call him anything other than “Bud.” I’ve also never seen him without a beard. He is my father’s eldest brother, born in 1943.
I grew up about a five minute walk from Bud’s and his wife Ann’s house, and my best childhood friend was their son, Michael (we remain quite close today). Their house was the first place I ever walked to on my own. I was given instructions by my father: stop at the main road and wait for cars to stop before crossing; phone home when you get there. I forgot to phone home but Bud and Ann understood that dad was likely pacing nervously around the kitchen waiting for the phone to ring, and took care of that task themselves.
From then on, that house became my second home. I was there probably far too often for anyone’s liking (besides my own parents, who would get a break from me), and frequently annoyed everyone due to my child self’s garrulous nature and inability to regulate his vocal volume or direct his urine squarely into the toilet. But neither Bud nor Ann ever said I couldn’t be there. Not once. I would often sleep there on weekends or Sunday nights when the adults all gathered to play cards, and us kids gathered to play make-believe games like “Palace” and “Bartender” (yes, we made believe we served drinks at a bar as children).
And we ate pizza. Bud’s pizza. It was something else. He made it all from scratch. You could walk through the kitchen on any given day and see Bud shirtless in ripped jeans and a backwards blue baseball cap, covered in flour and throwing pizza dough into the air, twirling it like a showboating Italian pizzaiolo. Being a scientist at heart, he would experiment with different yeasts, oven temperatures, leavening times, etc. and make notes on the results. Sometimes I’d awake in the early morning to the sound of a pan being dropped on the floor and Bud's voice, traveling in from the kitchen, rhythmically singing a string of profanities. It became a comforting sound.
When I say that Bud sang his profanities, I mean it. His harsh curses could turn into mellifluous melodies by the time he was finished the string of them. Like many of the Smiths, he lived and breathed music. He was a gifted guitar player and beautiful singer. He played in a band with my father and their siblings and they performed incredible harmonies together that could stand up with the Clancys or the Everlys or the Andrewses. I would travel with them to folk festivals and community halls and watch them perform, but mostly I would just hear them play and sing around the kitchen table. I didn't know it, but I was being exposed to very high quality live music on a daily basis from a very young age. That's a blessing. Bud also got me into music of the 50s and 60s when he made a mixed tape (for Michael, I think) of groups like The Crests, Del Shannon, Patsy Cline, The Everly Brothers, The Ventures, The Marvelettes, and The Fenders. Michael and I probably wore that tape out listening to it, and a pile of other tapes from his collection, too.
I don't think he'd begrudge us wearing out his tapes because, like many of his siblings, Bud was, first and foremost, a teacher. He was pleased to transmit knowledge and culture on to the next generation. He inspired curiosity in people and challenged us to think critically; and he was always interested in whatever opinion I or any of us had, eager to listen and eager to teach. (This is true of many of the Smith siblings, and perhaps truest of all of our dear family friend, Billy Houlihan, who is also a teacher by trade and by nature, and who was a driving force in me taking up music as a career).
Last year, I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at work. On Boxing Day (or December 26th for our American friends) I drove out to my hometown of Dunville and, as I walked through the door, mom told me Bud had died during the night. I was asked to play host, or M.C. or whatever you call that, at his memorial service. I'm not sure anyone had any idea how that service would go; I certainly didn't. But a slew of people came together in a room and what emerged was a beautiful, secular memorial: a final rite that was administered by the collective. No permission slip handed down from a representative of God saying it was okay for him to leave the world now; just a gathering of people who had encountered him coming together to recognize his contribution to our lives and witness his moving on.
Musical Chairs by Youngtree & The Blooms is available on CD and vinyl at Fred's Records and through the store on this website. You can also stream, download and follow on all streaming services.