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Tuesday 7 June 2011
“Swans on the Lake”

Filed under music

My mom when I was seven or so bought from a friend or coworker an upright piano. They put it at the top of the stairs. I guess she learned how to play it when she was young. Sang in the choir. Was proud of her musical background and hoped, the idea was, to instill this in her kids. Shani, the eldest, was probably a lost cause, already into her teen years by then.

But Jenny and I, we ate it up. The piano came with a ton of instructional books in the bench, most of them from the early-to-middle part of the twentieth century. Our friends the Soltyses up the street had an upright, too, and their bench was filled with books that had sheet music for current TV theme songs. I learned to play the “Cheers” theme by myself, though I feel like Jenny learned it before I did and was better at mastering it.

At any rate, the first song I ever taught myself to play with both hands at once—and if you want your children to learn how to read music, put a bunch of early-level piano instruction manuals in your piano and keep those idiots bored to tears on summer afternoons—was this one, “Swans on the Lake”, from the John Thompson instruction manual. I’m pretty sure it’s Grade I of a V-grade series.

Here are the lyrics, which until I found them online had only sketchily been running through my head all day:

Stately as princes the swans part the lilies and glide,
under the willows.
Are they enchanted men soon to be free again here,
under the willows?
Oh how I would like to be
here when the fairy wand
touches the leader and
changes his looks!
Would he be handsome and brave as the heroes that live
hidden in my fairy books?

It’s a dumb song, right? But in many ways it’s my ur-song. And if you know me, go ahead and Freud-up the whole thing to say A-ha! No wonder! and we’ll call it a late-spring’s eve.

2011-06-07  ::  dave

Talkback x 21

  1. Forrest Smith
    30 August 2011 @ 8:45pm

    God, I’ve had this song running in my mind for over 65 years, having first undergone Ordeal by John Thompson in 1944. So it’s nice to meet a fellow sufferer.
    Forrest Smith

  2. Meredy Amyx
    2 November 2011 @ 9:56pm

    This tune has been going around in my head for a week, rendered as a little two-handed piano ditty, and the words have been slowly emerging. By today I had all but two lines–more than enough to google with! I was amazed to get a hit. This was my first piano book, too, back in about 1953.

  3. Raven Crowl
    30 November 2011 @ 9:47pm

    Wow! I googled the first line and got a direct hit! This was from my first piano book in 1976. I like the song.

  4. Cindy
    1 December 2011 @ 10:15pm

    I too am so happy to find this. It was the very first piece of music that I ever learned. I was trying to play it this evening to teach it to my grandson. Cute song!

  5. Bette Jo
    13 January 2012 @ 9:17pm

    My best friend played this when she was taking piano lessons in grade school. I taught it to myself from listening to her play. I’ve always loved the meolody and lyrics. Now I finally know where to get the music. Thanks for putting to rest a 45 year search

  6. steven
    18 March 2012 @ 3:41pm

    yes indeed. stately as princes. it was about 1971 for me. it still swims through my head, a permanent fixture.

  7. karen
    22 May 2012 @ 6:14pm

    There were four children in my family. My mother (high school assembly pianist) knew this piece so well she could call out corrections from the next room over.

    “That’s a middle C, dear!” floating out from the kitchen.

  8. Julian
    5 July 2012 @ 1:00pm

    My story is exactly the same as yours, I am now 47 years old, was singing this song today, and my search brought me right here. Unbelievable! It’s the ur-song, indeed.
    I remember every word, it’s strange, and I can still play the song, even though after years of piano lessons its the only one I recall.

  9. Jeanie
    1 September 2012 @ 11:12pm

    Yes. In my head. John Thompson. I can rest now. : )

  10. Kevin
    10 September 2012 @ 9:41am

    That was one of my favorite songs from the John Thompson series. The words may seem trivial (hey, it’s an introductory piano course book), but the melody was very dreamy. I have good memories of it.

  11. Michelle
    27 October 2012 @ 8:15pm

    I’ve always liked this song since I found it in an old piano book that belonged to my dad, even though I don’t really know what it is supposed to sound like, since I’ve never learned more than the super-basics of playing a piano. The memory of it was stuck in my head today, and I was regretting that the book had been given away, and that now I would never get to find out what it sounded like, but I did some searching and found the piano book on amazon, saw the title, and found this blog, and now I am sure that this is the song I was looking for. Thank you~ Now I’ll be able to hear it someday, since now I know the title.

  12. Martin
    22 January 2013 @ 5:53pm

    I remembered it clear as day that rather than ,’ in my fairy books,” it was , “under my fairy bush.” My adult misrememberings of childhood tend to try to make piano lessons more psychedelic.

  13. Valerie Mitcham
    21 March 2013 @ 9:17pm

    Oh, my goodness! Thank you for putting these lyrics out there. My sister sang part of that song on a voice mail to me today and I could only remember part of it and I sure couldn’t remember the title. It was so much fun to play that song on the piano back in the day….circa 1970…I’m so glad you posted it! Thank you!

  14. Leslie Funderburk
    3 April 2013 @ 12:43pm

    I can’t believe I found this after 60 years. My family could not afford piano lessons for me so after the kids across the street had their lessons I went over & they taught me what they had learned. I can only play with one hand but I learned “Swans on the Lake” & every time I get near a piano I try to play it. At age 69 I have decided to learn to play the piano & was shocked to find out I could purchase this music book from the 1950’s. I love the internet. Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

  15. Aimee Schmidt
    4 April 2013 @ 8:40pm

    I, too, suddenly, had the tune revolving around my head. Thanks for those lyrics.
    Under the willlll-owwww

  16. Karefree
    19 November 2013 @ 9:32am

    Logged on this morning to my BING desktop. I just love my daily pictures from around the world.

    Anyway, today, Nov 19, there is a lovely swan floating in the mist. No lillies but under the trees…I immediately flashed back to my Upright Wurlitzer in Bloomfield, CT playing this song by ear at age 7.

    I had to remember the lyrics and found this forum.

    BTW, I love the song….so perfect for the little princess girls like I was….oh! and still am. :D

  17. betty
    20 November 2013 @ 5:48pm

    This song is special to me because every time my dearest friend came to visit, I would grab her and take her to the organ and plan this song for her. I never learned to read music and this is the only song I knew out of the John Thompson Music book. She is deceased now and I collect swans in remembrance of her. I was in High School then.
    Now I am 80.

  18. David in Dallas
    20 January 2014 @ 10:41pm

    Me, too! I’ve thought of this little tune/song often lately. There is a similar turn being used right now in some car ads that I also had learned to play (back in 1949). I’d kind of like to find it, too. (I’m 76 and still remember the words and the tune.)

  19. Stacy
    7 March 2014 @ 9:57pm

    Awww….this song has been one of my favorite favorite ones for as long as I can remember. I’ve just turned 38, so I’m sure I picked it up at my grandma’s piano. I used to sing this and a slightly personalized and modified version to my daughter when she was very small. I can still remember how to play it on the piano. She’s 15 now…I don’t sing to her now, unless she’s really sick. But when I do, it’s this song that is familiar and comfortable to her now too. <3 all the feels <3 I'd have never dreamed I wasn't the only one who this music made an impression on.

  20. danny english
    6 April 2014 @ 1:41pm

    I was taught this song when i was a kid and it was my favourite piece.

  21. Valerie
    6 October 2014 @ 3:55pm

    I have had this song going around my head for the past few days. I tried to google it but I got no where. and then slowly, the words changing his looks came to me and then the words my fairy book came to me. I found this site and i’m so happy. I am still able to play this with out sheet music. I got mine in the mid 60s from my grandmother. Thank You!!!!!

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