In early 1949 I received the good news that I had passed with honors my Senior Cambridge final exams in New Delhi. As a result I was thrilled to learn from my parents that they had decided to send me to London University to gain an engineering degree as well as to the Royal Academy of Music for a Licentiate Performer’s Diploma.
So, in the late summer of that year, and for the very first time, I saw the sea and sailed on it. Those were the days of the big passenger liners, before rapid air travel put an end to leisurely ocean voyages. My ticket was on the liner Strathaird, pictured below on the brochure of its owner, the P&O – formally known as Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
It took just over a fortnight to reach England, but there was never a dull moment on the voyage from Bombay (now known as Mumbai) via Aden and the Suez Canal to Port Said and westward via the Strait of Gibraltar to Southampton/London. (The upper blue dots in the map below from Bombay across the Arabian Sea and the upper ones through the Straits of Gibraltar on to London mark the actual sea route.)
On board, and soon after the boat set sail, I bumped into an attractive brown-haired English damsel about my age – she was then all of sweet 16! – and her name was Jeanie. As my abiding hobby was, and has been, Western Classical music and piano-playing, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite songs, Stephen Foster’s Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, as soon as we first started chatting on the foredeck overlooking the dark blue Arabian Sea.
Incidentally, Foster was not what you might take to be a “classical” composer, yet some of his best-loved songs have been used in orchestral compositions. Consider, for instance, Ernest Bloch’s quoting Old Folks at Home in his ‘America’; Aaron Copland’s citing Camptown Races in his ‘A Lincoln Portrait’; and the same goes for Elie Siegmeister in his ‘Prairie Legend.’ But, by a long shot, my all-time favorite has been Foster’s beloved song Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.
Since neither Jeanie – the person on board, that is! – nor I had a berth to oneself, the breakfast room was our venue of choice each morning to chat and talk about this and that. As the day wore on, we would play deck quoits or a card game or simply stroll in the brisk salty air. And, of course, we occasionally took to the dance floor on special evenings during the long voyage.
By the time we disembarked in Southampton we were more than fast friends and talked about meeting each other ashore in ‘Ole Blighty’ ere long. Alas! It was ne’er to be, because despite my best efforts – there were no social media in those distant days of yore! – I never met Jeanie again during my five years in her homeland.
However, “Jeanie” the song lives on in my heart and in my fingers. Off and on, when I’m at the keyboard doodling away, I recall a bright summer’s day on the high seas, even though it was so many moons ago; and the words come back as well, when I hear the incomparable John McCormack singing it (in 1934) in a recording on YouTube.
Before you leave this page, take a moment to check out the song right here and follow the opening lyrics below:
John McCormack: Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair
“I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.”
Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas