About a year and a half ago, Cambridge resident David McKeen found a flier in his mail that would change his perception of music.
It was an announcement from the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, calling veterans to participate in the 2013 competition. His music won state awards and a bronze award on the national level that year.
This year, McKeen brought home a first-place medal for his harmonica-guitar rendition of “Blue Moon.”
A history of his guitar
McKeen has had music swimming in his head since he was a boy. His parents bought him a baby ukulele when he was 8 years old. He remembers strumming the childhood number “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” while singing along to the tune.
His fifth- through 12th-grade years were filled with singing in the church choir. He joined the chorus in high school, but he didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 16. He’s been playing it ever since.
“I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years and four months,” McKeen said recently, chuckling.
McKeen took a break from performing in the late ‘60s to play the second lead solo in an operetta called “Carousel.”
“It was the first time I got to sing on a stage that big,” McKeen said.
His love for performing inspired him to take jazz guitar lessons in 1968. Little did he know that it would be the guitar that would calm his nerves during the war.
While in Vietnam
McKeen joined the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam as a cook in 1970.
In an attempt to take his mind off of the conflict, he asked his wife to send him his beloved electric guitar. Between breaks and evenings of down time, McKeen would play his stringed instrument with a jazz trio four nights a week. The three of them could sit down for a four-hour practice session and would end up with 20 new songs.
“We all played by ear,” McKeen recalled.
There was one song called “Monday Monday” by The Mamas & the Papas that they did. He said the middle part required an accordion, and the lead man didn’t remember how it went. McKeen said, “Well, I could sing it to you.”
He sang it to the lead once, and it only took that one time for the lead to master the melody. Another man, Will Thomas, was on the bass guitar and he had never played bass before, but he found a bass guitar and played along with the other two. He was just a natural, McKeen stated.
“It kind of took my mind off the war,” McKeen remembers of the trio. “It was a really good escape for me because — in a war zone — you didn’t know if you’re the next one to go.”
They would pull names of songs out of the air and would continuously end up with new numbers to play. They would put their practices on stage to perform for officers.
He helped other officers set their minds at ease with mellow jazz numbers. Since those years, McKeen has learned to perfect his strumming and picking to create close-to-flawless renditions of classic jazz and folk ditties — much like the one he performed to win the national award this year.
McKeen remembers his first harmonica: a chromatic that had a button.
“The button kept getting scrunched, and I would keep bending it back,” McKeen recalled.
The button finally broke, and McKeen gave it up. About 43 years later, he met a 96-year-old man named Walter at a nursing home who would change the way he played the instrument forever.
McKeen would listen to Walter play and would wonder how he got the harmonica to sound like two instruments. McKeen asked Walter, “How do you do that?”
But Walter responded that he didn’t know how — mostly because the 96-year-old had been playing for 81 years and it was second-nature. McKeen — with a new interest in harmonica — resolved to visit Walter every two weeks until he figured out the trick. McKeen finally figured out the technique, which he used to win first place for his song “Blue Moon.”
In the booth
It’s a cold January day in 2014. McKeen sits in a makeshift sound room at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Center, with a harmonica strapped around his neck and guitar resting in his lap.
Three people tend to him: one keeps time, one is in charge of settling him in and a third announces his act.
McKeen and other performers are allowed three acts, each with a three-minute limit. Take one doesn’t cut it, and he asks to start again. Something happens with take two, and he wants another try. They’ll only allow another take if there’s time. Thankfully, take three not only works on the difficult song — it’s flawless. His lips shift easily on the harmonica, while fingers glide along the strings of his guitar to play them in tandem for the first verse of “Blue Moon.” He plays chord melodies with just his guitar in the second verse, and the announcer calls time.
“By then I was oiled up,” McKeen said. “I almost couldn’t believe how perfectly everything was going.”
In March, McKeen saw the video for the first time. It took first in the state and went on to receive first in the national competition. He’s even been asked to play it at the national festival by the same organization Nov. 2.
He hopes that his story inspires other veterans to show off their talents. He says that the competition spurs him on hopes it makes others feel like they can contribute beyond the realms of their combat.
This year’s festival included 3,208 veterans from across the country in all genres of art, from creative writing to dance and drama.
McKeen competed among 958 other veterans to win in his “instrumental solo jazz/rhythm & blues” category.
About 147 veterans will perform along with McKeen in a gala variety show at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee.
McKeen will also be one of the select few to participate in the Festival Art Exhibit and Stage Show Performance at the Milwaukee State Theater. For more information about the competition, visit http://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/caf/index.asp.