“There was a boy…a very strange, enchanted boy…they say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea…”
I heard my father sing this song many times when I was very young. He played and sang it with his guitar, sometimes by my bed. As soon as I heard the opening lines, I felt comforted. I felt somehow close to the boy in the song and wanted to comfort him, too. I thought at first, that maybe the song was written about someone in our family…maybe someone who disappeared mysteriously and it made me feel a little sad. I was sure that my dad had written it because it just had a homemade sound. It was not like any of the other songs my father played, which were a lot of blues, jazz standards, folk songs, and Civil Rights song. I heard lots of Count Basie and Frank Sinatra on records in our home but “Nature Boy” was different. It didn’t have the fanfare and flag-waving grandeur of “Fly me to the Moon” or “The Lady is a Tramp”. And we didn’t own the record; my dad just sang it to me with his guitar.
Years later I heard the Nat King Cole recording of “Nature Boy.” It gave me a shock to hear it: how did the lullaby that my dad wrote get on the radio? I quickly learned my mistake. I found out that “Nature Boy” was composed by a man named Eden Ahbez, not my dad.
“Nature Boy” continued to be my favorite song. I remember singing it a capella a few times in pubs in England and Ireland in my early 20’s and playing it on guitar while busking on the streets of Paris and Athens.
I returned to the U.S. in 1979 and was living in my hometown of Los Angeles. I was singing in Irish bands and giving music lessons but I needed more work to make ends meet. I was a single mother with a toddler. One of my music students was a fiddler who was also a piano tuner. As soon as he told me that; I felt a giant “YES!” vibrate through me and I knew I wanted to learn to tune pianos. The whole idea just clicked with me because I adored listening, I loved singing harmony and creating vocal arrangements and tuning is all about hearing and listening to relationships between notes, called intervals. I fell in love with tuning and working on pianos which took me to a job at Pacific Piano Supply in North Hollywood. I drove 50 miles round trip 5 days a week from Santa Monica. I was the only girl among a lot of cute, musical and highly skilled guys; most of them also surfers, sweating in muscle tank tops.
All day long, we laughed as we worked on pianos and filled orders for piano parts that we sent out to customers. I was studying piano tuning with the boss who was an old school type of piano tuner: the kind that comes to your house in a suit and stays all day, drinks tea with the family and tunes, cleans, adjusts your piano from the wheels up to the lid. I loved learning to listen to the subtle inner vibrations called beats, the overtones and sub-tones, false beats and the fundamentals. It was a new language of sound that fascinated and delighted me. I was on a mission to get the whole world in tune: one instrument at a time.
We all took turns at the customer service counter. Not many people came out there. North Hollywood was a little out of the way and we sent out piano parts and supplies all over the country so it was mainly a mail-order business as well as repairing and re-building pianos. It was kind of boring and lonely at the customer counter, removed from the busy, noisy piano repair shop, big as an airplane hangar, in the back.
I was all alone there one hot dusty day when a small man walked in. He had long, straight fair hair, white, loose-fitting clothes. He reminded me of Papa Smurf or a guru. There was something almost mythical about him. He was carrying a zither-like stringed instrument. He held it out and asked “Can you tune this for me?” I was excited because I loved to tune things — guitars, fiddles, cellos and pianos of course and I enjoyed a challenge. So I took some time with it until I was able to figure it out and get it more or less in tune and then I handed it back to him. I was turning away to straighten up a shelf or something when I heard those opening notes: “There was a boy…a very strange enchanted boy…they say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea…”
“My lullaby!” I cried out. Then I told him, “That’s my favorite song! My dad used to sing it to me when I was little and I thought he had written it for me!” The small man smiled with obvious delight and said “MY name is Eden Ahbez and I wrote that song…” I clearly remember what I can only describe as a dramatic pause as he finished the sentence with, “and I wrote it for YOU!”
What happened next is hard to describe. Eden Ahbez and I sang “Nature Boy” together and laughed and enjoyed one another in a very deep way. I remember him saying to me “I drink your essence!” It was very intense, mystical and spiritual. I wondered later if this much older man was flirting with me or was just overcome with emotion and this crazy connection we felt.
More than 30 years later, a young man named Brian Chidester was doing a film about Eden Ahbez. I had recorded another song he’d written called “Land of Love” in 1999 (here’s my recording with Dennis Irwin, Harry Whitaker, Memo Acevedo, Cafe, Elie Massias) and this Brian found it online and got in touch with me. He said it was his favorite version. He was doing a recording project of many of Eden Ahbez’ unrecorded songs in a collection called “Dharmaland” and I got to be part of the wonderful project along with a number of other singers and musicians. I learned so much more about Ahbe (Eden Ahbez’ nickname) and his prodigious talent as a songwriter, his wisdom and sincerity and sorrows.
When I met him in 1979, Ahbe was living outside in the Hollywood hills, underneath one of the “L’s” on the Hollywood sign. He chose the letter “L” for Love. I learned later that he hiked over to Pacific Piano Supply now and then to visit, which made sense. He did seem a little lonely.
“Nature Boy” was written and recorded many years before I was born, but that doesn’t matter. I feel incredibly lucky to say that the composer of my favorite song told me that he had written it for me and I believed him.
Vocalist Eve Zanni first joined Local 802 in 1989. To submit a personal essay to MEMBER TO MEMBER, send an e-mail to Allegro@Local802afm.org.