Author’s note: My father, Edwin Charles Hopp, died on October 27, 2012 after a stroke. He passed peacefully at age 87 with family and hospital staff watching over him. Through his difficult last days, he never expressed anger or frustration to anyone. He died as he lived, sweetly.
THE LITTLE FINGER OF MY FATHER’S LEFT HAND
By Thomas P. Hopp
The little finger of my father’s left hand. Most people consider it the least of their fingers. It’s the pinky, the baby finger, the one least able.
Not so with my father. Although he was right-handed, the last digit of my father’s lesser hand had an uncanny power in it. It was a source of great emotional and physical movement when he brought it down on the keyboard of a piano. Then, it took on a force far beyond its endowment. It had the ability to make people move, to make them dance and sing, and shout, and applaud. It embodied an almost supernatural capacity to make people forget their sorrows and pains and frustrations, to live in the moment, to allow joy to overtake them, body and soul.
Edwin Charles Hopp studied piano for a dozen years as a child and as a teenager during the depression years of the thirties and the war years of the forties. He learned both classical and popular tunes but found his greatest forte in pounding out the feverish rhythms of the boogie-woogie tradition. He developed an exceptional ability to deliver the great bluesy barrelhouse sounds of the likes of Pine Top Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey, Pete Johnson, and Tommy Dorsey. He culminated his skills with mastery of the incredible boogie magnum opus, Jack Fina’s “Bumble Boogie,” a hyper-rhythmic reworking of Rimsky Korsakov’s already frenetic “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” To hear Ed Hopp play it was a transfixing, transfiguring experience.
In boogie style, the initial low tonic note of the bass line is sounded with the little finger of the left hand, often followed by the thumb of the left striking the octave. This strident bass figure is the essence of the eight-beats-to-the-bar boogie-woogie rhythm that makes it one of the most danceable of all musical forms.
When my father sat down at the piano and his left pinky sounded out that first clear and compelling note of the bass line, amazing things would follow. As his hands moved forcefully over the keyboard, his left would finger the pattern of one or another boogie bottom, while his right would contrive melody lines that were themselves rhythmic commands to tap a toe or get up and move to the music. Whole rooms full of people would rise and jump and shout when Eddie Hopp brought the eighty-eight keys to life.
I recall myself as a child, crawling around the living room floor in time to the strident beat of “Bearcat Strut,” while my father practiced his piano alone as he did most afternoons before going to work the swing shift as a printer. No doubt he took some fatherly satisfaction in my movements, inspired by his evocation of the mysterious creature. On other occasions, I can recall one or another of his grandchildren, scarcely able to walk but bobbing a head to the irresistible beat.
When family and friends gathered at our home, or when he found himself urged to sit at a piano in some bar or clubhouse, Ed would pound out that sure and steady rhythm and couples would begin to dance the jitterbug to the cheers of onlookers and listeners focused on the mesmerizing beat. The time to party was never far off when Ed Hopp and a piano were together in the same place. In his prime, he could literally make the piano bounce. Entire rooms would ring with music and cheering voices.
In the last days of his life, when the stroke had come and the ability to speak had left him, there was little to do but wait for his next dose of morphine to ease pains that had developed in his legs. But the last capable part of his body was that left hand. Lying in his bed, he would point to people or things with it to make his thoughts known by nodding yes or no when asked if his message had been understood.
He would hold out that left hand flat and flutter it like a leaf in a breeze to indicate that he was too cold. He would hold it out with thumb tip and index fingertip circled and pinky high to indicate that his warm blankets had been snugged up just right. And he would hold out that left hand for us to shake as his sign of gratitude for our help and concern, or to say goodbye when a visit was coming to an end. The little finger did its part then, clasping along with the other fingers, pressing the other person’s hand firmly, gently, and fondly.
One morning, he just didn’t wake up. To the very end though, there was love and warmth and feeling–and uncommon strength–in the little finger of my father’s left hand.