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Buckwheat, the Singing Dog

The dog that gave Pavarotti a run for his money.

Buckwheat the singing dog.

It was over twenty years ago that a lovable, golden-haired mutt named Buckwheat came into our lives. A photograph had appeared in our local paper, featuring him as “Pet of the Week.” We dashed over to the animal shelter and adopted him into our family, right in time for our oldest son Matthew’s ninth birthday.

As we sang “Happy Birthday to Matthew,” we discovered that Buckwheat had a special talent. He sang.  Buckwheat didn’t howl, as other dogs might. He sort of came down on the notes, intoning an “oooh” sound.  He traveled up and down his range with that “oooh.” He had a certain poise, almost spiritual, as he got involved in the song. More than just noise seemed to be coming from him.

While our three sons were in school, Buckwheat would curl up at my feet as I worked at my desk. He listened with benign tolerance to my classical music selections.  But he had a passion for Pavarotti. He came to attention at the first strains of “Panis Angelicus.” With his front paws crossed, he would tilt his head back—and totally drown out Luciano.  I liked “Panis Angelicus” and preferred Pavarotti’s rendition to Buckwheat’s. But Buckwheat was so soulful, so intense, I would never silence him.

“O Holy Night” was on that same Pavarotti Christmas album. Buckwheat would quietly listen to the English version. Then, as soon as Pavarotti began in French with “Minuit Chrétiens,” Buckwheat would accompany him. We never understood why this was. Someone tried to explain that perhaps Buckwheat didn’t know the words in English.

We had a friend who was quite a skeptic. He was certain we were embellishing Buckwheat’s musical ability. The first time Bill met Buckwheat, I went upstairs and turned on “Panis Angelicus.”  Buckwheat didn’t let me down. Up the stairs he trotted, with Bill following. He positioned himself in front of the boom box in my studio, crossed his paws, tilted his head back…and sang with all his might.  Bill was astonished. “You should put him on television,” he advised us. “He’s incredible!”

Buckwheat’s musical interest wasn’t limited to vocal pieces. Matthew loved playing the piano but detested piano lessons. How grateful he was when Buckwheat would join in during those sessions.  The piano teacher, who came to our home, was not impressed with a canine accompanist, however, so I had to bribe Buckwheat into the kitchen with dog biscuits.

As the boys grew older, Buckwheat broadened his repertoire to include their guitar arrangements. He was selective in what he would perform, but he always had an appreciative audience.  Everyone thought he should be on television. Were we doing him a disservice by not sharing his gift with humankind?

Buckwheat’s big chance came during a summer when the local news was as dried up as the fields. I had been interviewed for the newspaper because I was co-producing a talent show for teens.

Although he wasn’t scheduled to perform, Buckwheat sat in on the interview. I happened to mention his unique ability to the reporter.  Of course, a reporter wouldn’t want to miss a chance to hear a singing dog. So, in my off-key voice, I lured Buckwheat on with his old standard, “Happy Birthday.”  He followed along quite well, drowning out my part of the duet.

Buckwheat impressed the reporter so much that he wrote a two-column article that appeared on the front page. Accompanying it was a large photograph of Buckwheat with my son Michael.  Folks loved it. They were grateful to read about something besides the oppressive heat, and it was a very well-written piece.

Several days later a representative from a Martinsburg, West Virginia, television station phoned. Could Buckwheat and I appear on their talk show? I thought my sons would do a better job, but the station manager insisted on me.  My personal apprehension about appearing on television was diminished by my great concern as to how Buckwheat would respond. There was no guarantee how he would act under the lights. Suppose he barked, or worse yet, suppose he wouldn’t do anything?

I should have refused the offer, but the boys were high-fiving and jumping all over the place at the prospect of having Buckwheat on TV. I couldn’t let everyone down just because of my misgivings.  At least I had the presence of mind to insist that they tape a video of “the singing dog”before the live show…just in case.

My television interview went well. Buckwheat didn’t bark at anyone. But Buckwheat proved himself to be a temperamental tenor and refused to sing. I was glad we had the video backup.  Buckwheat’s television career ended in Martinsburg.

However, our local radio station must have been hard up for programming. To this day, I still don’t know where my brain was when I agreed to pick up the phone and go on the air with Buckwheat. I had no desire for the community to know how flat I could sing “Happy Birthday.” But I sang—solo. Buckwheat refused to perform.

I couldn’t understand why Buckwheat was so provincial. Why didn’t he want to share his talent with the world? Why was he so uncooperative? My opinion of him flagged. I hadn’t expected him to provide income for the family, but I thought he could have been more responsive. I was disappointed. However, Buckwheat was a wonderful part of our family for fourteen years.

One evening, several years after his death, John, the boys’ guitar teacher, stopped by. We all gathered around the kitchen table, reminiscing. I mentioned that I never did understand why Buckwheat would sing only for us.

It was John who put things in a different perspective. John, who sought fame and fortune with his music…who worked menial jobs to have more time to polish his stage performance…John, who wanted more than anything to be a successful musician…it was John who understood.

John explained that there are many who have talent and who want to reach the top, to be a star, to bask in the adulation of others. But there are very few who, like Buckwheat, have a gift that they enjoy sharing only with the ones they truly love. They don’t need the praise of the rest of the world.

I think John was right. Buckwheat didn’t need the limelight. He was content to share his talent with his family and friends, down on the farm. And how blessed we were to have had a singing dog!

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