Recently I started singing transatlantic duets with my friend David, who lives in Yorkshire. He mentioned “Scarlet Town” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and I was keen to try it. David sent me some lyrics which didn’t jibe with how I heard the song, so I listened to the recorded track from “The Harrow and the Harvest,” running it back a few times to check particular words or phrases.

When I had done the best I could, I emailed a new version of the lyrics to David. Then I hunted up live performances by Welch and Rawlings on YouTube and watched Welch’s mouth, trying to lip-read as well as listen: was she singing “Cairo on a bet?” or “Cairo on a bend?” And was it “holly on the mountainside?” or “Polly on the mountainside?” Although I could hear no clear “n” or “t,” I put my trust in “on a bend.” Just to be sure, I listened to several other performers sing the song and found support for “on a bend” and “Polly.” Along the way I heard several clear enunciations of another phrase “a lean old time,” which I had heard as “leavin’ town” and David had heard as “a little town.” Welch and Rawlings do not include their lyrics in their liner notes or on their website so listening and comparing is the only way to approximate their songs.

In the folk world, misheard words are called “mondegreens” because someone once heard “They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen” for “They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.” Johnny, whose hearing for both words and chords was better than mine, laughed at some of my “mondegreens” in songs by The Eagles. I had interpreted “Life in the Fast Lane” as “I do the best thing” (I only ever heard it on the radio on a poor stereo system) and thought the phrase “a heartache tonight” was “a party tonight” under the same conditions.

When Johnny was alive, no matter what was going on between us I could ask him, “Hey, Johnny, what do you think Gillian Welch is singing here?” I could also ask him “What is that chord progression? I can’t figure out the third chord.” I could ask him, “What is Tracy Chapman playing in the intro to ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul?’” I could ask him to listen to any song and come up with a credible version that I could play, tailored to my skill-level as a guitarist. I marveled that he could listen to a recording and determine whether the guitar-player was using a capo or playing in an alternative tuning and also identify each version of each chord used. He had honed his skills by listening to music and teaching himself to play anything he wanted to play, playing along with recordings until his ears told him he matched a part note for note.

Within the first six months we were together, Johnny showed me how he drew a box chart for an arrangement of a song: each 4-beat measure got a box with a chord written in it. If the chord changed on the third beat, he drew a diagonal line from the upper right corner to the lower left corner and put one chord in each half of the box. Sometimes Johnny would draw groups of musical notes, quarter notes and dotted eighths, for example, and write the letters of the notes above them: he wrote out the introduction for Richard Thompson’s “Just the Motion” for me in this way and used blank spaces on the page to draw chord symbols for “Fsus2” and “Gsus4” before I learned how to count up the scale and create my own suspended chords. I responded to the chart with enthusiasm, writing him to say that having the chart made practicing fun rather than frustrating because it mapped how to get where I wanted.

Before I met Johnny, I devised most of my accompaniments impressionistically: for simple songs I could hear the chords, or hear chords that would do — chords that would go with the melody. I didn’t try to copy the arrangement on a record: what I did was learn the song by singing along with the record repeatedly, then singing the song as I walked around and went about my day and then finally picking up my guitar and fitting chords to the song I had now learned. For some things — like Joni Mitchell songs — I consulted songbooks, which featured tortured chord changes in standard tuning. None of this is necessary now: you can often find specific lessons for playing particular songs on YouTube where the guitarist breaks the whole arrangement down for you, and you can find a list of songs in each of Joni’s custom tunings on her website, but when Johnny and I started to play in the ‘50s and ‘60s the internet did not exist. I approached songs as a singer rather than as a guitarist (Feel free to insert derogatory music jokes here).

If I had met Johnny in my youth, I might be a better guitar-player today. By the time I met him I had my own ways of doing things; specific cheats for getting around barre chords, for example, and idiosyncratic chord changes to a few well-known songs. I had just a few formal lessons in some basic arpeggios, a few tips from other players. Although I started out playing exclusively in standard tuning without a capo, I soon employed a capo to move any song into a singable key with easy chords. My hands were never strong enough to master a full barre chord, except for a blurred-sounding F# minor. A fall I took in my fifties broke my left hand in two places below the index and ring fingers, temporarily destroying what hand strength I had and forever impairing my reach. I went to hand therapy, did every exercise I was given, wore strange contraptions of wire and rubber bands designed to stretch my bent ring finger, brought my guitar in to show the hand therapist what I would need to do in order to play. When I started busking shortly after Johnny and I got together, my left hand would sometimes cramp while I was playing, leaving me unsure whether I could make the next chord change.

I tried guitar lessons with Johnny a few times, but they frustrated both of us: with forty-some years of playing behind me I was not a beginner, but I was not a conventional player either. Eventually, we figured out that it worked better for me to consult him when I wanted to learn a specific lick or skill or “the right chords” to something. Johnny always obliged these requests from me no matter what the state of our relationship was and I always honored his skill and generosity in doing so. I miss his ears today as I forage forward on my own.