Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

A Sweet and Healing Balm

March 3, 2010

(I know I should have written this back before Christmas, but, as you know, we were a little overwhelmed at the time. So forgive me, but since I’m too shy to write a fan letter, this will have to do—my small way of saying “Thank You.”) 

As a woman to whom music is almost as essential as breathing, it’s funny that I only have one post under “Music.” To quote myself (from several posts back), music “can express the inexpressible like nothing else. It can articulate my deepest sorrow, my greatest joy. It is my prayer when I cannot pray with words.”

Most of the music I heard in my early life was confined to the wonderful old hymns we sang in church. My daddy was a Baptist preacher, so I was in church singing a lot—at least three times a week. To this day, I still remember the lyrics to those hymns and am comforted by the honest and straightforward poetry of the words.

When I was six, Daddy bought Mama her heart’s desire for Christmas—a stereo and one album, the Messiah. It was the first time I’d heard classical music. (You can read about it here—The Year the Messiah Came To Our House.)   I listened to it over and over—I couldn’t get enough of it. When I heard it, even my six-year-old earthbound self felt transported to a higher holy place.

As I got older, Daddy purchased more records, but they were mostly people singing the same hymns we sang in church (He was particularly fond of George Beverly Shea). One of Daddy’s favorite albums (that he played over and over at top volume) was Fred Lowery Whistles Your Gospel Favorites. Now Mr. Lowery could whistle like nobody’s business, but when you’re a teenager, hearing someone whistle Sweet Hour of Prayer at eighty-five decibels is not on your Top Ten List of Favorite Things.

When I was in high school, I got a job at the library in town. They had an extensive collection of Appalachian music, and I heard the lap dulcimer for the very first time. I was so smitten by the sound of it that I saved my money and next time we headed West, I bought my own lap dulcimer. Undoubtedly, I was the only teenager in my eastern North Carolina high school that played a dulcimer. And, believe me, in my high school, in the 70’s, playing a dulcimer was considered about as cool as listening to Fred Lowery Whistles Your Gospel Favorites.

Music has been a constant in my life ever since. Although my tastes have continued to change and evolve, the one thing that has never changed is my adoration of Christmas music. Funny thing that—since I really don’t care much for Christmas anymore (or at least what our culture has made of it). I guess I love Christmas music because it seems to be one of the few things about Christmas that, for me, remains relatively pure and unadulterated by greed and materialism.

It was late November, 1990, and things were difficult at our house. Daddy, then 75, had come to stay with us after surgery for prostate cancer. He was bedridden at first and on a catheter. Nobody told me that he was eligible for nursing care, so I did it myself (except for a cranky nurse who came once to show me how to do things). That was hard enough, but I also had a one- and two-year old to care for—pretty much on my own. Tom was working long hours to pay for the extra heating oil that our ancient furnace required to keep our drafty house warm for Daddy. In addition, Benjamin (my one-year-old) was having physical therapy for hypotonia (a not uncommon manifestation of autism). I was told to do the therapy with him for several hours a day. Then, I found out that I’d need to drive Daddy (with babies in tow) sixty miles roundtrip for radiation therapy every weekday for six to eight weeks. To say I was overwhelmed would be a definite understatement. Even when I finally got to bed, I was too tired to sleep. And who could sleep anyway with a one-, two-, and seventy-five-year-old calling you at all hours of the night?

It would also be an understatement to say that money was tight. We were flat broke—living on eight dollars an hour with the price of heating oil that winter through the roof (no pun intended). Certainly no money for Christmas gifts. Tom and I both told each other that we didn’t care about presents anyway. And I didn’t really. Except for one thing.

I’d heard a little snatch of a brand new Christmas album on public radio, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The album was We Three Kings by The Roches, three sisters who got their start singing Christmas music on the streets of New York City. So, after I found a good deal on it, We Three Kings became Tom’s and my Christmas gift to each other.

It’s amazing how sometimes something comes along at the time you most need it, and it turns out to be exactly what you needed. I can’t say why exactly, but this album was exactly what I needed then. It was the perfect blend of humor and holiness, of the silly and the sacred—from a hilarious version of Frosty the Snowman belted out in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent to Bach and Handel sung in joyful, gorgeous harmonies. And even though the Roches are often irreverent in their music, their genuine love and respect for Christmas music was evident here. My favorite piece on the album was an original they wrote themselves, the heartbreakingly lovely Star of Wonder. Its ethereal beauty made me cry then and still makes me cry now.

I played it over and over that Christmas. Good thing my family loved it, too. Benjamin couldn’t walk yet, but I’d hold him and we’d dance about the room with Ariel laughing and dancing, too, clapping her hands to the music. Even Daddy liked it (though he probably would have preferred to hear Fred Lowery whistling Christmas carols.) To this day, it is the first album I play when the Christmas music season starts.

We Three Kings brought light to us in a dark time. It was my salvation that bleak winter—a gift, a blessing, a small miracle. I will always be grateful for it. And grateful for the sweet gift of music. It is my refuge, my salvation, my healing, my comfort, and my prayer when God seems far away.


Charms to Soothe a Savage Beast

September 22, 2007

Okay, I know it’s “soothe the savage breast,” but I like beast better.  When I feel rage and grief arise and feel…well…like a beast, music is such a balm to my angry, weary spirit.

Soon after Tom (the man who is now my husband) and I met, I made him a tape of music that I loved so he could get to know me better.  He did the same for me.  The music you like says a lot about you, I think.  And music is almost as essential as food and water to us.  One of the first things we discovered about each other was that we both were big fans of Doc and Merle Watson.  In fact, we saw it as a good sign when it turned out that his Doc Watson record collection filled the holes in mine, so that together we had a pretty complete set.

Anyway, I thought for fun I’d list the first ten random songs that come up on my Sansa (no, I don’t have an Ipod.  You got a problem with that?)  If nothing else, the selection will probably expose me for the eccentric oddball that I am.

So Are You To MeEastmountainsouth  Oh, I am so glad this one came up! It is a love song—the kind that might bring a tear to even the most jaded eye.  The melody is so pretty and their harmonies are gorgeous.  I’m sad that they only made one album before breaking up.
Banjo BoyRyan Shupe and the RubberBand   With a band name like that, you might have guessed that this would be a funny song.  You’d be right.  Damn funny.  And he lays down some funky grooves with that banjo.
Cattle CallLeAnn Rimes and Eddy Arnold   I have always loved this yippy-yi-yay yodel from the first time I heard it. It just makes me happy.  My son Benjamin has always hated this song from the first time he heard it, so naturally his sister and I have to crank it up and sing it at the top of our lungs every time it comes on (Sorry, Benjamin!)  But, dang! That LeAnn Rimes can flat-out sing.
Take These Chains from My Heart-Hank Williams   What can I say?  One of the great songwriters of our time.  What a pity he was taken so early.  This is another one that we crank up when we play it in the car and sing along until people in other cars begin to point and laugh.
We’ll Meet Along the WayHem   What a beautiful song—an interweaving of voice and instruments that is lush, rich, and hypnotic.
World Spins Madly OnWeepies   Wonderful harmony and catchy songs with intelligent lyrics.  I also like the solo work of Deb Talan, one of the two Weepies.
Up to the Mountain (MLK song)-Patty Griffin    An amazing singer-songwriter.  She sings beautifully, with deep feeling and writes songs with complex melodies and intelligent lyrics.  To me, she manifests more soul and talent than all the Britneys, Mariahs, or Christines put together, so why isn’t she more recognized?  Ah, well.  This is a wonderful song inspired by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.  And she feels it.  Say AMEN!
You Are HereThe Whitstein Brothers    Sweet harmony inspired and influenced by the Louvin Brothers.  I love the simplicity and poetic nature of the lyrics of the love songs they wrote, including this one, sung in old-time country harmony style.  They even did a couple of Simon and Garfunkel tunes—in the same style.  It works for me.  My favorite of theirs is Rose of my Heart.
I Think of YouMr. Rogers    Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood wasn’t around when I was a kid, but I watched it with my children.  He was so genuinely kind and gentle and somehow could almost make you feel he really was talking to you when he said, “I like you just the way you are.”  And don’t we all need to hear that?  I love this song and sing it often, thinking of my children away at college:  When the day turns into night/And you’re way beyond my sight/I think of you/I think of you/When the night turns into day/And you still are far away/I think of you/I think of you.
Time After TimeEva Cassidy    OK, I cheated on this one.  This isn’t the song that came up, but no music list of mine is complete without Eva Cassidy.  She is the only singer I can think of whose covers I like better than the original artist’s work.  Cyndi Lauper had a fine hit with this one, but Eva, with her magnificent voice and sensitive guitar playing, has a bit of an edge, in my humble opinion.   Another incredible talent taken before her time.  If her version of the old Irish standard Danny Boy doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, well, God help you.  Your heart has surely turned to stone.