Tom Dooley

Some years back Vickie and I vacationed near Boone, NC, home of Doc Watson. We stayed in a place with a view of Grandfather Mountain and traipsed around in the Smokies for a week. It was great. We ventured over to Wilkesboro, NC where the events remembered in the old murder ballad “Tom Dooley” happened. There are many versions of the story and many versions of the song, but here is a more traditional one I recorded a few years ago more in the style of Doc.

Read a most interesting piece on the migration of lowland Scottish people to Appalachia via a stay and invitation to leave Ireland for the new world. Fortunately they brought their music with them and a century later, thanks to their geographical isolation, they had preserved it almost without alteration. Because they were from the lowlands of Scotland, they emphasized the fiddle rather than bagpipes, for which we may be grateful. The highland pipes are wonderful, but you can’t listen to a two hour concert of them. They’re like the accordian–better confined to Lawrence Welk reruns or background. (Yes, I know the old definition of perfect pitch–you through the banjo into the dumpster without touching the sides and it lands on an accordion).

At any rate, these fierce, independent mountain people of the South were hard working, resentful of interference and suspicious of outsiders. And occasionally murderous. Wilkesboro was the capital of the moonshine runners who eventually took their souped up cars and started NASCAR. “Family Feud” was not a television show. It was a matter of honor and violence.

Thank goodness the territorial domination of men over women is no longer the same among intelligent people, but the song is a memory of a time when things were a certain way and shame was powerful. You may have heard the Kingston Trio’s version or any of a hundred folkies in the Sixties. I was attracted to that version when I started playing, but I like this one better.

In Wilkesboro they put on an outdoor drama every summer of the story of Tom Dooley and the murder of poor Laurie Foster. It starts with a Civil War re-eneactment, allowing the men and boys to shoot off blanks for way too long with almost no relevance to the story advancement, but it’s great fun. We waited out a downpour to see it, and had a great time. It’s a sad story and justice was severe in those days, but at least there were concessions. It’s worth a see. Take some earplugs.

Maybe it’s true what Elie Wiesel told us–to forget our sins is as great a transgression as to have committed them in the first place. Remembering and grieving are essential to healing.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

I confess, I have now been part of a ukelele flash mob, back when mobbing was not a public health crisis. But enough of that.

Every year, the curmudgeons, musicians all, who inhabit the couch and chairs at Fretted Instruments of Homewood, contribute tracks for a Christmas CD that is given away. This is one I did a few years ago–ukelele, mandolin, dobro and guitar played by yours truly. Oh, and banjo, just for good measure. Merry Christmas!

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was penned by Edmund Sears. Sears was a divinity graduate of Harvard and became a Unitarian pastor who “preached the divinity of Christ” according to Dr. Michael Hawn, a church musician and scholar of hymnody. By age 37 poor health forced Sears to give up pastoral work and he spent the rest of his career in publishing and writing.

According to Dr. Hawn,

Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:

“But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song, which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”

Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.’”

Thinking of this hymn in this way makes us hear the final two verses very differently. In the third verse we know in present versions, humanity, bent low under the crushing loads of our insanity and wars, do not yet know the hope that God sent forth in Jesus. They (we) are exhausted and nearly hopeless. Hear the words repeating through that verse: toil, climbing, painful steps, weary. The world is a heavy place. The angelic singing comes as a musical respite, notes of hope in the night.

Early Bethlehem was not much better. I wrote about this in another song on my last CD, “Down in Bethlehem.” There is a realism about the human condition in the gospels that we do not pay much attention to in the prosperous West, at least not until lately. The multiple burdens of the year 2020 and a world in pandemic lead us back to this hymn in a new way, don’t you think? Now, we too yearn for the fulfillment of that birth,

when peace shall over all the earth 
its ancient splendors fling, 
and the whole world send back the song 
which now the angels sing.

Now it becomes a prayer, a troubled thought in the night. We are not the first people in history to toss and turn in the night.

Reality

Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us.  I said, toward the end, these words:

“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”

Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton

They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:

I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this:  “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”

And this one from G. K. Chesterton,  The Everlasting Man  “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”  Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.

Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

CATECHISM WITH CHILDRENS BOOKS Some Helps for Parents

It is a daunting task to look for books.  The book of Ecclesiastes had it right. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Ecclesiastes 12:12 While I in no way can vouch for everything below, it is my best effort to find some useful guides to children’s books. I welcome any additions and helps. Parents are often the best resources for one another, but when it comes to faith, we often feel inadequate. I do, too, especially in the subject of children’s books. Many childrens religious books are trivial, superficial and some are downright wrong about God. You have to be careful when talking about heaven, God, Jesus, death and faith. So, here are some things that helped me.

 The Teaching Children Philosophy site is the work of Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from Mount Holyoke College  is an interesting site with a terrific booklist, each one having a study guide with summary about the books and suggested questions for discussion. Click here to go to the site.   Although it is not specifically a faith-based site, the issues and questions it raises overlaps with faith. A New York Times article about the author gives some background on how it came to be. Spend some time looking around.  The summaries are very helpful!

University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has a similar site and has put together a guide also with summaries and issues. It is well-researched, and can help a parent have substantial conversations with children.

In 2013 the New York Public Library published the 100 Great Children’s Books For 100 Years list of the most read (i.e., checked out) and favorite books of all time of the past century.  It is a wonderful list of books from 1913-2013, and most of us will recognize some of our favorites, but it’s also a good way to find some new ones.  It was chosen by their Children’s librarians.

Amazon books and other booksellers offer similar lists, although they are proprietors and may be a little different and about marketing rather than other criteria.  Amazon’s 100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime is found at

 

When it comes to religious books for children, I was overwhelmed by the choices. And not always in a good way.  From Mommyblogs to homeschoolers, these were all over the place. So I would say, “Search at your own risk.” You will find whatever you’re looking for, which is pretty much the problem of the internet KDQuiltmakerGiftto begin with—the lack of “guidance” for the uninformed. A good teacher matters! There are lists everywhere—NY Times booklists, Goodreads, Listopia, Religious Tolerance, denominational books, and so on. Oddly, sometimes they are some of the worst books for teaching faith, because they are either so overtly religious and pedantic that they lack the quality of inspiring curiosity, or they are theologically questionable. Still, there are treasures out there. Magazines like Christianity Today and the Christian Century occasionally make recommendations, and even the Mommyblogs can have some good suggestions. Just read them with a critical eye. Someone’s entusiastic recommendation does not a classic make… Continue reading CATECHISM WITH CHILDRENS BOOKS Some Helps for Parents