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!”
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.
Mark and I are finished with our album. I’ll post the release this week upcoming. One of the songs on it is a recent composition entitled, “Hope to Be Together.” It’s about Thanksgiving, but the mood and message reflected this unusual moment we are sharing–pandemic, separation, isolation and disconnection.
I will be releasing holiday and Christmas music over the coming days and weeks. After a bruising election, pandemic, global grief and sadness and economic hardships, it is not a bad idea to sing (even if we can’t do it together)!
This first one was part of a soundtrack I produced for an indie film by my former bandmate Greg Womble entitled “Visitor to Virgin Pines.” It’s a story about faith, failure and separation and the hope of reconnection with one another, a perennial prayer of Christmas, I think. It was a great short film. This particular song occurs as background to a section in the center of the film when the mother is telling her story. I did all of the music for the movie, and it was a new undertaking for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My bandmate, Melanie Rodgers, played the violin with me on the opening music.
I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.
Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.
Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.
My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar. My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.
Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass. Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.
Adapted from my newsletter column to the church this week at www.vhbc.com:
As I was looking over past writings and came upon this one, from 1994. It still seems useful for now.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
The problem of life is not faith, but fear. Fear of failure can paralyze a talented person from ever trying. The fear of success can explain why many equally-talented people seem to sabotage themselves just on the brink of success or achievement. Psychologists tell us that fear is the root of much procrastination in the perfectionist who can never begin the task until she is a little better prepared.
Fear can keep us silent in the face of evil when we should have spoken. It is the fear of change that paralyzes our wills and reduces life to discontented mumbling against fate rather than risking ourselves to move forward. The fear of death can turn us hollow and brittle, fearful of a misstep and terrified of suffering. Fear grants a thousand deaths to a cowering heart.
Change, all change, brings fear with it. Transitions surpass our past copings and leave us exposed and vulnerable. We are once again where we find ourselves continually in life: thrown back on our wits and facing the unknown.
Every day, every week, we are facing changes as individuals, as the church, as families. The creative possibility is that in the face of change we will choose with courageous faith to trust God’s new life through us rather than fear.
Parker Palmer says that “the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is ‘Be not afraid’…the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all our birthrights–the experience of aliveness itself.”
As we look at the world around us, it is not a brilliant observation to see that we are in a time of suspicion, distrust and unkindness. The cheapness of life, the anger and fear of our culture, and the rampant selfishness of too many is easy to see. But what to do about Continue reading “God’s Dream and Our Fear”→
We must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them.
Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.
Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death. It is, in many ways, our most universal experience. It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship. The question is, “What are we to do with it?”
I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.
One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is this one:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thess. 4:13
I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.
The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows”→
“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read. Or rather, what finds us”
When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago. One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?” I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.
I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then. I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music. Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, Continue reading “Exploring the Discography of Life”→
“The genetic code of bluegrass and old time music is more sophisticated than that. It carries stories of birth, life and death in the old days. It tells of children dying young, tragic love, shame, murder, alcoholism and faith. To learn the code, no stereotype will do. You have to descend into the music and listen.”
In 2005 I took a three month sabbatical to study, pray, and feed the senses. I went to art museums, read books, went to Nashville to learn about the music industry and played at open mic at the Bluebird Café, reaching one
of my bucket list items (the ultimate would be a gig on the “Prairie Home Companion Show” while Garrison Keillor is still on earth!). But a lot of that time was “exploring my roots,” musical, theological and spiritual—which led to a week at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp.
I’d been to the Kamp before, in Maryville, Tennessee. Unless you are a devotee of the guitar and acoustic cousins like the mandolin, the “fiddle” (violin played a certain way), bass, banjo or dobro, you don’t realize that hundreds of camps happen every year across the world where musicians gather and play and learn the heritage of “roots” music—folk, jazz, country, celtic, and so on. In these places, campers rub shoulders with the legends of bluegrass, swing, fingerpicking and new acoustic music. I met legends like Bill Keith, Clarence White, Continue reading “Mapping the Bluegrass Genome”→
Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends
and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.
Fifteen Years. That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf. We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another. We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers. Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available. (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)
The album sounds great! We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert. Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result. He captured our live sound and energy. It sounds like us! There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide. We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.
I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band. We have become family together. We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not. Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Continue reading “Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates”→
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is