Category Archives: music therapy

Banjo Harmonies

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

Steve Martin is a lifelong devotee to the banjo

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.

Picture http://www.jamati.com/online/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/bela-africa.jpg

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

Bela Fleck with new friends

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 a great start.

Grief Work in the Basement Garden 2: Songs for the Journey

I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs:  “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.”  That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch.  In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years.  Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need.  You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.

There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list.  Maybe it will, maybe not.  But I do like to hear about songs others have liked.  So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.”  You probably have some great additions to this.

  • Peter Rowan, Legacy   “Father, Mother”   This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled.  A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers.  It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
  • Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters  “God Believes in You”
  • Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow    “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.”  Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
  • Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
  • Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin  “Borken Places”  I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago.  After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.

    Ashley Cleveland’s “Broken Places” is one of my favorites

    Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg.   is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places

Chained to the past, chained to the fear  
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races

I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes

  • Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic.  Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
  • Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor.  I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old  Nebraska farmer.  The song speaks for itself.  Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas.  CLICK TO LISTEN
  • Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around.  “Hurt.”  I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made.  It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song.  The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem   “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano.  Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father.  I listened to it again and again in the 1980s.  “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me.  Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
  • Rosanne Cash   Black Cadillac   This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.”  When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father.  Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”  Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died.  It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song.  It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs.  It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!).  You can listen to it all over YouTube.  It continues to speak to those who grieve.
  • Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute.  Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville.  It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999.  Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died.  My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…

     I’ve been walking in my sleep
     Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
     Where the years went, I can’t say
     I just turned around and they’ve gone away
 
     I’ve been sifting through the layers
     Of dusty books and faded papers
     They tell a story I used to know
     And it was one that happened so long ago
 
      It’s gone away in yesterday
      And I find myself on the mountainside
      Where the rivers change direction
      Across the great divide
 
     The finest hour that I have seen
     Is the one that comes between
     The edge of night and the break of day
     It’s when the darkness rolls away

  • Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns?  They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others.  Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds.  Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance.  My other favorites (only a few!):

“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance”  I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip.  I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Amazing Grace”
“Shall We Gather At the River”

Grief Work in the Basement Garden

This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press.  I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.

Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep.  People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon.  Holding a baby.  Counting blessings.  Waking up and drinking coffee.  Chance encounters.  Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin.  A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself.  God can show up anywhere, unannounced.

I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship.  I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting.  That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS

During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve

Grandpa and me, February 1956. I was the same age that my Granddaughter is now, 18 months.

string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen.  I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs.  After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.”  Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God.  It is all personal and private.

The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.

But as I sang it, something remarkable happened.  I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools.  We moved from there when I has only seven.  Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.

I am from the old school.  Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate.  But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy.  I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.

The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.  Then they perform tantrums.  They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.

Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up.  It was twenty-five years after I got the news.

Not that I had failed to grieve at all.  The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss.  I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.

Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well.  Up to you.  Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why.  Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live.  Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.

Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.”  Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me.  But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.

At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music.  He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there.  He is a terrific arranger and composer of

choral music.  He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief.  One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click)  He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.

I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it.  You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it.  I write out of those wells of feeling.  Disconnect from them and the song never happens.

You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog.  The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.

I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around.  And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture.  Too bad.  A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.

Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years.  Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.

Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin.  Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever.  You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone.  But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.

The Songs Remember When: Part I

“The Lord…gave me these sounds.” 

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a British-born neurologist whose maverick investigations inspired the Academy-Award winning movie, “Awakenings” and who gained notoriety for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of unusual cases of mental and emotional issues.  He is, as his website puts it, “physician, a best-selling author, and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center,” even being named the first Columbia University artist forhis contributions to the arts.  In his book Musicophilia, “Dr. Sacks investigates the power of music to move us, to heal and to haunt us.”

In his “Music and Memory Project,” Dr. Sacks collected and investigates the power of music on memory.  It is tempting, and I have even said this sometimes myself in thinking about identity, that when memory goes, so does our sense of identity and self.  Who am I when I can’t remember any more.  So often in my vocation I hear people say, “Mom left us long ago.”  In Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, an individual descends into a solitary cocoon of long-term memories, and then finally into silence before death.  Where did what we knew as “the person” go?

A friend recently shared a very moving video posted on YouTube of Sacks’ project.   CLICK HERE TO VIEW    It is a remarkable record of a man named who has debilitating case of Parkinson’s disease which rendered him inert and lifeless most of the time.  They learned from his family about some of his favorite music from Cab Calloway and others early in his life and put it on an MP3 player and put on the ear phones.  The transformation is remarkable.  He is alive again, eyes bright and he begins to move to the rhythm and sing along.  A glow of life continues after the music is taken away.

He says, at the end, “The Lord…gave me these sounds.”  There is something remembered in our bodies, our minds, our selves, deep and irreplaceable.  Human beings and the earth God made are sacred, all of it.  We should treat it that way. Read the rest of this entry