Thursday, February 12, 2009

Music for the Living and the Dead

I was sitting in choir practice a few weeks ago when someone brought up the prospect of the choir singing at a funeral. I do not recall who the subject of the conversation was, but I began considering my own death. Not that I was perturbed at or desirous of the effect, I was simply contemplating my own funeral. Now that Trillium and I have settled on where we are to be planted when that magnificent day arrives, I began to think about the program for the service. I thought that since I was to be the focus of attention, I ought to have a say in what transpires before I have no say at all.

I have only had one piece of music on my mind and heart when I have thought of the concluding ceremony. I fell in love with it the first time I ever heard it performed.


And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen !

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills ?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills ?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire !

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.

William Blake

I am an Anglo-phile. I have been my whole life. I prefer English literature over American, even though I have studied both. I have stood at the top of Sears' Tower in Chicago, but I prefer looking up at the facade of Queens College or contemplating the lovely interior of Radcliffe's Camera. The legend is, had my family remained in England instead of coming to the New World, we would have owned Oxford and we would have a larger burial plot than the one we presently have under a set of stairs in Westminster Abbey.

So as I sat there, contemplating my funeral, I said aloud, "I know what I would like you to sing at my funeral."

"What's that?" said our director, who can make broom handles sing and turn the meanest poem into musical glory.

"William Blake's 'Jerusalem'. You know, that same piece that was played at Harold Abrahams' funeral at the end of 'Chariots of Fire'."

Gordon chuckled, "Well, good luck. We probably will not be practicing that anytime soon."

I replied, "I am not hoping to have it performed anytime soon, but perhaps we ought to work it up just in case." The score has not appeared in our folders, so I have not been holding my breath.

About the same time that all of the morbidity appeared in our choir practice, Gordon introduced a piece by Gabriel Faure, "Cantique de Jean Racine" arranged by John Rutter. Jerolyn, our more than accomplished pianist, had already mastered the piece and when she began to play, I said to myself, "I can live or die by this". Faure had written the music when but a young man of nineteen in 1864 to accompany his paraphrasing of St. Ambrose's hymn "Consors paterni luminis" composed in the 4th Century AD. I never tire of it. Perhaps no one can ever tire of something wrought in divine passion and preserved in the amber of pure love.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mad Music Skills

One day, not so long ago, The Forest for the Trees were ensconced in the Dungeon practicing, or at least pretending to practice. I was attempting to work out some sort of accompaniment on one of the guitars when Jen said "Gee, Dad, you have some mad guitar skills". I was startled for two reasons. First, I had never heard the word "mad" used in that fashion. I have to say that I was somewhat pleased at the evaluation once I knew what she meant. Secondly, I didn't think that what I was doing was particularly "mad" or "skillful"; I was merely trying to make something pleasant to go with our singing.

I have thought about that phrase a lot during the last month or so. I have wondered what Jenny would have thought if she had heard me playing when I was practicing eight or nine hours a day, when I did have "mad skills". Even when I was merely practicing an hour or two a day, I found that I was able to do some things with my instruments that lack of practice has caused me to lose. When she made that remark, I had not picked up the guitar for more than a week. I began to have an old familiar groan rise up within me.

I have also thought about what I would consider "mad guitar skills" and who really had them. I know that there are rock musicians that are touted as being the great guitarists of our lifetimes, but for some reason none of them have really done it for me. Typically they have been loud and muddy, very little crispness in their performance. I have heard only one guitarist in my entire life who really had "mad skills". I was glad to have known him; he was my friend.

I am not sure when Jon Woodhead first picked up the guitar, but by age sixteen he was one of the finest guitarists in the country. Since then he has played with the likes of John Stewart (of Kingston Trio fame), Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, Leon Russell, Ace, Peach, and many others. We collaborated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part because Jon said he actually liked some of the songs I had written. We wrote a few songs together, he providing the musicality and I the lyrics. Some of the pieces I put on "Rollin' Home" several years ago; some of them bring just a little moisture to my eyes when I listen to them.

As we cut the tracks, I usually ended up on the twelve-string guitar and Jon did all of the rest. He was the master of the fret-less bass, the slide guitar, the keyboard, and a multitude of other instruments that I had never seen before, much less held in my hands. My particular moment of astonishment at "mad guitar skills" took place one evening as we were warming up in his front room. We started talking about music that we both liked, folk and contemporary blues and such. He asked me if I heard Cat Stevens' "Bona Mone Jakon" album. I told him that I had almost worn my copy out and that I thought that Stevens was one of the most innovative rhythmists in the business.

He then said to me, "Do you remember this?" He then played the clearest rendition of the guitar riff of "I Wish, I Wish" I have ever heard. He "out-Stevensed" Cat. I was thunderstruck. I had him play it over and over again. Here were "mad guitar skills" in person, in the flesh, sitting two feet away from me.

One of the great tragedies of Jon Woodhead's career is that he was never really appreciated the way that he should have been. He has had a life full of music, but he has not had the recognition that he deserved. Whenever I think about choices I could have made as a young man, desiring to be a professional singer, I think about that vagaries of the system that allows noisy, disharmonious, abusers of sound to come to the forefront and subjugate the real masters in relative obscurity. What could I have done in that industry that would not have eventually destroyed me? I have often felt like I had been on a battlefield, with shells bursting all around me, bullets whistling by, and I barely managed to get out of harm's way just in time.

So I sit once a week with two of my daughters and one of my son's-in-law and make music, laying down tracks on that old Fostex recording system that Jon and I learned to use many years ago. Occasionally, one of them will say "Gee, Dad, you have some mad guitar skills", and I feel part of something really grand.