Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Five: Music of the Spheres

Songbird, at RevGalBlogPals, writes, "...It was the same Martin Luther who said: "I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor." On this Friday before Reformation Sunday, let's talk about music. Share with us five pieces of music that draw you closer to the Divine, that elevate your mood or take you to your happy place. They might be sung or instrumental, ancient or modern, sacred or popular...whatever touches you."

Oh dear. Only five?!?

When I read the instructions for this morning's Friday Five, I immediately raced over to my music-box (one o them fancy 4-in-1 things) and put on my CD of "Sing Lustily & With Good Courage" by Maddy Prior with the Carnival Band (CD-SDL 383, copyright 1990 Saydisc Records, England). The recording, commissioned by the BBC for the 250th anniversary of John Wesley's spiritual awakening at Aldersgate, takes its title from Charles Wesley's "instructions for singing," found in most Methodist Hymnals and also posted in the choir room of the United Methodist church in which I grew up. Look up the full instructions when you get a chance-- they're a delightful read and, even now, an excellent set of instructions for group singing.

The lusty, courageous singing and instrumentation of this recording are a real, well, EAR-opener for anyone who thinks "traditional" hymns are dreary and boring. They were, in the 18th century, a rather shocking innovation. Not only did they stray from strict adherence to the texts of biblical psalms, they often employed tunes that verged on being rambunctiously secular. But that wasn't all that upset the BigWigs and Hie-Heid-Yins. As Andy Watts says in the liner notes, "What made the hymns so different form the old metrical psalms was their expression of personal religious thoughts and feelings in vigorous, emotional language. They spoke of God's love for sinners, salvation for the individual, the liberating power of Jesus, the inner experience of the Holy Spirit, strength to withstand oppression and the promise of future glory. This was abhorrent to most of the Anglican Establishment and the ruling classes."

So, with my customary delight in doing things abhorrent to the ruling classes, here's my list of five:

1.) "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing." Once you get past the ridiculous mental image, it's a wonderful tune of upwelling joy. I always heard it as confirmation of a multilingual path towards spiritual truth-- that no single tongue, no single voice or language is sufficient to teach us all there is to know about God's Grace and God's ongoing involvement in Creation.

2) "Be Thou My Vision" This mystical hymn wraps itself around me like a warm embrace from my spiritual and cultural ancestors. The tune, "Slane" is an old Irish one, dated at least to the 6th century. The hymn's imagery echoes old Celtic praise-poems and travelers' prayers of protection. Curiously, it also represents one of my few quarrels with the move to "inclusify" and democratise the language of American hymnals. I much prefer the old words, in which Jesus is proclaimed "High King of Heaven." Admittedly, the reference is lost to American singers, but this refers to the old hierachies of the Celtic Lands, in which many small local kingdoms deferred to a "High King" as their ultimate leader and wise arbitor. With all the petty kingdoms and tiny idols we modern folk worship, I still find it meaningful to understand Jesus as a wise leader whose stories and virtues inspire us to extend our gaze beyond our own navels.

3)"Lift Every Voice" (words: James Weldon Johnson, music J. Rosamund Johnson, c. 1921) Unlike "Be Thou My Vision," this anthem emerges from a struggle outside of my culture and ancestry, but I do not love it less. It makes me feel connected to the deep and powerful "soul-force" of the African-American freedom struggle. When I sing it, every breath re-embodies the truth that "an injury to one is an injury to all." The forceful rhythm draws my footfalls into a greater march. The music lifts and even shoves my spirit upwards and onwards. This anthem holds me accountable for my own role in the great drama of justice-seeking.

4)"Freedom Come-All-Ye" (Hamish Henderson) Many Scottish folk continue to call for this song to be named the new National Anthem of Scotland. It was written by one of my personal heroes, a Scottish soldier whose wartime travels to Africa and experiences of shared suffering somehow moved him to transcend hatred and bigotry, to love "the fellowship of man" MORE fully and deeply. (I use the gender-specific term on purpose, as Henderson's experience was truly one of brotherhood with his fellow soldiers.) Here, he has taken a pipe tune from the First World War, "Bloody Fields of Flanders," and put Scots words to it that draw a connection between Scotland's own history of struggle and oppression and the South African struggle against Apartheid. (Henderson was a long-time correspondent with Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment.) It's a visionary masterpiece that has become one of my own "get-my-courage-up" songs.

5)"The Joy of Living" (Ewan MacColl) Ewan wrote this song in his own struggle to come to terms with the approaching end of his life. I learned it from the singing of Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, two Scottish tradition-bearers who knew MacColl very well. Their recording of it was played at my grandmother's funeral. Just now, I keep this song in mind as I mourn the crossing over of another dear one, my friend Bruce. I think Bruce and Ewan would have gotten along famously--they shared an intense desire to live each day to its absolute fullest, to do all the good they could in their years' span.

(Image sources: Language Tree from here. Celtic Mandala from here. MLK art from here. All other images copyright Mainecelt 2009.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Common Ground 2009: All's Fair in Love and Chore, Part Two

Here, as promised, is the second installment in our "film strip" from Common Ground Fair. Rose Freedman and Justin Lander of Modern Times Theater (an outgrowth of Vermont's venerable Bread & Puppet Theater) teach us about the word "Chore", the art of farming, and how to strike a blow for freedom.

"Chore lives high on the hog, low on the hog, and makes soup from the rest of the hog."

(I regret that the details of their hand-painted posters don't show up as well as I'd hoped due to the low resolution at which I was filming. You'll still have a pretty good sense of the images they're indicating, however.) If you ever get the chance to see these two brilliant buskers in person, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Common Ground 2009: All's Fair in Love and Chore, Part One

We interrupt this blog to bring you a word from our sponsors.

No, that's not quite it...

We interrupt this blog to bring you a word from our mendicant mentors, our creative co-conspirators, our avant-garde agricultural artisans.

The following images and film clips come to us courtesy of the organizers of Maine's Common Ground Fair--and also courtesy of the freshly-charged rechargeable batteries I had the foresight to put in my digital camera that morning! The fair is one of the high points of the agricultural season here, a celebratory reunion of hard-working, passionate folk as well as a three-day showcase of sustainable, community-minded farming and northern New England creativity. It is held on fairgrounds that also host a heritage-breed apple orchard, a working educational farm complete with resident journeyperson farmers, a sustainably-managed woodlot, and the offices of our state's venerable organic certifier and all-around advocates of healthy farming, MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association).

We attended on Sunday this year, narrowly avoiding Saturday's record-setting crowds thanks to a most moderate and manageable bit of precipitation. We ogled the prize veggies in the exhibition hall, oohed and aahed over the beautiful handiwork in the crafters' pavilion, gathered brochures from the educational displays and signed petitions in the "Social Action Tent." Shortly after noon, as we were strolling among the savoury array of food vendors, munching on a "rainy day special" of two-for-one calzones made with grown-in-Maine veggies, meat, and wheat, a voice came over the loudspeaker. Partially lost amidst the noise of vendors and fairgoers, we caught the all-important words, "Small Farmers Journal" and "surprise guest speaker."

Could it be? Could it possibly be? We rushed over to the greensward and the small platform--still empty--where the fair's keynote speakers typically held forth. A nervous half-a-minute later, we caught sight of that familiar figure with his wiry frame, neatly-trimmed beard and weather-worn hat. Yes! It was indeed Lynn Miller, self-proclaimed "farmer pirate" and editor of one of our favourite publications, Small Farmers Journal. He had snuck in to rouse the rabble once again, with the gleeful assent of the folks at MOFGA.

Here is a portion of his speech given on September 27th, 2009 at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine. Note that this portion finishes up with Miller's introduction of a Vermont theatrical troupe. Their brilliant and clever presentation--an attempt to restore and celebrate the richly meaningful word, "CHORE," will be posted shortly!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Life Imitates Arc

Yesterday evening, heading north under a bruise-dark sky, we were blessed with the sight of a glorious double rainbow, arcing above the incandescent trees. Even with wild winds, storm threats and encroaching darkness, we were unable to escape the world's demands to be noticed in all its paradoxical grace and beauty. There it was, arrayed before us, thrumming with energy, dancing, singing to us in tones by turns coaxing and strident: "Lift up your eyes! Move beyond your small miseries! Open yourself to all this bedazzling abundance!"

Who were we to deny this? How could we turn away?

And so we watched, awestruck and open-mouthed, as the colours glowed ever brighter and the rainbow refused to fade and die. Every turn of the road brought the possibility of a new vantage, a striking new perspective. My body, still clenched from the day's desk-bound parsimony, at last began to loosen its needless grip.

Surely, surely there is a way to move more freely in the world, to live more fully into the presence of such arcing beauty. Surely there is a way to be drawn up and out, to feel more fully Creation's surrounding wealth, to draw on it and be sustained!

This morning is washed fresh. The air and ground and trees are spangled with leaves. The season is turning. I too, must turn. So it is that I step forward, reaching out my open hands. So it is that I raise my empty basket to the sun and gather a harvest of light. Such riches! I am surrounded by gold!

(An Beanneachd Oirbh / Blessed Be!)

Thursday, October 1, 2009



Down beneath the chicken pen,
Under many an egg and hen,
There's a shadowy sort of a glen
Just the right size for a piglet.

Under the floorboards, dusty and dark,
Free from the farmdog's pesky bark,
Down in the dirt, the piglets park,
Indulgently digging their diglet.

Nothing but noses poking out
As piglets under the barnboards scout
or doze with a now-and-then twitch of the snout
While chickens pass by, unperturbing.

But oh, how they grow, those dear little hams--
Just as their uncles and cousins and grams--
'Til half-way-out some porker jams
With a noise that's quite disturbing.

What's to be done? The shingles shake.
The terror-struck pig's sides heave and quake.
We fear for the hens. Will barnboards break,
In this battle between hog and hovel?

We look at the posts. We peer at the beams.
The pig in question screams and screams.
The farmer tires of tragic themes.
She leaves, then returns with a shovel.

Some jobs are little. Some jobs are big,
Some holes are harder than others to dig,
Especially round a stuck, thrashing pig.
But the critter was freed, fat and fine.


Now we're digging no longer for pigs, but for gold,
As onto our farm we strive hard to hold.
May our efforts bear fruit. May our strivings be bold,
And may all of our work turn out swine.

(Image and text copyright Mainecelt 2009)