Music, Stories Told

Connecting through the ether

I miss radio, the kind where I could put on a pot of coffee on a rainy and quiet Sunday afternoon and be kept company by some pleasant music and a live disk jockey.

Time was, most towns had such a station. It played a variety of middle-of-the-road soft pop and standards. You could imagine the DJ humming along to the music he was playing, his own cup of coffee at his right hand. He’d open his mic as a song faded out and speak as if only you were in the audience. He’d tell you who sang that last song, read a PSA or a commercial, and then give a weather forecast, all in tones as rich and smooth as the coffee you were both sipping. There were recorded commercials, of course; never desired, but accepted as part of the implicit station-listener contract. But then it was back to the music and the light banter, just the DJ and you.

That kind of radio is all but extinct today. So many of the music stations on the dial where I live try hard to create some high-energy hip attitude, or play to a narrow music niche that shortly wears on me, or are simply overrun with commercials. And almost none of the stations are live anymore. When the DJ is live, you can almost sense that they’re breathing air at the same time you are. But a prerecorded (voicetracked, they call it in the biz) DJ is just another cold programming element, disconnected, lifeless. I might as well listen to Pandora or Spotify.

Me on the air
Me on the air

I feel privileged that I got to deliver that kind of radio once. In the early 1990s I worked weekends on a little AM station in Terre Haute, Indiana, one of a breed of “full service” stations that was already dying across the country. It was the station Terre Haute turned to for news, and then stuck around for the pleasant music and the personalities of the live DJs.

I worked Sundays mostly, but occasionally a Saturday. I’d go down into the studio and get out all my music as the playlist directed, stacking the tape cartridges on the counter, playing the songs one by one. It was mostly standards mixed with a little adult contemporary and a little popular jazz: Johnny Mathis, Dinah Washington, Fleetwood Mac, Les Paul and Mary Ford, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, the Carpenters, Artie Shaw, Neil Diamond … you get the idea.

The phone would ring. Not off the hook, but occasionally. Sometimes it was someone wanting me to announce their lost dog or asking when I’d have the next trivia contest. But several people in my audience were older and lived alone, and wanted just to talk to someone. I loved those calls. My favorite frequent caller was a woman, 87 years old (she reminded me every call), whose name I’ve not remembered for twenty years. Mildred, maybe, or Edith; a sturdy name, as you’d expect of a woman born shortly after 1900. She never stayed on the phone long, a couple minutes, just to tell me she enjoyed hearing such-and-such song and to share a memory it kindled. Perhaps she danced to it when it was new, or maybe she heard it several times on several stations as she and her husband, long deceased, took a cross-country road trip. She told me once she was so happy that a youngster like me, a fellow in his early 20s, was sharing this good old music. She felt the connection, and I loved having it reflected back to me.

I have only two shifts recorded from my time on that station, from one weekend in 1992, a Saturday midday followed by a Sunday morning. I wish I had more. I especially wish I had a couple hours “untelescoped,” that is, with the music not cut out. I’d love to hear the full station sound again, not just the songs, but the jingles that transitioned between songs, and the IDs. I can hear those IDs in my mind: a booming voice said, “Serving the community 24 hours a day, we’re Terre Haute’s number one news voice.” And then there was a downbeat, and polished, impossibly happy jingle singers sang “WBOW, Terre Haute.” And then I’d press the button to take ABC network news; it was exactly the top of the hour.

Here it is, the entire recording. 17 minutes and 40 seconds, with a 15-second gap between the two shifts. It starts abruptly, in the middle of a weather forecast. I feel sure you won’t stick through it all, but do listen for a minute, anyway. If you listen through, you’ll hear some snippets of that booming ID voice, and you’ll hear me trip over my tongue here and there. But I hope you can feel that friendliness, that pleasantness, that connection through the ether. I tried hard to create it.

I wish now that I had called some of those disk jockeys when I was younger, just to say hello, just to let them know in some indirect way that I was glad they were on the job. Weekend shifts can be kind of lonely. It’s just you, the music, the mixing board, and the microphone — and occasionally a voice on the other end of the phone that lets you know that you’ve connected with them in some way that day. That connection made it feel worthwhile.

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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons — a stepson pushing 30 and two teens. I’ve been thinking back on their lives as one of my sons turns 18 today and is making transitions toward his adult life.

I was there when the younger two boys entered the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, and my fatherly duties naturally included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, both of them calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day, and make sure everybody around me does too,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountered everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

Yet colic plagued him the first nine months of his life. He’d start to feel bad by late afternoon each day, and by the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air-raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared to seek relief.

Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. You could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. So I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his mountain-climber sights on the couch’s arm, then the side table, and then the side-table’s lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires outpaced his abilities at first. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2012.

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Music, Stories Told

Rockin’ heaven down

When the rock band Heart brings its tour through central Indiana, I’m going to be there. I’ve seen them six times now, more than any other band: in 1987, 1994, 2006, 2007, 2013, and now 2014, in venues large and small. I prefer to see them in smaller venues where they can connect better with the audience, but no matter where I see them I get pretty good seats because I’m a member of their fan club, which lets me buy tickets the day before they’re generally available. Yeah, I’m 47 and still in a rock band’s fan club.

Heart

I sat sixth row center this time, which gave me a decent vantage point to take a few photographs. I zoomed my Canon PowerShot S95 to the max and hoped for the best. None of these will enter the annals of all-time great rock photography, and frankly of the two dozen photos I took these are the only ones that turned out. But they surely satisfy me. I’m especially happy to have them because cameras were strictly verboten during most of my concert-going years. The ubiquity of mobile-phone cameras changed that — it’s probably impossible to police them, and so venues and promoters and bands have given up trying. Everybody around me took pictures that night. Somehow, the music business has not suffered. And just look at the memories I’ve captured!

Heart

If you’re not familiar with Heart, the band is fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, the band’s only remaining founding members. But to most fans, Ann and Nancy are Heart. The band’s first incarnation formed more than 40 years ago. Heart has taken a couple extended breaks where they neither recorded nor toured, but overall these persistent sisters have just kept making their music. Today, Ann is 64 and Nancy is 60.

Heart

Nancy (above) is my favorite sister. Her voice can’t touch Ann’s punch and range, but I love the melodies and lyrics she writes. Over the past ten years or so, she has sung lead more often and I surely enjoy it. I love to sing along regardless of who takes lead vocals. Most of Heart’s music falls in my range and is a joy to sing.

Heart

I got to meet Ann and Nancy in 2006. Their tour brought them to my hometown, South Bend, and the gorgeous Morris Performing Arts Center. The fan club used to arrange meet-and-greets for fans, and I and a handful of others were chosen this night. A handler came out and said that our meeting would be very brief, as recently some fans had done upsetting and frightening things at these meet-and-greets. So we would do this in receiving-line style so we wouldn’t overwhelm Ann and Nancy, and we had to quietly wait our turn or we would be escorted out, period.

When Ann and Nancy came out, flanked by crew, they stayed shoulder to shoulder with each other and looked to make sure they were surrounded by people they knew. When my turn came, there was some confusion as the opening act came to meet Ann and Nancy too. I was standing in front of Ann, but she didn’t know whether to look at me or the opening act. I was confused, too, and before I was sure whose turn it really was I told her how much pleasure her music had brought me. She kept bobbing her head trying to figure out where to look. Shortly it registered what I had said, and she said with surprise in a throaty voice, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Ann then looked to the person in line behind me, so I took the hint and moved over in front of Nancy. I wasn’t sure what to say now, given that things had been so confused with Ann, so I just tried to catch her eyes. She finally noticed and looked at me. Her eyes were as blue as a spring sky, startling and lovely — but her pupils were the size of sharp pencil points. Those tiny dots fairly roared that there would be no friendly chitchat. I mumbled that it was a pleasure to meet her, and then stepped toward the handler and waited until everybody had their turn.

MeAndHeart

Disappointing. But I’m sure the public can be scary sometimes when you’re well known. After the whole group got their opportunity, the handler arranged us around Ann and Nancy for a photo. They look a lot more relaxed here than I remember when standing right in front of them! Maybe one day the fan club will give me another chance to meet them, on a night when they’re more willing to interact.

I counted all the concerts I’ve been to a couple years ago. See the whole list.

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Music, Photography

Singing the Sacred Harp

It’s an American vocal music tradition with roots traceable through two centuries. Sacred Harp brings groups together to sing hymns and anthems in four-part harmony without musical accompaniment.

Sacred Harp arranges singers a square, grouped by part. Singers take turns choosing and leading songs from the songbook. They stand in the middle of the square, starting the song and keeping the beat by swinging their hands. The singers follow right along with their voices and their hands.

Sacred Harp

There is nothing modern about Sacred Harp. The songs are old, the melodies and harmonies are old, the method is old. But anyone with even a scant ability to sing can participate after learning to read the songbook’s shaped notes.

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Each note has a shape and syllable (fa, sol, la, mi, fa) that makes it fast and easy to sight-read any song and sing along. Also, the Sacred Harp tradition is to start a song by singing a verse using the syllables instead of lyrics to help newcomers get a feel for it. To hear what Sacred Harp sounds like, check out this video.

A Sacred Harp group sings every year at the Indiana State Fair, and I was fortunate enough to be there when they were this year. They are not performing for an audience, although one always gathers. Rather, they are singing for the joy of it, and they welcome everybody to join them. While I sat listening, several people walked in, sat down in the square, were issued a songbook, and participated.

Sacred Harp

I so wanted to join them. I love to sing, especially in four-part harmony, having sung in choirs as a boy and in an a cappella Church of Christ as an adult. The Church of Christ hymnal even used shaped notes. But I never learned to read them because I learn songs by ear very easily. Unfortunately, I can’t learn a song fast enough to participate before the end of a song I’m hearing for the first time.

Sacred Harp

So I lingered around the edges of this intense group, photographing them in action. These were not professional singers, just bold ones. And my goodness, were they loud! My experience in the Church of Christ taught me that you can have marginal vocal ability and still participate fully in this kind of singing. The sound is always better than the sum of its parts.

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Music, Stories Told

New Paul McCartney music is always a big event in my life

For as long as I can remember, new Paul McCartney music has been a big event for me.

It started with the Beatles music my mother played around the house when I was very small. But McCartney’s post-Beatles work really formed the soundtrack of my life. Aged four, I sat at the breakfast table waiting for Mom to bring me breakfast while one of his early post-Beatles hits played on the little transistor radio atop our refrigerator. On long trips in Dad’s Ford, my brother and I used to sing his most famous songs a cappella together. I spent much of one youthful summer swimming while a monster hit he did with Wings played constantly on the radio. I danced at the big middle-school dance to his flamenco-charged nod to disco. During my disk-jockey days, I played his new songs on the radio. I sang his new songs to my new baby as he cried with colic. I let his words soothe me when I suffered my divorce. And I never failed to share his new songs with my sons, who can sing along with me now on a huge portion of the McCartney catalog.

McCartneyNew
PaulMcCartney.com photo

And now comes his new album, New. It released yesterday. Thanks to Amazon.com I downloaded the music first thing yesterday morning and then a copy of the CD awaited me in my mailbox when I arrived home from work.

As always, I will listen to it incessantly in the car for the next several weeks. I will soak it in. I will learn the lyrics and sing along. It will come to remind me of this time in my life and the things I am experiencing now.

Paul McCartney never meant to save the world with his songs. He just wanted to craft some good, clever pop that kept our knees bobbing. He’s done it again, aged 71. Here’s the lyric video for the title track of New.

Paul McCartney saved my life once. He has no idea, of course. Read that story.

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Faith, Music

In praise of the hymn

I write in praise of the hymn as a tool for worship in the Christian church.

My youngest son was baptized a few months ago in his mom’s church, and I attended. I was thrilled (in tears, really) to see my son baptized. But the worship featured a rock band and a slate of songs I’d never heard before. I tried to sing, but struggled to discern each song’s melody and structure and so managed only a few feeble mumbles. Even though I’d been to church, I left feeling like I hadn’t fully worshiped. (I’m sure God understands.)

Inside Bethel

This isn’t about condemning the modern rock-band style of worship, although it doesn’t work for me personally. This also isn’t about reverting to the old days of pipe organs and choirs. It’s about making it easy for everyone, especially newcomers and visitors, to participate in worship.

Participation means more than just showing up. The word worship means to express devotion to a deity, which implies actively doing. Now, I can’t sort out scripture from tradition in modern Christian worship. The Bible tells us to sing praises to God, and I assume this is why worship services have included singing for a very long time. When the music plays, participation means singing along.

I love to sing, so singing in church is particularly important to me. Thanks to some natural ability and many years of school choir, I learn songs quickly, by ear. Ask my sons, who are subject to my constant singing in the car. But that choral training also taught me that songs with a predictable, repetitive structure are the easiest and fastest to learn.

Most praise songs are structured like pop or rock music, starting with a verse-chorus structure but adding bridges and key changes. You have to hear the whole song a number of times before you feel that structure and can anticipate the melody. I think many of these songs are truly great. I especially like this one: It Is You by The Newsboys. I chose a video of it that shows the lyrics much as you’d see them projected on a screen in church. When I first heard it, I had to try to sing along with it it probably twenty times before I could sing it through.

Hymns, on the other hand, usually feature three or four verses sung to the same melody. If you are visiting a church and they sing a hymn you don’t know, with each verse you become more able to sing along. If you have a good ear, you might even be singing out by the last verse. Simply put, hymns make it easier for you to participate. Here’s a modern hymn, a reflective and mournful piece called In Christ Alone, which was written in 2001. Even though this hymn is complex, by the end I’ll bet you will at least be humming along to the melody.

It Is You sounds more like the music I listen to outside of church. I wouldn’t play In Christ Alone in my car or around my house. But when it comes to worship, especially when songs I don’t know are involved, I’d rather sing a hymn like In Christ Alone any day. Then I can really give my voice to God.

I once belonged to a church that sang a cappella. It was beautiful! Read about it.

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