Monday, September 26, 2005

The Silent Protest

While reading accounts of the march in Washington this weekend, I was reminded of an account of this demonstration in July 1917 as described by James Weldon Johnson in an editorial in The New York Age, August 3, 1917.

The protest was planned by the NAACP in response to a particularly vicious race riotin East St. Louis, Illinois, in which at least 100 black people were murdered, many of them lynched. The march was down Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan. It was led by children, followed by the women and then the men, all dressed in white. Here is how Johnson described it:

Last Saturday the silent protest parade came off, and it was a greater success than even the committee had dared to hope it would be. Some of the New York papers estimated the number of marchers in line as high as fifteen thousand. It was indeed a mighty host, an army with banners.
No written word can convey to those who did not see it the solemn impressiveness of the whole affair. The effect could be plainly seen on the faces of the thousands of spectators that crowded along the line of march. There were no jeers, no jests, not even were there indulgent smiles; the faces of the on-lookers betrayed emotions from sympathetic interest to absolute pain. Many persons of the opposite race were seen to brush a tear from their eyes. It seemed that many of these people were having brought home to them for the first time the terrible truths about race prejudice and oppression.

The power of the parade consisted in its being not a mere argument in words, but a demonstration to the sight. Here were thousands of orderly, well-behaved, clean, sober, earnest people marching in a quiet dignified manner, declaring to New York and to the country that their brothers and sisters, people just like them, had been massacred by scores in East St. Louis for no other offense than seeking to earn an honest living. . . .

More than twelve thousand of us marcing along the greatest street in the world, marching solemnly to no other music than the beat of muffled drums, bearing aloft our banners on which were inscribed not only what we have suffered in this country, but what we have accomplished for this country, this was a sight as has never before been seen.

But, after all, the effect on the spectators was not wholly in what they saw, it was largely in the spirit that went out from the marchers and overpowered all who came within its radius. There was no holiday air about this parade. Every man, woman and child that took part seemed to feel what it meant to the race. Even the little six year old tots that led the line seemed to realize the full significance of what was being done. And so it was that these thousands and thousands moving quietly and steadily along created a feeling very close to religious awe.
Imagine that. A mass demonstration designed to touch the soul of those who needed to be persuaded.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Welcome home peace protesters

I hope and trust that our friends who attended the peace protest in Washington arrived home safe and sound today. I was disappointed that it conflicted with the singing convention because Only Son and I might well have gone.

I remember well the first large demonstration I attended in April 1971, the week before the infamous May Day demonstrations (scroll to 'Stop the Government') and mass arrests. I rode from Cleveland to Washington with three friends from school; one of them shot photos (slides) & I recorded music and interviewed participants on my cheap little tape recorder and we put them together into a senior English class project. I wish I still had it.

I don't know what my friend Dave Rogers did with the slides, but I do have the raw, unedited cassette tapes, if they haven't disintergrated yet. On them are recordings of Pete Seeger singing Last Train to Nuremburg, Phil Ochs singing I Ain't a-Marchin' Anymore, a string of cursing veterans (that almost got Dave and me kick out of school for including in the program) and a powerful speech (a variation on what he testified to Congress) given by a tall lanky guy in fatigues who we had met briefly with a group of veterans around a campfire in front of the Lincoln Memorial very early that Saturday morning. I remember telling myself at the time that this guy had the chance of making a difference. If only that courageous young man, rather than this timid one, had run for president. . . .

I felt that I had participated in an historic event and wish that Only Son had been able to go with me to the one yesterday. It is sad consolation that we'll have plenty of other opportunities.

After the second day of the 16th Annual Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention

The Sacred Harp singing convention is now over. I'm happy, but not ecstatic as is sometimes the case. Maybe it's because of this nasty cold I caught Friday night. (I often get sick after singing Sacred Harp because my throat gets raw and forms a welcome rest stop for germs of all sorts, but here I got sick early.)

I was at meeting from 8:30 until about 11, so I arrived at the town hall at Murphy's Landing just as the memorial lesson was being given. It is one of my favorite moments at a singing. Throughout the first day-and-a-half of the singing, singers are invited to write down on a list the names of singers who have died during the past year, and those who are sick or shut-in and aren’t at the singing. At the appointed time, just before dinner on Sunday, one or two singers rise to read the lists of names. They then give a brief testimony, or devotional talk, usually expressing the group’s love for those who can’t be there and a profound gratitude for the continuity of the tradition over time and space and the hope of seeing them all again on the other side. Two songs are then sung, one for those who have passed on, and one for the sick and shut-ins. There were names of venerable and well-loved singers from the south on the shut-in list this year, and there were few in the room who didn't remember them being here with us in the past, admonishing us (among other things) to "get your nose out of the book and watch your leader!"

The roll is not strictly limited to Sacred Harp singers; many add the names of loved ones, and sometimes the name of a well known person related in some indirect way to Sacred Harp– Helen Schneyer, for example, was remembered today. Another singer I know named his 43-year old brother-in-law who recently died suddenly in a freak accident. I wrote down the name of my friend, Lou Ann, who was not, as far as I know, a Sacred Harp enthusiast, but who I did shed a tear for and who I hope to see again in another place.

When I have co-led week-long Sacred Harp workshops at the FGC Gathering, we've incorporated a memorial lesson -- modified for the circumstances -- on the second-to-last day. In the workshop setting, we ask that Friends speak the names out of the silent worship. We forego vocal ministry and sing a song or two.

The first time we did this, in 1998, I was stunned at the large number of Friends in the workshop who called out the names of family members and friends who had met violent deaths at the hands of others. It lent a particular tone of grief to that lesson, not only for those named, but for the too many who face a similar fate every day. Then we sang number 122, All is Well (v3: Hark! Hark! My Lord, my Lord and Master’s voice, calls away, calls away! I soon shall see – enjoy my happy choice, Why delay, why delay? Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu, I can no longer stay with you, My glitt’ring crown appears in view, All is well, all is well.”)

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the songs we sang today -- I don't think I knew either of them particularly well, though I liked singing them today. I was taking some notes (I have a dickens of a time remembering the numbers or names of songs, or those that have a particular phrase or musical quality that I like, so I've begun to jot notes into a small book) but neglected to write the numbers down of the two we sang.

But I was moved by one song we sang a little later in the afternoon that could have been sung as a memorial lesson. I don’t remember ever singing it before, number 339 When I am Gone. It had an unusual rhythmic twist to it that I liked.

But as I write this and sang it to myself, I made a discovery: The tenor line, the melody, is the old chestnut Long, Long Agothat you probably learned early in your career as a piano or flutephone player. And, as I read the words again tonight, they sound like they’re from the stream of sentimentalism that forms part of the Sacred Harp (“v2: Plant you a rose that shall bloom o’er my grave, When I am gone, When I am gone; Sing a sweet song such as angels may have, When I am gone, When I am gone.) But singing the bass line this afternoon, I didn’t realize this. (I often don't know the tenor-melody line in the songs we sing untill I sing them again at home.) I was taken by the unusual rhythmical turns it takes at times. Had I sung the tenor, I probably wouldn’t have like the song, but singing the bass line for the first time, I loved it.

Near the end of meeting this morning, when we’re invited to share thoughts that didn’t “arise to the level of vocal ministry,” I shared two lines from a song we sang yesterday that I hadn’t remembered singing before, and which would also serve as a memorial song. It is number 499 At Rest. Unfortunately, I misquoted the words in meeting today (I got them from my notes, apparently). I said the lines were “There is more to life than life, and more to death than death.” The lines really say: ‘Tis not the whole of life to live nor all of death to die.” Much better put.

Today, the convention was less well attended than ones past and seemed just a bit subdued to me. It may have been partly due to a heavy mist that hung over the area all day, but also there were few from the south there, and fewer from singing centers like Chicago and St. Louis who often bring great enthusiasm and energy. But I didn't feel disappointed in the least. It was grand seeing again those who returned again, and meeting other Twin Cities singers who only sing at the convention (I would be in this category, almost, for the past few years). There is such sweetness to these gatherings, such genuine love and affection and hospitality. It is hard to describe the sense of connectedness one feels with other singers, not only in the here and now, but over time and space. Especially at Murphy's Landing's Town Hall where the Sunday singing was held, it was not at all hard to imagine a class of similar singers a hundred or even two years ago singing the same songs, with the same accents and energy, as we did today. I always feel renewed after a convention. One of the byproducts is that my cynicism going into temporary hibernation for awhile and my sense of hope returns.

(And, I got the good news that my friend Robin may be able to co-lead the FGC workshop with me after all.)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

After the first day of the 16th Annual Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention . .

. . . the only thing I can say is that, after the most powerful rendition of Rainbow that I ever remember singing, my prayer was, "Thank God I was born a bass."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Well-meaning but misguided religious terrorism

I am usually more sympathetic to conservative, evangelical Christians than most of my friends are. That is the stock from which I come, and I know that they hold some keys to understanding and surviving in this death-dealing culture that liberals will never find on their own.

Then along comes one of them who wrote this letter and I want to check my pacifism into a blind trust, join the jihad, and brain somebody.

* * * *
I have been finding great comfort and wisdom in reading Badger's other writings in her blog Badgerings. She has recently suffered the death of her much too-young husband and her writing about the experience has been poignant and powerful.

I found Badger through Songbird who I also have been enjoying, though I wish she hadn't published her photo on the blog, shattering my mental image of her. This happens all the time, with me mostly with radio personalities (is that the right word?). They seldom, if ever, look look like they sound, even this one with whom I was friends in college and I know what she looks like.

Studs Terkel is the outstanding exception.

Singing in Wisconsin

Back in May, after leading a brief workshop and singing a lot of Sacred Harp at Yearly Meeting, a Friend asked if I’d come to his home in Ogema, Wisconsin, and teach his neighbors how to sing Sacred Harp. I said yes, but suggested that we invite other Friends in the region in order to ensure the critical mass of that you need for a successful singing school.

He agreed, and over the summer we set a date, made the necessary announcements and phone calls. Eventually, we had enough committed, so it was a go.

The singing took place a few hundred yards down the road from our Friends’ home, at The Homestead, an old log house on an isthmus between two of the four lakes on the property. (Their property includes the highest elevation above sea level in Wisconsin, but that requires the telling of a wonderful story that is too much to go into here. Let’s just say that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on a map, or a USGS plaque.)

(Thanks to Writeousness for the photo; more available there). The Homestead has been in the Friend’s family for generations and is full of wonderful historic material, e.g., a class photo and commencement program of the Yale class of 1928 of which our Friend’s father was a member. And outhouses wallpapered with invitations to Nixon and Reagan inaugurations, a poster of Spiro Agnew, and autographed photos of the Clintons and Al Gore, etc. No electricity, but a gas stove and lamps and comfortable beds; long tables and lots of eclectic chairs and benches. And a 20’x20’ screened-in covered building overlooking one of the lakes to sing and sleep in. In other words, a comfortable, simple, beautiful, hospitable place.

It was raining hard when we arrived on Friday night, but Saturday dawned a brilliant blue sky and freshly green forest full of energy and promise. About twenty Friends and neighbors came altogether. Most singers were completely new, and a few others had tried before but not quite gotten the hang of it yet.

We started singing a little after lunch with some instruction of the several singers new to Sacred Harp. By dinner, we were singing like regulars. They were quick and enthusiastic learners and produced the familiar sound after just a song or two. Later Saturday afternoon, more experienced singers arrived, and they were willing to challenge the class by more difficult pieces. Saturday night, we moved the singing from the screened room into the small living room. This was real fun since we were crunched up pretty close to each other, sang by the glow of gas lamps, and the low ceiling and wood floors & walls made a pretty reverberant sound. We sang again on Sunday morning inside, and then went outside to hold meeting for worship which was deep and holy.

And there was food for the body as well as the soul. It was provided ad hoc without pre-determined coordination but which, like Holy Manna, filled all the nooks and crannies of our appetites with plenty left over: roasted turkey; chili and hot dogs; home-grown tomatoes and other vegetables; German potato salad; tabouli and baba ghannouj and hummus; bowlfuls of fresh fruit; steel cut oats; beans, tortillas & home-grown eggs for breakfast; the best cherry cobbler I’ve ever eaten (a Martha Stewart recipe); lasagna; pasta salad; strong coffee; mint tea; cold Leinenkugel beer. Any Sacred Harp singer would have recognized the dinner table as dinner on the grounds and felt right at home.

Its been a few weeks now since the weekend, and the glow has worn off just a bit, so I can spare you my rhapsodizing about Sacred Harp singing. But now I’m preparing for our Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention this coming Saturday & Sunday (mainly by playing a CD recording of the 1999 convention in the car at too loud a volume). I look forward to this event every year like some people look forward to Christmas. (I love Christmas, too. . . .) For more information, you can go here. I'm getting ready to glow again.

To top off the weekend, I drove there and back with a dear Friend -- one who I've known since before moving to Minnesota -- with whom I realized I had not talked deeply with for a long time. The conversation made the transition from and back to the World easier and memorable. She also led me to a wonderful ice cream parlor in Chippewa Falls that I'm pretty sure will become a regular rest stop for our family on our way to yearly meeting in the future.

* * * *

I arrived home about an hour after the three Holly women and Only Son got home, the three women from a 2-week trip to Gold Hill, Colorado where Mother-in-law owns a home and Sister-in-law and Husband are for the moment, and Only Son from a week at People Camp.

Although the quiet of the previous week alone was gone (and it wasn’t all that quiet, actually), I felt at peace after two weeks of discombobulation. There is a peace that comes with normalcy, as Warren G. Harding discovered, even when normal is busy: Only Son eating ice cream at the computer while reading and the New York Times and listening to the Twins’ game on the radio; Youngest Daughter reading her new book on the couch and finally finishing putting away the supper dishes; Lovely Wife singing to her mother while putting her to bed; and me on the Christmas-tree-light lit front porch writing this as I finish the last glass of red wine.