This ends with a whimper, not a bang

The meaning of life?

The meaning of life?

Today is Palm Sunday. I’ve been to church for 67 Palm Sundays in a row. The last 45 were in churches that had a Procession of Palms of one sort or another. My favorite were the ones at my little now defunct church (St. Paul Lutheran) in Farmers Branch, TX, where we walked around the block singing, with the music accompanied by bagpipe! If there were bagpipers in Jerusalem in 30 CE, I doubt they wore Scottish plaids.

Today I will not attend a Palm Sunday service. At about the time the church I belong to is processing (it’s pretty splendid – I think they may even have a donkey) I will be at home checking on my cats and doing a little busy work around my apartment.

One of my best friends, who belongs to the same church, asked me why I don’t go to church any more. The cheap shot answer to that is, “No one’s paying me to go these days.” For that entire 45-year span, I was paid to be where I was. But I would have been there anyway. The other flip answer might be that I have somewhere else—down on Main Street—I’d rather be. And that’s true, too.

The real answer, however, is that I simply can’t get there. I don’t have any compelling reason to go. I don’t get it any more. And if that were to change, Palm Sunday with all that hoopla and all of those people would not be my first day back.

It seems to me that one of two things happens to people who have been churchy all their lives as they get older. They either become more attached to the services, or they drift away (or make a clean break to the affair as I have).  The more aware you become that today might be your last—and, believe me, anyone who’s 68 and isn’t aware of that isn’t using the mental powers homo sapiens has evolved for itself—the less certain you are that the answers to all those BIG questions you’ve always relied on are true. Or, conversely, the more certain you become.

The meaning of Life 2?

The meaning of Life 2?

I have to break into my own line of thinking here to make the little note that I am told by some people that I think about death too much. It isn’t healthy. Yes, it is. As I said before, if you’re my age and aren’t thinking about it, that means you don’t give a fig about understanding “the meaning of life” (sorry, but we old folks have more in common with teenagers and their angst than we like to think—when was the last time you thought about “the meaning of life”).

Really. I mean it. Why do you think Alice Walton built the Crystal Bridges Museum? She’s worried about the “meaning” of her billions. She’s not going to get out of here alive any more than I am. And she knows it. Except that she makes so many people’s lives miserable, she’s really pathetic. That (and I say this without irony) profound collection of art and its total accessibility to anyone who wants to see it won’t save poor Alice. And once she’s dead, how can it possibly be important to her that she’s done this one beautiful generous thing. (Sorry. I was at Sam’s Club yesterday. Alice has become my little private symbol for the totally bizarre and incomprehensible nature of human life.)

So back to my original subject. Why I’m not going to participate in a parade at church today.

Yesterday the friend who asked me why I don’t go to church was leading a Lenten retreat at our church. He asked me to drop by and play the organ for a few hymns for their closing Eucharist. I did.

And here’s my problem. I don’t “believe” (whatever that means) any of the language of those hymns. Well, maybe I can get my mind around the idea that, if there is a God, there’s a wideness in his mercy. But all I have to do is sit at the organ and play those nice tunes while people sing, and I get all wimpy. Is it because it’s what I’ve done all my life and it’s so familiar it just feels like reality?

The meaning of Life 3?

The meaning of Life 3?

Or are music and church and those things (even Alice’s art), after all, a way to figuring it out. I don’t know.

Restlessness blowin’ in the wind

internment-camps-aMy sister posted the following on Facebook yesterday.

David loved teaching. But, when the north wind was blowing, he would predict a tiring day. The explanation he gave was that the north wind carries static which make kids restless. I am restless.

The reference to David is her late husband, David M. Sato, who was an extraordinarily gifted and dedicated elementary school teacher. That’s not true. He was an extraordinary teacher. Period. If you were paying attention, he was “teaching” all the time—pointing out fascinating natural phenomena, showing you how to do something, talking about something he had just read. Five years after his death at an age much too young, two families still mourn his loss, the Satos and the Knights. And thousands of others his life touched through his teaching and activism on behalf of education.

It’s probably too sentimental to say, but David and his entire family would have been heroes before they made any of their contributions to life in the Sacramento area or to my family’s life. They are among the Americans who have experienced the absolute worst treatment any people could ever be afforded in a democracy. The nine Sato siblings’ parents were born in Japan. The family was with their entire community, shipped like cattle off to the desert to be interned in primitive make-shift camps during and after WWII.

Having experienced some of the most dehumanizing and unconscionable treatment a nation that professes to be “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could possibly mete out, the Satos and their extended family and their friends and fellow detainees returned to their communities. They not only resumed their lives, but they became indispensable to the economic, political, and social fabric of California. It’s tempting to use the insulting cliché, “their best revenge has been living well.” However, their success and the contributions to the greater society have nothing to do with revenge. The Japanese-American community understood the “American dream” before America whisked them away into a nightmare, and they came back to the lives they were already creating for themselves—and helping others create—when the nightmare was over.

I cannot pretend to speak for David or his family on the effect of the internment on their lives, their lives in society or the lives of their spirits. However, from my limited perspective, as close as I feel to the Satos, my observation is that they and their community have lived nobly and graciously in a way that I, for one could or would not have done, given their experience.

Last week I had lunch with Kiyo Sato, David’s eldest sibling (since her online biography doesn’t tell her exact age, I won’t either—I’ll simply say her energy and activity are extraordinary). Like other members of her family, she is gentle but intense, calm but energetic, sweet but brooking no nonsense. She has written her story of her family’s odyssey, available from online book sources under the title either Dandelion through the Cracks or Kiyo’s Story.

Kiyo’s book was awarded the third William Saroyan International Prize for Writing from the Libraries at Stanford University.kiyo

This posting did not begin as a tribute to David and Kiyo and their family. It was going to be about me (of course) and about my current trials and tribulations. Those are real enough. I took an old man fall in the bathtub on February 1 and have had really annoying pain in my right hip since (finally on Thursday my doctor gave me a steroid shot for some short-term blessed relief, he and prescribed physical therapy). I have been given the date for being let out to pasture by SMU (end of spring semester, 2014) which has caused me more emotional shock than I could have imagined. And there are more boring difficulties.

So I was going to kvetch about being old and about to be forgotten and unable to do what I want to because I’m crippled and poor. I was going to mention David and Kiyo in passing with wonderment about their ability to live fully and graciously and successfully—whatever that means—in the face of odds I can’t imagine. And I was going to say something like, well, good for them. Aren’t they an inspiration?

And then I came to my senses. They ARE an inspiration. If Kiyo can win the Saroyan Prize for the best new writer at 85, surely when I’m 70 I can publish an article about Leonard Bernstein rejecting David Diamond’s amorous advances or finish some of those dozens of short stories on my “fiction flash drive” and start sending them out to journals.

The wind must be blowing static. I’m restless. Energetically.

THANK YOU, KIYO!

Will I go silent (or gentle)? For those who do not fear reality (old people, mostly)

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle

.

Dylan Thomas’s most famous poem begins

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My Grandmother Peck, my Grandfather Knight, my mother’s Cousin Ruth, the Rev. Ginger Georgulas, Sue Mansfield, Janey Fields, Dorothy Seuberling, David and Gina Quinlan, Bill Houghton

Friends, family, mentors who, I assume, did not go gentle into that good night. They may well have gone calm, but I cannot imagine they went gentle. They all loved life too much to have simply given in to the end. I know that for sure because

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Last night a friend opened a conversation, “How do you feel about dying in Dallas?” He he’s a youngster at 62. For LGBT persons without children this is a particularly vexed question:  Where should one be when one can no longer care for oneself – or, even if care never becomes an issue, when one is in the end stages of life and growing more and more alone.

My siblings live in California and Louisiana—and all of their children live in California.

My family of origin is not immediately present in my life although we all do keep very close contact (thanks to Facebook, and email). It is my family of choice, that myriad friends and colleagues, and my inamorato that are most likely to be aware of, if not burdened with, my eventual need for help and tender loving care.

For me thinking about this now is—and I think it should be for everyone over about 60—important not so much because I am thinking about being old and decrepit (and I am not obsessed of thoughts of death) but because I want to be sure that I am in a place where I am comfortable mentally, physically, and spiritually when my time comes. That does not need to be a retirement community run by some upscale hotel chain or anything special at all. But it must be a place of my choosing where I can live (as long as I am physically and mentally able) with freedom and dignity.

There. Enough nuts and bolts and depressing stuff.

The Lone Ranger?

The Lone Ranger?

Non sequitur.

A somewhat startling number of composers’ last works are, if not robustly joyful, at least in some way different (and more accessible?) than their previous work. Take the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, for example. Or, better, his String Quartet in F Major, opus 135, his actual last completed major work. Listen to it and marvel in its joy.

Even the most uninterested opera goer will find the hilarious romp through love and madness of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff irresistible. Or listen to the Mahler Ninth Symphony. Or, if you’re really imaginative, listen to the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony with its almost silly quotation of the Rossini “Lone Ranger” theme (I absolutely love it that, the first time I opened this link, the advertisement was for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds).

These composers did not go gentle. They went joyfully!

That list of friends and family I began with are like these composers. Each of them lived out her or his life in dignity and comfort. And I had contact with most of them shortly before they died. I know they ended their days as they had lived them. Fully, and in some cases, boisterously! They are the angels who dare, in the words of Sherman Alexie’s poem, to “ride [me] piggyback!” They are all over me, burdening and unbalancing me with my memories of their examples.

My favorite, though, is  Johannes Brahms. His last composition, Opus 122, is a group of settings for solo organ of eleven hymn tunes—all of which are about death. And there is not a sad or dreary note in the lot.

Brahms went neither silent nor gentle into that good night. I wrote yesterday about my teacher Leslie Pratt Spelman. I studied the eleven pieces with him as a college student. Twice in my life I have played recitals consisting of all eleven of the preludes, bracketed by the great Bach Prelude in C Minor, BWV 546 at the beginning and its fugue at the end.

Now I am playing them at home for my amazement.

The words for the last of them O Welt, Ich muss dich lassen, are:

O World, I must leave you,
I travel from here along my way
to the everlasting fatherland.
I will give up my spirit
so that my body and life
lie in God’s merciful hand.

(Please see the note below the video link for a word about the playing I seem to be determined to upload these days.)

I am fully aware of two obvious deficiencies in my recordings. The first is, my playing is not necessarily stylistically correct – or mechanically perfect. The second is that my recording equipment is so lacking that I cannot capture the real beauty of the sound of the organ. I have to have the camera so close that the mechanical sounds sometimes overwhelm the music. I know that’s not fair to Steuart Goodwin who built the organ more than 40 years ago—his first opus. But I happen to like the way my playing and the sound of the organ are simply what we are.

A friend says I should use the moniker “The Barefoot Organist.” I should because I am not going to do anything to make these recordings other than what they are—my private reveling in the music, which I am happy to share with you. Besides, my psychiatrist (a gerontological specialist) has given me the assignment to play the organ every day for my own emotional good, and making these tapes helps me stick to the program!

The most important day of the year

I loaf and invite my soul

I loaf and invite my soul

On March 21 nearly every year I give my students a quiz of one question. “Why is today the most important day of the year?”

Almost never does a student pass the quiz.

And I’ll bet I’m safe in assuming that almost no one who might be reading this today can guess why this is the most important day of the year.

It’s obvious.

Today is the 328th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.

But for the birth of J. S. Bach, music would not exist as we know it.

Music purists and historians and better-musicologists-than-I can (and may) dispute that assertion. Of course it’s not true. Or is it? The harmonies, the contrapuntal designs, the musical forms both great and small perfected by J. S. Bach are the touchstone for all of music since 1685. The Beatles, Beyonce, John Cage, Madonna, Arthur Sullivan, and Arnold Schönberg notwithstanding.

I’m not going to get into an argument here. Arguments require evidence. I have none.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Redlands, my organ professor Leslie Pratt Spelman (1903-2001) invited three organ majors to hear him play a small recital in the university chapel. It was a private Sunday evening recital for his Quaker Meeting. It was delicious playing, slow, simple, accurate, and idiosyncratic. He played Frescobaldi, Brahms, pieces by a couple of 20th-century Dutch composers (friends of his), and Bach.

None of the great Bach show pieces, but three or four of the rarest musical gems from the Bach Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). One of those was Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The Old Year now Has Passed Away). When I asked him later to study it with him, he told me I could not play it until I was an old man.

He was sixty-two at the time.

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

I am now sixty-eight and have been playing Das alte Jahr since I was about fifty. It is a setting of the tune for a New Year’s Day hymn,

The old year now has passed away;
We thank Thee, O Our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.

(Anonymous, Erfurt, 1568)

Johann Sebastian Bach was, in his own time, a relatively obscure composer and a not-too-famous church and court musician stuck off in the hinterlands of Protestant Germany. To wit, his six Brandenburg Concerti, which are now considered the towering examples of the Baroque form, were never performed in his lifetime. He wrote them for Chistian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, most likely hoping to be noticed as worthy perhaps of a higher position than Kappelmeister at Köthen, a fairly insignificant music center in 18th-century Germany. He wrote an introduction to the Margrave saying he was

. . .  begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

Right. “. . . judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste. . .”

judge their imperfection

judge their imperfection

When I heard Dr. Spelman play, he was presenting music (not himself) for the contemplation of his Meeting of Friends. My friends and I had to rush from the chapel stifling laughter because we did not understand the silence that followed or the speaking  about the affect of the music by one after another of the members of the Meeting.

Finally at age 68, I’m beginning to understand. Bach died when he was sixty-five. Dr. Spelman lived forty or so years after that evening in the chapel.

The repertory I studied with Dr. Spelman is limited and, perhaps, odd. What he taught me was a most important life lesson, and I did not understand until decades later. It’s very simple. He told me I must learn to “invite my soul.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“I celebrate myself” from Song of Myself—Walt Whitman)

I am now that old man Dr. Spelman said could play Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. One might think that on this most important day of the year, I would record something that sounds important. Only those who have reached a certain age can understand, I think, the joy, the beauty, the importance of this small work. Sadness is, I am beginning to understand, necessary in order to experience joy. I am in a time of intense sadness the likes of which I trust I will never need to feel again because it will always be eclipsed by joy.

Organs the old man has known. . . in which he tells not quite all.

The Baldwin Model 5, circa 1960

The Baldwin Model 5, circa 1960

I began my organ study practicing on the Baldwin Model 5 organ at the First Baptist Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. I still have the first instruction book I used, and the first date the teacher wrote in it is June 17, 1956.

When our family moved to Omaha, I became organist at Trinity Baptist Church (which no longer exists). That friendly little funky church gave me the opportunity to figure out that an organist has to pay attention to what’s going on, and it allowed me to discover for myself the differences in style among playing solo music, accompanying other musicians, and leading group singing.

Then I went to the University of Redlands where I earned my Bachelor of Music in organ performance—and, in the process came out as a gay man (yes, before Stonewall), made a few lasting friendships, got married, and began counseling because, well, the university could not cope with gay students, and (mainly) because I wanted someone, somewhere to know about my seizures. That also was the first time a counselor told me that if I just straightened out (pun intended) my sex life, those strange feelings of other-worldliness and dissociation, to say nothing of the high-pitched exploding white noise in my mind, would stop.

When I graduated, through a series of events and decisions I won’t bore you with here, I became organist at Christ Church Episcopal, Ontario, CA, my favorite and most fulfilling position so far. (The recording is a recent one, made after the organ was refurbished and given some much-needed additions of stops. It was, however, even when I was there, the gutsiest, most exciting organ – in America? Oh, let’s not be silly. But it was and is my favorite organ. Exactly what kind of organ it is you will have to ask Steuart Goodwin, its caretaker.)

The current denizen at Grace Church in Salem

The current denizen at Grace Church in Salem

Then I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa and played three recitals on the giant Cassavant tracker organ in Clapp Recital Hall as part of my PhD in organ literature. While I was in Iowa City, I was divorced and became a real gay boy.

Then I moved to Massachusetts in the fall of 1977 and became organist at the very staid Grace Episcopal Church in Salem. There I got sober and became chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The church has a three-keyboard Schantz organ.

In January of 1994 I moved to Dallas to be with my late partner and to work on a second PhD, this one with an emphasis in creative writing. My unfinished dissertation is a (damned good) novel. But who needs two PhDs?  I was organist at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch until it closed. The lovely Allen digital organ is now in a Catholic Church in Rowlett, and I live alone but am involved with the love of my life.

And I have my very own pipe organ. It is the first organ Steuart Goodwin built—in 1970. The University of Redlands had it as a practice organ until about eight years ago when they wanted the room it was in for a faculty office. They offered it to Steuart, and I paid him to dismantle it there, drive it to Dallas, and rebuild it in my living room.

The University of Iowa Cassavant

The University of Iowa Cassavant

I have always fancied myself an organist. Whether or not I am good, great, mediocre, or lousy is up to someone else to decide. But one thing is certain. I’m getting old.

The little mechanical action, 5-stop organ that was never meant for church or concert hall suits me fine. The little old man and the little old organ playing little old music in private. What could be better? The recording is the “Lentement” from Cinq Versets pour Harmonium (Opus 21) by Charles Tournemire, published in 1949.

 

It’s just my style

“Unto the hills around do I look up. . .”

Scotts Bluff National Monumentpainted by Ruth Wright

Scotts Bluff National Monument
painted by Ruth Wright

  • In 1945 my parents lived in Douglas, WY. The town is situated at the foot of Laramie Peak on the Laramie River, a tributary of the North Platte River.  I was born in Douglas.
  • In 1945 our family moved to Worland, WY, situated about midway between the Grand Tetons and the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
  • In 1950 our family moved to Kearney, NE. The city is situated near the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers.
  • In 1952 our family moved to Scottsbluff, NE. The city is situated at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument on the North Platte River.

From the top of Scotts Bluff on a clear day, one can see Laramie Peak, about 120 miles to the west.

  • In 1960 our family moved to Omaha, NE, situated at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.
  • In 1963 I struck out on my own to go to college at the University of Redlands in Redlands, CA, situated at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio sixty miles east of the California Pacific ocean beaches.
  • In 1974 my late ex-wife and I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, situated on the Iowa River on the (former) prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
  • In 1978 I moved to Massachusetts and lived for seventeen years within a mile of the Atlantic Ocean.
  • In 1994 I moved to Dallas, TX, situated at the base of Cowboys Stadium.

A few days ago my sister and I took a day trip up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fifty miles east above her home in Rancho Cordova, CA.

As a wannabe writer and sometimes musician who lives in fantasy more than reality I have been, for most of my life, affected by prominent- preeminent- overarching- glorious geological formations. Until I left home, I lived with my family in a series of towns and cities that have a direct connection through their proximity to the Platte River. I have always (with the exception of my time in this place where football stadiums have replaced natural wonders) lived in close proximity to rivers, oceans, or mountains.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak

But, it’s the mountains.

I have mountains in my blood. And that’s the truth. For all of us, I’ve come to understand. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” my father would have said, quoting Psalm 24. The earth and all of us who dwell herein are made of the same stardust.

Today I am in mourning. Partly the mourning of being older than I was yesterday. Mourning (not regretting) the loss of ability to move and think and laugh and love as I could even five years ago, much less ten or fifteen. Mourning the process of being forced to retire a year earlier than I had hoped.

“Retire” is an odd word** to use for what SMU has decided I must do. “To retreat.” Dean Peter Moore believes it is best if I retreat. Retreat from what into what? I must ask. Oblivion? Is that what sixty-eight year old men do?

Retire is an odd word to use for ending one’s career. Or is it odd? I shall retreat. Yes, I shall retreat into safety, into the “everlasting arms” of the mountains—of the stardust from which both Laramie Peak and I are made.

I will retreat there soon enough. Perhaps my retreat is already complete. Perhaps it began the day I was born. Dean Moore only believes he has control over my retreat. In our arrogance we all believe we have some sort of power. It’s the illusion that drives us to “work” to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Most of us pay lip service to a “god” or some other force to which we have sworn allegiance. We say we believe that force has control over our lives.

And then we act as if we have some power over the stardust of which we are made—and, more pathetically, over the stardust of which others are made.

I have little use for the language that John D. Campbell invokes to praise his particular god. However, I am coming to understand the truth of his image. I do lift up my longing eyes to the hills. My language—as I come to say here nearly every time I write—is no better than Campbell’s. Different but not better. How can it be? How can any of us explain our certain knowledge we are made of the same stuff, the exact same stuff, of which Scotts Bluff is made. My comfort is knowing that my retreat there is certain. It began the day I was born.

“Remember, O Man, of dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

“Thanks be to God.”
__________
**retire:
1530s, of armies, “to retreat,” from Middle French retirer “to withdraw (something),” from re– “back” (see re) + Old French tirer “to draw” (see tirade). Meaning “to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion” is recorded from 1530s; sense of “leave an occupation” first attested 1640s (implied in retirement). Meaning “to leave company and go to bed” is from 1660s. Baseball sense of “to put out” is recorded from 1874. Related: Retired; retiring.
**retirement:
1590s, “act of retreating,” also “act of withdrawing into seclusion,” from French retirement (1570s); see retire + –ment. Meaning “privacy” is from c.1600; that of “withdrawal from occupation or business” is from 1640s.
__________
Dana Levin has written this post as a poem that says what I am trying to say ever so much better. She has language artistry I do not have.

Big Horn Mountains

Big Horn Mountains

 

Where IS your wandering boy tonight?

carry-nation-inlineIn the summer of 1967, my wife of about a month and I lived at the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wisconsin, as members of the staff of the idyllic retreat center. Like nearly every program/ institution of the American Baptist Convention, “Green Lake” has been taken over by the most fundamentalist wing of that denomination and morphed into the crassest money-making operation where the little religious contemplation that survives is of the most rabid conservative and proscribed kind, completely at odds with the 500-year true Baptist tradition of soul-freedom. But in 1967 Green Lake was a hotbed of free thinking and rigorous biblical and theological discussion.

I was staff organist and Ann was in charge of activities for teenagers whose parents were attending conferences. The director of the music staff was forgettable, but the soprano soloist, the pianist, and the alto and bass soloists will live in my memory until my last day. The alto and bass singers were Elspeth and Gordon Pruett. (this is not fair since I have not had contact with them since about 1970, but here they are.)

Among the piles of music in Stambaugh House where the music staff lived, I found a book of old gospel songs with a section of “Temperance” songs, that is, songs that were used to stir up crowds during the political campaign that eventually passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or use of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

The music staff had great fun with this music. We prepared and presented (several times) a program of “Temperance Songs,” complete with historical lecture by Gordon Pruett, an Oxford-trained church historian. We presented the music straight, resisting the temptation to make fun of it. We decided to be historical rather than hysterical. The first time we presented it was during the week of a conference of church historians. They loved it.

We were surprised and delighted at the wide variety of music the temperance movement used. A couple of Gospel songs we all knew (four of the six of us were American Baptist preachers’ kids) were apparently favorites of the Temperance movement. I don’t remember if we discovered that “Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying” and “Bringing in the Sheaves” were, in fact, written as temperance songs or if the movement simply took them over because the words fit their agenda so well.

The only winner during Prohibition

The only winner during Prohibition

But the Gospel hymns we all knew were not our favorites. My personal favorite was “Where Is my Wandering Boy Tonight?” It was my favorite because the question was answered in another song, “Down in a Licensed Saloon.” We would gather ‘round the piano in the giant hotel lobby of the main building of the assembly grounds (a hotel built as a corporate retreat center in the 1920s by the Kraft corporation and given to the American Baptists by the Kraft family—I hope my memory serves me right) and without irony or sarcasm present a program of these songs, with Gordon’s historical information between songs.

I was reminded of all of this because Jerome Sims, photo librarian of the Dallas Morning News, in his entry on the daily photography blog of the newspaper posted a picture of the famous temperance crusader Frances Willard, in Dallas on March 14, 1896.

There’s no punch line here. Except this. Shortly after I finished my dissertation on Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885), musician and politician from Salem, MA, the Essex Institute Historical Library in Salem and I received a grant from the Massachusetts Commission on the Arts to present a series of historical concerts at the Institute (1990). I gathered a quartet of professional singers, and one of the programs we presented was—you guessed it—a program of Gospel and Temperance songs.

The other interesting side note to all of this is that a sermon of my father’s titled “Heroes at Drinking Wine” was published, in about 1958. The sermon is based on the biblical story of Lot’s daughters getting their father drunk. The collection of sermons by various Nebraska pastors was published by—you guessed it—the Nebraska Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Oh my, how things get tied up together in one’s life. After the summer of 1967, Ann and I (we divorced in 1975 and she died in 2002) threw a gigantic party every year called “Harold and Ann Knight’s Annual Gospel Hymn and Temperance Song Sing.” It was not, by virtue of the amount of alcohol consumed, an historic event without irony. I’ve now been sober for 26 years.

Pillsbury Hall - the scene of the crime

Pillsbury Hall – the scene of the crime