“. . . does its beauteous ray aught of joy or hope foretell . . .”

"pop" goes the drag show!

“pop” goes the drag show!

Imagine this (bet you can’t). Approaching midnight, December 31, 1958 (or -7 or -9). A half dozen middle-aged Baptist Republican men in Western Nebraska wearing “work casual” clothes (dress slacks, long sleeve shirts—it’s cold in Nebraska on New Year’s Eve), dress shoes (the only kind they had), a couple of them with neckties. Sitting in a circle, some crossing their legs in that “womanly” way (as if wearing a tight skirt), a couple of them wearing fashionable ladies’ hats, all of them wearing “pop beads” and earrings, one of them in high heels.

The YMCA community all-purpose room (down on the last street before the river—where it still is). Probably sixty people in the audience, and the men reading from a script pretending to be their wives.

How do I remember this so clearly? My first drag show, of course.

Except these men were not bending genders. They were definitely having a good joke at the expense of their wives.

The Baptist celebration of Christmas in Western Nebraska in the ‘50s was a fairly low-key proposition—at least for the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff. We apparently had no Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services (unless those days fell on Sunday) because our family was free to run off to Kansas City to spend Christmas with grandparents (both maternal and paternal) and aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m grateful for that. My siblings and I have a store of memories (both happy and unhappy) we otherwise would have missed. We knew our extended family largely because of Christmas. My Texas cousins and I have a history going back to our grandparents’ home in Kansas City more than sixty years ago. Their parents and mine, besides the fact that their mother and our father were siblings, had more in common than my parents had with perhaps anyone else. Both our fathers were Baptist pastors, for starters. I have written many times of the influence my Aunt Doris hadon my musical life.

Drag, anyone?

Drag, anyone?

It seems to me the celebration of New Year’s Eve was in some ways more important to the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff than Christmas was. I remember a couple of “Christmas Cantatas” the choir sang—but on the Sunday before Christmas. I also remember the year my father was roundly criticized for his Sunday-before-Christmas sermon on the Magnificat because it was too close to Catholic Mariolatry (never mind that it was a straight-forward exegesis of Luke 1:46-55).

By New Year’s Eve everyone in the Baptist church was home from the holidays with their families, and shopping was over, and we kids were about to go back to school. I remember the New Year’s celebrations, probably because it was the only night of the year we were allowed to stay up until midnight (which became less of a struggle as the years went on).

Besides the seminal event (as in “having possibilities of future development” –not a bad pun) of the drag show, I have a more significant memory of those New Year’s celebrations. They were called “Watch Night” parties and usually ended with a communion service at midnight. We always sang the Lowell Mason hymn tune “Watchman,” with John Bowring’s words, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” Always on New Year’s Eve.

Lowell Mason (1792 – 1872) was the “father of American public school music,” appointed music superintendent of the Boston Public Schools in 1838, the first such appointment in the country. He was a composer of great repute until the sophistication of American music in the 20th century pushed aside music in his style. The premier setting of this Mason tune is the first movement of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony. (Mason was, not coincidentally, a great friend and professional partner with Henry Kemble Oliver, who also taught public school music, and is the subject of my PhD dissertation.)

How a real man sits

How a real man sits

As might be expected, I came to associate Bowring’s words with Advent as I grew into the tradition of the “liturgical” churches. But, as with much of the music I [we] know, I [we] have important associations with the time and place we first heard it.

Indeed. Watchman. Tell us. Tell us the signs of promise. Strange to think how much of my life was prefigured in that one New Year’s Eve celebration. Or was it Advent and I didn’t know? Even though the specific beliefs expressed in the hymn have become foreign to me, I understand the hope that morning seems to dawn and that doubt and terror will be withdrawn.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

Who’s wearing the same dress?

supremesWhen I was in seminary (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus), I took the course “Existential Theology.” I took it because the professor was too hot—a Methodist preacher/academic (at what back then was called STC—the School of Theology at Claremont, California). He must have been from Texas. He wore jeans (blue, of course, because that’s all there was then—either Levis or Wranglers) a tan corduroy sport coat with bolo tie, and expensive Western boots.

That was the semester STC gave me the boot because they found out I was gay, found out in a most unfortunate manner. My then-wife was none too pleased, either. Remember, this was 1968. Stonewall was still a gleam in some drag queen’s eye, and all us faggots who wanted anything like a career (especially in the church) were, if not closeted, at least married or putting up some kind of front.

That was not the beginning of the ruination of my life. That had already happened in a way that I will never write about. I do have some boundaries.

My life was disjointed—pun intended. My wife was a brilliantly successful high school English, journalism, and drama teacher—this was back in the day when teachers were expected to be creative and energetic rather than burdened with absurd Republican rules about giving tests and being “accountable”—so we had a steady income. I, on the other hand, was a part-time church organist (a job which saved my life and is yet the most creative and satisfying position I’ve had). After the Theological Boot, I had jobs I hated. Baldwin piano salesman. Printer in the in-house print shop at the now defunct Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana. Mind-numbing work I could pursue only by living in fantasies in my head while I was on the job. I had that Kaiser job because the husband of the secretary at my church was a supervisor there and put in a good word for me even though she knew I was a queer.

The secretary at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Ontario was one of a group of us who, shortly after I got the Theological Boot, trooped to Los Angeles together to see Hair, the musical. If you saw that original Broadway production, you may not remember it the way I do. (If I’m wrong, someone comment and put the record straight—pun intended—but that won’t change what I’m about to say.)

In the original production (not in the movie) the trio of black women singing about “white boys” in the best song in the show—IMHO—wearing pink spangled dresses mimicking The Supremes moved and sang together. They stood as close as their harmony, swaying and dancing. The gag—the almost too slapstick trick—was that at the end they stepped apart and revealed their dresses were one huge dress.

That, and the fact that the cast came up the aisles naked at the end of the show (or was it at the end of the first act?) and I was sitting on the end of a row goggle-eyed made me crazy. I wanted to be naked in front of two thousand people (I was young and skinny then) or at least to stop having to hide.

The Supremes

The Supremes

My life as a half-closeted, half-ostentatiously-out gay man was, in those days, untenable. I was miserable, my wife was miserable, and I made lots of other people miserable (including my Dutch Reformed psychiatrist from Chino—but that’s another story).

Today the Supreme Court (only peripherally not to be confused with The Supremes) will hear the case that should somehow make sense of, give meaning to, liberate the memory of my life at that time. (My musings must be taken with a grain of salt because I’m not only a Tired Old Queen, but diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder which, I’m sure most Fundamentalist Christians believe all LGBT persons are.)

In spite of Chief Justice Roberts’s lesbian cousin, I’m prepared to have hopes dashed yet again.

I know, I know, I know. Change is in the wind and all of that. But five of the Supremes have, for most of their careers, worn the same spangled dress. Five catholic men, all appointed by “Conservative” Republican Presidents, will make the decision. ‘Nuff said, I fear.

But here’s the real kicker. Even if they make the “right” decision, it will be so bitter-sweet for me that I will hardly be able to rejoice. Oh, I will rejoice!don’t get me wrong!—for my younger gay friends. But nothing can bring back the life I’ve not had, epitomized by the Theological Boot. I’m not a victim, a martyr, or an accuser, but I will have to learn to rejoice. I don’t regret my life, and I’m not a spoil sport. But let’s be honest.

The Theological Boot

The Theological Boot

Of silos and birth certificates

Will the real American please stand up?

Will the real American please stand up?

I’d like to meet Ted Cruz.

For two hours I’ve been trying to think of a humorous take on what I want to say, but I can’t. Sheesh! Where’s George Carlin when we need him?

Back in the day—you know, the idyllic ‘50s, the good ole days when Father Knew Best and we all Left It to Beaver—there was a Communist behind every filing cabinet in Washington, D.C., and most movie directors and screenwriters had a tinge of pink about them. Even Leonard Bernstein was most likely one of “them.”

Our national response to this threat—I mean Threat, with a capital “T”—was to plant guided missile silos in the back yards of unsuspecting kids in places like Kimball, Nebraska, and Lovell, Wyoming. Well, I suppose the missiles weren’t aimed directly at Lenny Bernstein, but they might as well have been.

The missiles were (and still are?) aimed at Communist Russia (formerly, for those under 22 years old, known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The mere fact that huge conglomeration of republics lumped together under one monolithic and despotic  government had the word “Socialist” in its name made it Godless and fearsome. Communism (godless socialism) was out to get us, and we had to be ready to sacrifice the children of Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming to stop the Reds.

Never mind it wasn’t Communism but Joseph Stalin and his un-godsons who were out to get us. Had nothing to do with “Communism,” really. It was Russian totalitarianism. Not ten people in the United States knew then (or know now) what Communism is. My guess is that I’m the only person reading this who has Marx’s Manifesto downloaded on his iPad. And, of course, by the rules of Joe McCarthy who was running the pinko-behind-every-file-cabinet-in-Washington show the very fact that I’ve read the Manifesto and quote it now and then proves I’m a Communist. And virtually as dangerous as Joseph Stalin.

Lenny and fellow travelers

Lenny and fellow travelers

Enter Ted Cruz.

The junior Senator from Texas (from where else could he possibly be?) has taken up Joe McCarthy’s mantle. Cruz raises the possibility that Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska might have taken a $200,000 campaign contribution from Communist North Korea. And my friend Kimball almost certainly believes him. Never mind North Korea doesn’t have $200,000 to give to anyone for anything. The fact is that North Korea is not—by definition—Communist. Read the Manifesto. In order to be Communist, a nation has to have lots of goods and the means to produce lots more to share around equally before Communism can be adopted. North Korea does not qualify. Monolithc and despotic, yes. Communist? Nope.

Ted Cruz is, by definition, a liar. He is a debater. A national champion debater.  Debaters have no interest in the truth. All they want is to win the “argument.”  They use words the way the NRA uses the Second Amendment. Kill ‘em dead by any means available—with no regard for the truth. Ted Cruz floats out a preposterous and totally un-sourced question about Senator Hagel and wins the argument—helps delay Senator Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense—with no regard for the truth. Sophistry at its finest.

So the former Senator from one of the states that used to have (still has?) missile silos planted around to shoot at the Communists is now taking

Likr Ted Cruz

Like Ted Cruz

campaign contributions from one of those so-called Communist countries? Never mind the truth, or even logic.

And, to add insult to injury, Cruz isn’t really an American. He’s a Cuban born in Canada, probably in this country illegally. I sure wish Ted Cruz would show me his birth certificate. How has he perpetuated this fraud? I’d like to meet Ted Cruz. I wish I had cojones like his.

 

For the Love of Jesus: Forgive a musicologist’s rant

Rich Young Man

(Please note: a funny thing sometimes happens when you write. I intended for this to be sarcastic and negative. A friend read it and thought I am somehow thanking the church and its homoerotic music. So now I’m not sure. Is that bad writing or ambiguity on a remarkable scale? Dunno. I trace the “rainbow” through the rain . . .)

Pope Benedict will live at the Vatican—perhaps never leave there. The sovereign state will offer him refuge from prosecution by any country for participation in child sex abuse cover-ups. The old guy has some right not to end up in jail somewhere for his part in the hideous scandals of the church. But really now, as an American I firmly belief no one is above the law.

When I was four or five years old (we lived in Worland, Wyoming), my dad went off to Boston for the annual meeting of the American Baptist Convention. To entertain us while he was away, we had a large and complicated picture jigsaw puzzle to work on. Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler (painting by Heinrich Hoffmann). I’ll be the first to admit I missed the point. But look at the hand-on-the-hip pose of the pretty young man. What a gay blade! He’s haunted my imagination since about 1949. And that hat! To die for.

On Valentine’s Day I blogged about learning hymn tunes when I was a kid. One of my favorites my dad never used in the service. He did not like it. He told me so when I suggested we should sing it. I liked it partly because it was so easy to play (key of A-flat with close voice leading so kid’s hands could reach all the notes). He objected to the tune (perfectly banal) as much as the words.

“O Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee.” I’m not saying the hymns we sang in church had anything to do with my being a gay boy. But they certainly gave me words to go with what I was feeling, as those paintings gave me images.

Another favorite hymn tune was “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” It may, in fact have been the first hymn tune I ever played. F-major. Tonic, sub-dominant, dominant, tonic. A first-week harmony exercise in a first-year theory class. But the words! “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.” With the Rich Young Ruler, no doubt. And I won’t even mention coming to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses, and he tells me I am his own.

You think I’m making this up, don’t you?  “O love that wilt not let me go” has been in some pretty important Protestant hymnals**.

I began thinking about all of this because of a picture a friend posted on Facebook. (She did not post it because she loved it!) I’m not sure if it’s a joke. My friend says it’s being passed around by pastors. What that could mean, I don’t know. All I know is it fits right in with love that wilt not let me go. We didn’t revere the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Baptist church, but we did sing about the lover of my soul.65524_10151308245551662_1031495858_n

My Come Hither Eyes?

I just want to raise the question of how mixed a message this is from people who say God and Jesus hate gays. We gay boys were pretty confused. At least I was. Nothing profound or new here. Just saying. I hope Mr. Justice Scalia and Pope Benedict are listening.

**The Baptist Hymnal. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991 (292).
Christian Worship, a Hymnal. Valley Forge, PA: The Judson Press, 1941 (388).
The Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978 (324).
Service Book and Hymnal. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1958 (402).

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Lincoln (and a drag show)

LincolnI promised this blog would never be serious, so I have to say right off I’m not in any way making fun of Abraham Lincoln. He is my hero, at least as far as history is concerned. I begin my first-year writing classes each semester with a study of the Gettysburg Address.

And I have hanging in my office at the university a 19th-century print of the portrait here. At least I’ve been told it’s that old. Of course the appraisal came from someone not famous enough to be on Antiques Roadshow, so who knows if it’s accurate.

I come by my fascination honestly. I’m one communication link (or is it two – there’s one person between us) away from Mr. President Lincoln.

I’ve told this story before in my other blog, but it bears repeating. When I was five years old I sat on the lap of an old man who had sat on Abraham Lincoln’s lap when he was five years old. It was 1950, and Mr. Johnson was about 87 years old.

Mr. Johnson was a retired railroad conductor, and because I was in my kindergarten production of “The Little Engine that Could” (singing “Little Red Caboose”), he gave me his conductor’s coat and hat. It was, of course, about twenty sizes too big. I could sort of wear the hat, but not the coat.

But I grew into it, and I began to use it for play-acting of many kinds. By the time I was in junior high school, it was well-worn, and the hat had gone the way of all flesh. Somewhere there’s a family picture of me and a girl whose parents were friends of my parents, and I’m wearing the coat.

She is wearing a long green formal. And there’s the story.

Need I say More?

Need I say More?

When my father finished his graduate degree, my parents went to the seminary in Kansas City for the graduation ceremonies. My mother had to have a formal for the occasion. Someone gave her two or three formals, but they were too old fashioned, and she ended up making her own—a black silky dress that I thought was both scary and superb!

But she had these two formals hanging around, stored in a barrel in our basement. I found them. It was about the time Mr. Johnson’s conductor/President Lincoln coat began to fit me.

The picture of me with our family friend used to bother me. The problem was that I wanted to be wearing the formal. It had replaced the coat as my favorite play wear. The coat fit me, and so did the dresses.

As far as I know there are no family pictures of me wearing the formal. My God! What would the good people of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have thought? I’m not sure if my parents ever knew I wore the dress. My sister does, I think.

This isn’t very good story-telling because I’ve already given away the punch line. But Daniel Day Lewis is my favorite actor these days. You see, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for my first drag show appearance in the basement of a tiny house in far western Nebraska. Only my hairdresser knows for sure the extent of my drag clairolcareer. And he’s dead!