“He who kisses the joy as it flies. . .” (William Blake)

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Richard Chase, one of the preeminent American folklorists (how he would have disliked that kind of description of himself), owned a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was an early edition with the plates colored by an unknown hand. It was one of his prized possessions. I’m not being grandiose when I say there was a time (many, many years ago) I would visit him so I could look at that wondrous book.

This is not a “name-dropping” exercise. Several people who are likely to read this post knew Chase as well; we knew him as “Uncle Dick” before we had any idea of his importance to American culture. I own his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, one of the 20th-century reprints, not valuable except that it has Uncle Dick’s notations. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Dick is walking with him, naked, at midnight one full-moon night into the surf on the beach at La Jolla while he recited Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The next day I decided the least I could do to keep that memory alive was to memorize the section

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother

I can’t recite it these days, but always, when I think of that night, I remember I’m basically an illiterate “bull-in-the-china-closet.” I have known true education, elegance, and kindness.

One of William Blake's visions of eternity

One of William Blake’s visions of eternity

Uncle Dick also explained to me his understanding of the poetry of William Blake. He served, Uncle Dick said, as the antidote to the Age of Enlightenment swirling around him. His poetry exists in the heart rather than in the mind. Newtonian physics and reason were fine for solving the world’s physical problems, but they were useless for understanding the human heart.

That is obviously my “spin” on Uncle Dick’s guidance and the way I remember it 40 years later. Whatever it was, in fact, that Uncle Dick said to me, what I took from it was that the life of the mind I was embarking on by going back to graduate school would serve me well only so far. Much of my life I have forgotten his wisdom.

I have not, however, forgotten the poetry of William Blake. Such wild, such odd, such emotional stuff. I came across this short poem the other day.

“Eternity,” by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Last night I said to a group of friends that, as I retire, I realize I am in the process of giving up perhaps the most joyful activity of my life—working with young students. At the same time I’m giving up one of the most odious of tasks—the paperwork and institutional nonsense that weighs down the academic world.

I have nothing profound or academic or, most likely, even interesting to say about Blake’s poem except that I hope, I trust, I can kiss the joy as it flies and begin living in the sunrise. Whatever that may be. Even, perhaps, another way to experience my joy.

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

“. . . In a stable, dark and dreary, who will be the first to kneel . . .”

Who will be the first to kneel?

Who will be the first to kneel?

Among the contradictions, inconsistencies, and dissimilitudes in our celebration of Christmas [or the Winter Solstice or whatever you celebrate at the end of December] is a misconception about the definition of the word “humble.”  Dictionary.com first defines it as “not proud.” Then come the interesting meanings. “Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience . . . low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful . . .”

Who in America (or any other Western country) wants to have a “feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience?” Not movie stars. Not professional athletes. Not recording artists. Not Rachael Maddow. Or Ted Cruz. Or Alice Walton.


You’re educated enough to understand the word “dissimilitude,” and you have a computer of some sort. You probably drive a nice car and know the best restaurant in your city. (Stephan Pyles in Dallas. I’ve eaten there.)

Given all of that, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Humanist, or none of the above, you would not be caught dead kneeling in a pile of cow shit. Might ruin your Gap jeans.

But, with the best of them—even you non-Christian folks—we sing, in the holiday spirit,

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

(16th-century Polish carol, “In a manger He Is lying”). Never mind if you don’t know that exact one. You likely know “What Child

Vierne "Final." All those notes!

Vierne “Final.” All those notes!

Is this,” sung to “Greensleeves.” I have Muslim friends who, of course, don’t know those carols. But, believe me, there’s plenty of Ramadan sentimentality to go around. And, my goodness, Chanukah? So we all get ooey-gooey feelings about holidays based loosely on our religion.

Back to my original assertion—you wouldn’t be caught dead with your knees in a pile of horse manure. But you’d sing a song about it and feel ever-so-spiritual (or at least cuddly).


Here’s this baby in a place no self-respecting mother would give birth—a manger. Have you ever been in a barn where cows and other such filthy animals live? I’ve helped shoo the cows in from the fields to the dairy barn and sprayed the floor with water to keep the cow shit washed away so it doesn’t get mixed in with the milk. Nebraska, 1959 or so.

That’s as far from the windows of Neiman Marcus on Main Street in Dallas sporting their Alexander McQueen fashions as you can get. But I’ll bet everyone who buys one of those dresses either as a Christmas gift for his wife (do men do that?) or for herself to wear to the Christmas party she simply has to attend would sing

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?
At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?


Those of us who buy our underwear at Target because we can’t afford McQueen will sing it, too. While we all refuse to kneel in the cow dung.

I’m not getting all holier-than-thou here. One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, said,

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I’m grateful people like her keep things moving in (at least now and then) the right direction. But frankly, I’m more grateful I was born with weakness, fear, and timidity instead of courage. Epilepsy and bipolar disorder. And self-centered fear. I’m grateful I’m a wimp. Otherwise I never would have discovered that it’s OK to kneel in cow dung. In fact, it’s sort of a natural place to be. For all of us.

Not because I’m a piece of it—don’t get me wrong, I’m not groveling.

No, I’m (I think by this age I can be confident that I am) moving into the real meaning of “humility.” That is, “low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful.”

When I play the organ, it’s usually not very fast. I’m neither physically nor mentally adroit enough to play all those notes. (My “normal” temperature is 97.5.) Nothing about me is athletic—not even my fingers. I used to hate that my organ playing is best when it’s slowest.

Once when I was practicing at the University of Iowa on the Clapp Hall organ (destroyed by a flood) a friend—a real organist (played at the Mother Church in Boston)—wandered up to the loft. I was playing the Bach chorale prelude on Allein Gott (BWV 662), a languid work with the melody ornamented and strung out over a long introspective accompaniment. When I finished she said she was glad someone in the department could make sense out of that kind of slow music.

I resented it. I wanted to play the Vierne “Final” she was working on. No way could I then, or now.

And now I know. Or am beginning to understand. “Low in rank, importance, status, quality” is where I belong. That’s not self-hatred or any of those things your therapist or AA group warn you about. At least for me, it’s where I can pay attention. Where those mysterious tones we call music fit together so I can comprehend them. Where I’m most likely to understand anything. Anything at all.

In a manger He is lying
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Baby Jesus, infant Christ-child,
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Wake, ye shepherds, and as ye play
Gladsome songs and carols gay,
Seek the Babe ere break of day;
Seek the Babe ere break of day.

Angel hosts have sung their story,
Who will follow the bright star?
Told of Christ in all his glory,
Who will follow the bright star?
Wake, ye shepherds, and sing Noel,
Help the angel chorus swell,
To the earth glad tidings tell;
To the earth glad tidings tell.

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?
Wake, ye shepherds, Seek out your King!
Play your songs and loudly sing,
Till the air with echoes ring;
Till the air with echoes ring.

“. . . Wop bop a lula wop bam boom. . .”

sheb in 'high noon'

sheb in ‘high noon’

In 1991 I was teaching a music appreciation course—a general survey of American music—at bunker hill community college in Boston.  Several of my students were older émigrés from the Soviet Union, given entrance to the u.s. because adult children of theirs were already permanent residents here. Their main goal at BHCC was to learn English.

One unit of the course plan was on film scores and TV theme songs. I thought the immigrant students especially could “relate” to music they might have heard on TV.

I began the unit with quintessentially American music, the theme song to “Rawhide,” which all Americans – at least all I knew – watched devotedly every Friday evening, 1959 to 1966. The score was composed by one of Hollywood’s most honored composers, Dimitri Tiomkin, with lyrics by another Hollywood legend, Ned Washington.

Imagine my surprise—no, shock!—when the Russian students began singing along in Russian.

It was, they assured me, a Russian folk song. I had read many secondary sources about Tiomkin which said he was “influenced by” Russian folk music, but I have yet to read anywhere that the “rawhide” tune is a Russian folk song. All I can say is my students were singing some Russian words to a tune they all knew, and it—apparently by coincidence was the same as TV music composed by another émigré from the soviet union—this barely a decade after McCarthy! I could compose a hit theme song, too, if I knew a body of folk music no one else knew

–note: I’m giving up on capital letters right now; I’m typing with one hand because my left arm’s in this sling from shoulder surgery; if Word makes a cap automatically, fine. capital letters are an affectation, anyway. After today I’ll be using dragon and talking to you. We’ll see if that can satisfy my tle writing compulsion. Is talking the same as writing? doubtful–

Clint eastwood (rowdy Yates), the star of the show, sultry, macho, and handsome as he was, did not capture my imagination as did his drover sidekick, sheb wooley (Pete Nolan). Eastwood was too sexy, too perfect a male image for me. I couldn’t go for his stellar qualities. His less flamboyant, more realistic—but equally seductive—friend was just hot enough for me.

We all knew sheb before rawhide. He was a pop singer. Country western, that is. Except for his one great hit, ‘the flying purple people eater,’ from 1958. This song sounds the way popular music should sound! Memorable tune, steady rhythm, not so loud and filled with electronic tracks you can’t hear the main melody. Oh, yes, and sensible words.

sheb wooley typifies much of the understanding of culture—both real and pop—that floats unbidden in my mind, of course, and my grandnephews might not say it, but they would think, ‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeew’ if they knew how much there is—and how much lingers also in their parents’ minds.

sheb with  Sharon Leighton Joyner- watch out for the bees!

sheb with Sharon Leighton Joyner- watch out for the bees!

Hair styles, for example. Need I say a word of explanation about the sensible coif of wooley’s friend, Sharon Leighton Joyner?

And blue jeans. Does anyone really think sagging your pants is sexy? As sexy as sheb with his tight jeans and chaps? Does anyone in the world –anyone with brains or normal sexual urges—really want to see Justin bieber’s bare ass? Certainly not his mother.

So I think I’m an old bore without a lick of pop culture sense. A fuddy-duddy –the smu students I spend so much time with surely have an au courant word for it—who can’t possibly have anything to say to the Millennials or their successors.

Then why are my o-so-up-to-date and technologically ept and sophisticated students unable to handle their assignment to research and write about the French performance artist ORLAN? unable to decide if they think her work is grotesque? Unable when their old professor who is unbearably lonely and immanently terrified of the death he is looking in the face can not only handle it but seeks out to ponder the questions ORLAN wants to raise.

My work is a fight against nature and the idea of God… the inexorability of life, DNA-based representation. And that’s why I went into cosmetic surgery; not looking to enhance or rejuvenate, but to create a total change of image and identity. I claim that I gave my body to art. The idea is to raise the issue of the body, its role in society and in future generations, via genetic engineering, to mentally prepare ourselves for this problem (Orlan, from ‘Synthetic Pleasures’) (1).

ORLAN’s ‘fight against nature and the idea of God… the inexorability of life’ is ‘anti-conformist’ enough to captivate the mind of the old professor.

Carnal Art loves the baroque and parody; the grotesque, and the other such styles that have been left behind, because Art opposes the social pressures that are exerted upon both human body and the corpus of art. Carnal art is anti-formalist and anti-conformist (2).

no se  no sagging here (thank goodness!)

no sagging here (thank goodness!)

The flying purple people eater. Bee-hive hairdos. A Russian folksong as the theme for an American western. My inability to type capital letters. Sagging pants.

One thing seems undeniable: the human desire to fight death wherever possible is too deeply rooted to be eradicated in any way. Body modification, plastic surgery, and the attempt to shape our bodies in the image of our desires to me seems one of the more benign manifestations of the denial of death. . . . (3)

Watch out! you purple people!
(1) ‘Orlan and Body Art.’ Imaging the Body. The Evergreen State College, Olympia Washington. Winter 06. Web.
(2) Akman, Kubilay. ‘Orlan and the Work of Art in the Age of Hyper-mechanical Organic Reproduction.’ International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 3.1 (January 2006). Web.
(3) Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171.

What is an author (anyway)?

Still blowin' in the wind.

Still blowin’ in the wind.

Sometimes it’s fun to show off how much one knows—NO! what one has read, obviously not the same. When I was taking classes at the University of Texas at Dallas, I was in a seminar every semester in which we pursued ideas about language, rhetoric, and teaching. We read piles of books on the subject.

My background in topics such as linguistics and rhetoric and philosophy was limited (virtually nonexistent), so I had to struggle to understand any of it—even the assigned readings. The first semester we started with Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”

Unlike everyone else in the seminar, I had never heard of Michel Foucault.

A lively discussion ensued debating the fine points of Foucault’s theories. All of us were graduate teaching assistants in the Rhetoric (first-year writing) program under the careful supervision of Professor Cynthia Haynes. For the most part, I had no idea what they were talking about (and, truth be told, don’t to this day).

The discussion had progressed only as far as the first paragraph of What Is an Author.”

The coming into being of the notion of “author” constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas. . .  Even today, when we reconstruct the history of a concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy, such categories seem relatively weak, secondary, and superimposed scansions in comparison with the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work (1).

My only even oblique reference to any of this was the curious musicological fact that the first music composer whose name can be, with any certainty, attached to specific musical compositions is Léonin, one of the composers of the Notre Dame school of polyphony who lived about 1150-1200. Exactly why I have remembered that fact since university music history class I do not know.

In the 1995 seminar at UTD, I asked what I thought was a direct and simple enough question. “Is Foucault saying that knowing a piece of writing is ‘by’ a given author instead of its being ‘anonymous’ changed the position of writing in culture in the same way attributing a musical composition to one person changed music from an amorphous communal effort to a personal artistic expression, as happened with Léonin in the 12th century?”

What is an author?

What is an author?

All I had in mind was that, in the 60s when we sang “Blowin’ in the wind” by Bob Dylan, I think our purpose was different from singing “Good night Irene.” An overtly political statement by a single known composer was (is) much different from a song people have been singing around campfires for decades (centuries) just for the fun of it. Understanding that is not rocket science (you see, I know this is not a profound statement because I use a cliché to explain it).

But you would have thought I had just stated the Theory of Relativity for the first time. I immediately became the “authority” on rhetoric in music or music as rhetoric or some such absurdity. I want to quote that awful line from “Gone with the Wind,” I don’t know nuthin’ about rhetoric or music history.

I really don’t.

Whatever it may seem I know about anything is dilettantism.

In 1964 I met Joan Baez. I had no clue who she was. She had released perhaps three enormously popular albums by that time, but we serious music students couldn’t be bothered. She came to the University of Redlands to give a concert, and my organ teacher, Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, made a fuss over her and planted me in the audience with a bouquet of flowers to rush up on the stage and hand her when the concert was over.

Her singing, of course, was spell-binding. She sang folk music I knew and “American folk” (not really “folk” music but composed songs), even songs she had written herself. I was duly and properly impressed and intimidated when Dr. Spelman introduced me to her after the concert.

OMG. You’d think this blog has become my memoirs, and I’m stuck in university days. I’ll get on with it soon.

A couple of years later I came to understand why Dr. Spelman was solicitous of this non-classical musician. He had known her all her life because her father was a professor at the university, and they were neighbors.  As a senior, I lived with nine other “honors” (which is not to say “honorable”) students in an off-campus “dorm,” which was a house where Baez had lived.

So I’m back where I began. Is this writing my memoirs? I don’t have a clue. I’ve never really gotten past that first paragraph of Foucault’s (I’ve read his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish without, I must hasten to say, understanding much of them). And I was aware of his death from AIDS in 1984.

All I mean to say here is that “when [I] reconstruct the history of a concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy, such categories seem relatively weak . . .  in comparison with the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work.” Don’t worry, I’m not claiming to have created any concept, literary genre, or school of philosophy.” Yikes! But I do know that if I ever have had an idea worth thinking about, it happened because I wrote it down.

I don’t write because I have an idea. I get ideas from my writing. Whether or not anything I’ve ever written is a “solid and fundamental unit,” all of my writing helps me understand this “author.” If you want to go along for the rocky ride, I’m honored and pleased.
(1) Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author.” The Foucault Reader. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1984 (101).

The most beautiful campus in America

The most beautiful campus in America

“Is it odd, or is it God?”*

(*A question heard in a twelve-step meeting.)

The Swedish Lutheran poet

The Swedish Lutheran poet





If you’ve been reading my postings, you know I’m getting ready to hustle off to Oslo (and points east, ending in St. Petersburg) with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I’m going as accompanist (mostly organ, some piano), not as a singer. After 15 years of smoking—I quit in 1979—and 20 or so years of drinking way too much (mostly vodka, 90-proof)—I stopped in 1986—and now not seriously singing for many years, I make pretty awful sounds when I try to sing outside a range of about five notes.

At times during our performances I will be expected to play organ music. This may sound a bit over-the-top sentimental (it is not), but when we are in Sweden, we will be prepared to sing a hymn known to all Lutherans in the United States and presumably in Sweden, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” the words by Lina Sandell, and the tune a Swedish folk tune arranged by Os­kar Ahn­felt. The English translation of the first stanza is

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given

The Swedish original is

Tryggare kan ingen vara,
Än Guds lilla barnaskara,
Stjärnan ej på himlafästet,
Fågeln ej i kända nästet

Viktor Anderson, the director of the Calvary Lutheran choir, and I decided I should play a chorale prelude on the tune before the choir sings it—and we invite the audiences in Sweden to sing along. We decided that because I told him I have in my repertory a lovely organ setting of the tune.

Thinking about the hymn, I had in my mind’s ear the beginning of that chorale prelude (a chorale prelude is an arrangement of hymn tune as a solo work, usually for organ). As a matter of fact, with my vodka-tenor croaky voice in private, I could sing through the first section of the prelude. I knew I was not making it up.

The American composer

The American composer

When I got out the score of the collection of pieces I thought it was from, I was (mildly) horrified to discover it was not there. I could not for the life of me remember the composer or where the piece might be filed in my apartment. I fretted over the dilemma for three or four days, not wanting to tell Viktor I had imagined the music.

The last few days, I have been in a divestiture mode—that is, sorting and pitching stuff from my computer room which has essentially become my attic. Several boxes of stuff have been there since 2004 when I hurriedly moved in.  Sorting one of those boxes of (mainly) old photographs, I was pitching all that were of scenery I had forgotten or of people I did not recognize. I came to the last layer in the box, having thrown away most of its contents, and on the bottom was a single volume of organ music.

It is a collection of chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, for many years the organist of the Billy Graham campaigns whose work as musicologist and theorist of Evangelical worship is of the highest importance. The third of the preludes in the collection is the setting of “Children of the Heavenly Father” I had been singing to myself for a week.

The volume has performance markings from my high school organ teacher. I learned it in 1962. I am not sure I’ve ever played it since then.

Yesterday afternoon I was depressed. If you have to ask about what, you obviously don’t understand depression. I was about to indulge myself doing something that would have made me feel worse. My phone rang. It was a friend who had just received from an academic journal a rejection letter for an article he had submitted. He was having trouble working through his disappointment, so he called me. Our conversation helped him decide what to do that would be constructive rather than giving in to some indulgent behavior to mask his hurt. When we ended our conversation, I went to the organ and practiced for two hours—the one thing that will always lessen, if not lift completely, my depression. I know that absolutely, but when I’m depressed, I forget.

Some of my best friends would say these things are “God deals.” That is, God arranged them. If I believed in God, I’d be surprised if God didn’t have better things to do than serendipitously show me where an old piece of music is hiding, or prompt a friend to call me to find some solace for exactly what I need to talk to him—or someone—about.

But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

The heavenly father?

The heavenly father?

My grandparents were not “takers”

Nina Huntley Knight

Nina Huntley Knight

My paternal grandmother, Nina Huntley Knight, was a commandingly and elegantly beautiful woman.

Two days in to the Great Sequestration. Do you suppose President Obama’s Presidency will be known a hundred years from now as the “Great Sequestration Administration” the way the Warren G. Harding’s is remembered by the Teapot Dome Scandal? My guess is not. In the long run it will be seen as so petty, as so absurd that people will simply forget it. Or it will be, if the White House is politically clever enough (which I doubt), known as the work of the Second Great Do-Nothing Congress.

My maternal grandfather, Edward Leroy Peck, was a jovial and warm-hearted, somewhat ordinary looking guy.

I have been wondering what “sequester” means, and I finally got around to looking it up. It is absurd to call what’s going on in Washington the “sequestration.”

Sequester, verb, late 14c., from Old French sequestrer (14c.), from Late Latin sequestrare “to place in safekeeping,” from Latin sequester “trustee, mediator,” probably originally “follower,” related to sequi “to follow” (see sequel). Meaning “seize by authority, confiscate” is first attested 1510s.

I have been thinking a great deal the last few days about the direct line of personality traits from one generation to the next to the next in my family (we are not unique, but I’ll not extrapolate and let you think about your own family).

Or, perhaps, we are experiencing a “sequestration.” The Congress has certainly “seized” and “confiscated” the means whereby we “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” We ought to demand a special election right now—today—and throw the entire 535 of them out.

I’m enchanted by old family photographs, especially if they are of me—or show a connection between who I turned out to be and my immediate forebears. I’m neither commanding and elegant nor jovial and warm-hearted. So I wonder sometimes how I ended up in my family.

My grandparents, in their own noble ways, were the common folk we believe were the backbone of this country. Grandmother Knight managed to arrange for her two sons to attend a private college during the depression—when Grandfather worked only sporadically as a carpenter. Grandfather Peck had a steady job with sufficient income to support a family of five children through the depression. He was “only” the elevator operator in one of Kansas City’s early skyscrapers, but it fed his family and allowed him and Grandmother Peck to own their own home—the home where my mother and her four brothers grew up and where we visited Grandmother until she could no longer live alone in the 1970s.

Both Grandmother Knight and Grandfather Peck had earned Social Security benefits. Grandfather Peck died too young to draw his, but his Social Security allowed Grandmother Peck to live in dignity without want. Social Security was an important part of the support of both of my grandparents Knight. I used to have (but it has gone the way of so much family memorabilia) the check stub from Grandmother Knight’s first Social Security payment. She saved it for years because it was such a blessing to her.

Edward Leroy Peck

Edward Leroy Peck

My grandparents were not “takers.”

More than usual, the connection between my ideas is vague. So I will throw in one more disconnect. Once about twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents, my father showed me the service leaflet from a funeral he had recently attended. He wanted me to see the words for a song that had been sung.

You can picture happy gath’rings ‘round the fireside long ago.
And you think of tearful partings when they left you here below.

His question for me was his usual one. “Where do they get this stuff?” It was my introduction to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” I, like my father was (and his mother would have been)—well—appalled at the sentimentality and, to Dad and Grandmother, the deplorable theology.

I care little for most country music, and I have no belief that I’m going to meet Grandmother Knight or Grandfather Peck or my dad in the sky by and by.

But I think it’s fair to ask John Boehner (and, let’s be fair, President Obama, too), “Will the circle (of decency and ‘the common welfare’) be unbroken?”

How’s that for stretching an idea to the breaking point?

Valentine’s Day – for romantic love only? Not an attempt at humor

I'll seek the seas. . .

I’ll seek the seas. . .

Let me say up front this is not a Valentine’s Day paean to my father. That may be part of it, but it sets the stage for what I want to say.

My father was a man of surprises. Examples. A Baptist minister, he once, in about 1958, gave a friend of mine what I consider to be the most faithful answer a person of faith can give to the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” His answer—“I believe God created the heavens and the earth, and I don’t need to know how.” He also, for the record, never once in my life judged me for being gay—and he knew before Stonewall that I was. A man of surprises.

"I don't need to know how"

“I don’t need to know how”

That I, having rejected almost totally the religious language and observance of the church, can write without embarrassment about his faith, and even use his words, is testament to his love.

As I was in the childhood process of learning to play the piano and organ, my father would give me hymn tunes to play, tunes he loved but that our congregation did not know. His way to hear them was to have me learn them and then sneak them into the Sunday evening services. The most surprising of those for a Baptist minister, I think, was “O Sacred Head, now Wounded.”

My father had a favorite tune. The words he sang to the tune are at the end of this post. The tune is Kingsfold arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I have often wondered how my father learned such tunes—most likely when he was in college. Certainly not in any Baptist church I was acquainted with in childhood.

The tune first appeared as a hymn tune in The English Hymnal of 1906. The source of the tune is the English folk song, “Star of the County Down” which tells a quaint story of unrequited love. Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the tune is used for several texts in modern hymnals. Even in Roman Catholic hymnals.

That brings me to Valentine’s Day.

The tune has come back into my life in a most surprising way. Allow me to be mysterious and private about that. I will say only that it is once again for me an expression of love.

Mysterious and personal

Mysterious and personal

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote in his book National Music and other Essays from 1934 (I paraphrase—I’m not at home where I have it on the shelf) that the chief glory of music is that it is absolutely useless. You’ll just have to take my word for it that he’s right—I’ll write about it someday. But I will say that Kingsfold has been used for so many texts that it has taken on an expressive life of its own. Sharing such a tune—with anyone, with one’s father or a friend or a church choir or one’s lover—is absolutely useless except that the tune itself has become an expression of love.

I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;
If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.

It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.

If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,
Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.