Sunday, April 5, 2020

How Can I Keep from Singing?—Murfin Home Confinement Music Festival 2020

How Can I Keep from Singing sung by Enya.

It’s Sunday—Palm Sunday no less—and the perfect day for one of my favorite, uplifting, and inspiring hymnsHow Can I Keep from Singing? also known as My Life Flows On in Endless Song. The simple but lovely song is often mistaken for an uncredited, usually Quaker, traditional hymn.  The original lyrics were published  in The New York Observer under the Title Always Rejoicing  and attributed to a Pauline T. Baptist minister Robert Wadsworth Lowry included in the 1869 song book, Bright Jewels for the Sunday School and claimed authorship of the music.  

American Baptist minister Robert Wadsworth Lowry wrote the music to How Can I Keep From Singing? and included it in an 1868 song book.
The song was largely forgotten through much of the 20th Century and was included only in the 1941 edition of The Church Hymnal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and titled My Life Flows On.
Around  1950 Doris Plenn reported that she had learned the original hymn from her grandmother, who mistakenly believed that it dated from the early days of the Quaker movement. Plenn wrote a new version that eliminated some of the explicitly Christian references in the original and added this new verse:
            When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

Pete Seeger popularized Doris Penn's pacifist revision of How Can I Keep From Singing?
These lyrics were popularized by Pete Seeger during the folk revival of the late 1950’s and early ’60.  In this form it became popular in mainstream and liberal Protestant congregations.  In the late 1970s, How Can I Keep From Singing was recorded closely following the original lyric by Catholic folk musician Ed Gutfreund on the album From An Indirect Love  and then was published in the widely used Catholic Hymnal Glory and Praise.  It was especially popular in guitar masses.
The Plenn/Seeger version has been particularly embrace by the Society of Friends and other Peace churches and by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and was included in the 1993 hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.

Irish New Age singer Enya brought  How Can I Keep From Singing? to new audiences.
The song received new prominence in 1991 when the ethereal Irish singer Enya, a New Age  music favorite released it her album Shepherd Moons following Seeger’s version including  changing the original lines “What tho’ my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Saviour liveth” to “What tho’ the tempest ‘round me roars, I hear the truth it liveth.”  Her video of the song included clips from then contemporary events like the Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
It was also performed by Celtic Woman in their Destiny show live from the Round Room at the Mansion House in Dublin.

Shari Wagner—National Poetry Month 2020

Hoosier poet Shari Wagner with two of her books.
I first heard of Shari Wagner last year when Sue Rekenthaler used her poem The Farm Wife Turns Off the TV Evangelist as an opening chalice lighting for a Tree of Life U.U. Congregation Social Justice Team meeting.  It was an apt pick for Sue who is a hard working vegetable farmer with her husband as well as an accomplished poet herself.  I was impressed by the choice and determined to find out more about the author.
It turns out that Wagner was Indiana’s fifth Poet Laureate from 2016 to 2017 and is the author of three books of poems: The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana, Evening Chore and The Farm Wife’s Almanac.  She lived the life she writes about and embraces not only memoir pieces of farm life, but work inspired by Indiana history, and her love of nature and rural life.  But she is not the reflexive conservative you might suspect from a writer with official approbation in a deeply red state.  She has a social justice view point nurtured by her education at Goshen College, a Mennonite school and cross cultural  experiences in Somalia, Kenya, Haiti, and Honduras as well as domestically with the with the Clifton-Choctaw of Louisiana.
Downtown Markle, Indiana in the 1950's.  In the '60's Wagner's doctor father had an office on the street.
She was born in the Mennonite community of Goshen, Indiana and grew up near Markle, a small town along the Wabash River, in Wells and Huntington Counties.  Her father, Dr. Gerald Miller, was a family practitioner and her mother, Mary Mishler Miller,  contributed her leadership skills to  many community projects such as editing the town’s monthly newspaper and planning the annual town festival.   Later she and her father co-wrote Making the Rounds:  Memoirs of a Small-Town Doctor about the healthful advantages of living in a place where people feel connected.  
At age 13 her family moved to the Horn of Africa where her father served Mennonite mission hospital in Somalia where she first started writing  poems to describe the guban—the desert area that surrounded the village.  She would later write another memoir with her father, A Hundred Camels: A Mission Doctor’s Sojourn and Murder Trial in Somalia detailing his story of being tried for murder after a patient died on his operating table.   

The woods near Wagner's childhood home inspired some of her earliest poetry and is now a nature preserve,
Back in Indiana, the ten-acre woods where Shari had grown up seemed more mysterious than she remembered and she started searching for similes and metaphors to describe what she saw and felt. English teachers at Norwell High School encouraged her and a Poet-in-the-Schools gave her a valuable introduction to the elements of poetry writing.  
At home town Goshen College she studied with Nicholas Lindsay, the son of Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay and  a poet and carpenter who emphasized poetry’s connections to song, place, and people.  While in school she published two Pinchpenny Press volumes, When the Walls Crumble which included a one-act play, poetry, and a short story, and Feathers in My Hat, an anthology of poetry by residents at Fountainview Place, a senior facility in Elkhart, Indiana. She was editor of The Record, the Goshen student newspaper
After graduation and doing ethnographical work with the Clifton-Choctaw which sparked an interest in Native American life, Wagner earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree (MFA) in creative writing from Indiana University at Bloomington.
Wagner’s poems have been featured by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac and by former  U.S. Poet Lauriat Ted Kooser in his column, American Life in Poetry. Her poems have also appeared in North American Review, Shenandoah, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, The Christian Century, Poetry East, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and many other journals. Her work has been selected for the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading, And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana, and A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry..
She has been nominated four times for Pushcart Prizes, and she has been awarded two Creative Renewal Fellowships from the Arts Counsel of Indianapolis, as well as twelve grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. In 2009, her essay, Camels, Cowries & a Poem for Aisha, was co-winner of Shenandoah’s Carter Prize for the Essay.
Wagner has taught creative writing and memoir writing to people of all ages and backgrounds, in grade schools, colleges, libraries, community centers, and nursing homes. She is the editor of Returning: Stories from the Indianapolis Senior Center and co-editor of I Remember: Creative Writing by Indianapolis Youth, 2012.  She teaches with the Indiana Writers Center, where she has been a faculty member since 2008.  She is also on the faculty for  the Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts: A Program of Indiana University-Purdue University's Humanities Institute, taught at Bethany Seminary’s theopoetics and writing program.
She lives north of Indianapolis in Hamilton County with her husband Chuck Wagner, a poet and English teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. They are the parents of two adult daughters.

The poems from The Farm Wife’s Almanac feature a fictional speaker of who Wagner says “many of her stories harken back to stories from my family tree. I peeled, sliced, and simmered these accounts, adding this and that, till they turned into something new, like the fruit preserves in the farm wife’s larder.”
The Farm Wife Turns Off the TV Evangelist
The Jesus I grew up with
likes to be outside.
If he’s not fishing, he’s picking figs
or showing us his mustard crop.

He prefers dusty roads, the common sparrow,
and lilies of the field.
When he knocks on your door
holding a lantern, you know it’s time
to buckle on overshoes
and go with him to feed the sheep.

But this preacher, who looks straight
into the camera and claims he knows
Jesus, says what he wants
is for me to believe in him
so he can come inside.

That sounds shifty to me.
Like a wolf with his paws dipped in flour.

Jesus who heals the blind
said we will know a tree by its fruit.

—Shari Wagner

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Lean on Me—Murfin Home Confinement Music Festival 2020

Lean on Me by Bill Withers.

Just as his 1972 hit Lean on Me was becoming an anthem for front line health care workers and first responders during the Coronavirus pandemic Bill Withers died on March 30 with his family making the announcement yesterday.  The 81 year old singer and songwriter was not, however, a victim of the bug but succumbed to long standing heart problems.
Withers was a master of smooth soul music that often had an uplifting vibe during the 15 years of his active musical career in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.
Long before he was a star he was a working class guy, experiences that have led some to call him a Black Bruce Springsteen but his life was even humbler and entailed plenty of dirt under the fingernails. 
He was born on July 4, 1938 as William Harrison Withers Jr.  in the tiny coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia and brought up in nearby Berkley where a stutter made it hard to fit in.  His father died when he was 13 leaving the family in dire financial straits.  Desperate to get out he joined the Navy as soon as he could at age 18 and served a full nine years of active duty.  He was rated as an aircraft mechanic but later joked he spent much of his time installing toilets.
While he was in the Navy Withers became interested in music and taught himself guitar and piano.  He left the Navy in 1965 and relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 to with an eye on a possible music career and because there were plenty of good blue collar jobs to support himself in the meantime un till he could start a music career.  He was a factory hand at several different companies including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night. 

Bill Withers posed with his lunch box at is factory job for his first album which featured the break out hit Ain't No Sunshine.
In 1970 struggling Sussex Records signed him on the basis of those demo tapes and assigned him to work with producer and arranger Booker T. Jones formerly of Booker T. and the MGs at Staxx.  After three recording sessions stretched out over nearly a year Withers’s first album, Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks, Ain’t No Sunshine and Grandma’s Hands as singles. Stephen Stills played lead guitar.  All the while Withers kept punching in at his day job because he believed the music business was a fickle industry The album cover even  pictured him at his job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank holding his lunch box.
When the singles, especially Ain’t No Sunshine which became an instant classic charted and album sales were brisk, Withers finally quit the day job and assembled a band built around members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band hit the road on tour.  Sunshine earned an RIAA Gold Record for sale of a million records in September of 1971 and the following year won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.  Withers was a certified star.

Bill Withers in live performance.
He followed up with a second album, Still Bill which featured the anthem Lean on Me which went to #1 as a single  on the week of July 8, 1972.  His second gold single had confirmed sales  of over three million.  Use Me, another went gold in October.  A month later he recorded Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall.
But trouble lay ahead.  Up to this time Withers and Booker T. had free hands in selecting what they could record.  But Sussex Records was in trouble and disputes with company executive kept his third studio album +/Justments from being released.  When the company folded industry giant Columbia Records swooped in and bought Withers’s contract and his back catalog which enabled the label to re-issue compilations of his work.  But executives refused to allow Withers to record some his new material and leaned on him to add more covers.  A particularly bitter dispute erupted when they pressured him to cover an Elvis Pressley song.  He did an album a year for four years for Columbia, none of which matched his sales at Sussex.  The third album, Menagerie did better than the others had featured the moderate hit Lovely Day which did exceptionally well in Britain.
Fed up with Columbia, Withers spent most of his time after 1977 working in collaboration with other artists on their labels including Just the Two of Us with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. with which he won his third Grammy in 1980,  Soul Shadows with the Crusaders, and In the Name of Love with Ralph MacDonald, and the album Dreams in Stone with French singer Michel Berger. 
In 1985 he finally completed his contractual obligation to Columbia with a new studio album, Watching You Watching Me, which featured the Top 40-rated R&B single Oh Yeah.  In press interviews Withers complained that two of the first three singles released, were the same songs which were rejected in 1982 and that the label had signed and promoted non-singing actor Mr. T while preventing him from releasing his own music. 
After touring in support of the album with Jennifer Holliday Withers walked away from the music industry and never looked back.  He had lost all interest in the back stabbing and intrigue that were part of the recording end of the business and just plain tired of touring.  Not becoming a success until age 32 meant that in his words he was “socialized as a regular guy” who had a life before show business and could  have an ordinary life again.

Withers with John Legend at his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Withers seldom emerged in public, most notably at the At the 30th Annual Grammy Awards in 1988 when he won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song Songwriter for the re-recording of  Lean on Me by Club Nouveau, in 2005 when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and 2015 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In that awards program he jammed on stage with Stevie Wonder and John Legend on Lean on Me.
Withers summed up his career—“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”

Jed Myers—National Poetry Month 2020

Seattle Poet Jed Myers

Jed Myers was born in Philadelphia in 1952 to parents of Eastern European Jewish heritage. He studied Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry at Tufts University, graduating in 1974, and went on, after medical training, to pursue a career in psychiatry.  He settled in Seattle, where he and his wife raised three children. He maintains a solo therapy practice and teaches at the University of Washington. Meyers kept writing poems, but did not seek publication until the events of September 11th, 2001. Since that time, his work has been widely published. For several years now he has been active in maintaining a consortium of music-and-poetry open-mic cabarets called Easy Speak Seattle.  

Jed Myers, on drums, often performs with Band of Poets including John Burgess, Anna Jenkins, Ted McMahon, and Rosanne Olson sometimes joined by other musicians and poets.  
I first encountered Myers’s work last summer in in an on-line collection of work in response to the humanitarian immigration disaster on the Mexican-American border and the Trump maladministration of jettisoning traditional legal avenues of claiming asylum , forcibly turning back border crossers,  separating families, and indefinitely detaining most who got across in virtual concentration camps.  He commented about his contribution:

For all its shocking immediacy, an image of tragedy on our southern border seems to embody our burned-out distance. The drowned father and little daughter are casualties of our country’s deep currents of fear. The truth that we’re all Americans north and south is lost in the hubbub of nationhood. We take the river as border, denying our deeper unity. I hope my poem holds and conveys the embarrassment of our self-distancing.
The image of the bodies of asylum seekers Alberto Ramirez and his toddler daughter Valeria in the Rio Grande briefly caught the attention of Americans and shocked the shockable.

American Border Study—Two Bodies in a River

Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter, Valeria, Rio Grande, Matamoros, Mexico

We’ll recall her small arm on his neck.
We’ll forget them there in the shallows.

We wonder at the black cloth they share.
We don’t get it was how he held her.

We see clearly her short red pants.
We miss the pink disposable diaper.

We note the bamboo stalks on the shore.
We grow our bamboo along the link fence.

We see sun in the river’s slow ripples.
We have no fierce current here in the frame.

We’re touched their dark heads wind up together.
We are spared their still-eyed stare.

We’re shocked the camera shot them in the back.
We’re not especially surprised.

We’re living the lives they might have.
We haven’t been breathing water.

We understand it’s father and daughter.
We don’t have our noses in the mud.

Jed Myers
from Poets Respond
June 30, 2019

This deeply personal poem won the 2013 Literal Latte Poetry Award.

Going to Bed

These nights I slip down into sleep 
in minutes, freed from a lifelong
ritual, the slow obsessive surrender
of my vigilance. Some nights it took hours

to check all measures on the interior
monitor — savings, the kids’
immunizations, endangered birds,
the boy down the block gone to war….

Now, it isn’t that peregrines nest
again on the Hudson’s bridges (they do), 
nor that the detainees are released 
from Guantanamo (they are not).

I know the cisterns of Hanford are fractured
and bleeding our cancers into the river.
I know the immigrants wait in the culverts
to cross into Texas. I drift anyway.

I’m sure it’s not that when I lie down  
in my bed, no one else is there 
in the flesh who will press the points
of the thorns of the day. And I’d swear

it isn’t that I am eased to know 
my children, nomads now on their own
in this carbon-hazed wilderness, succeed
in trading the gold of true affection.

It’s just that I slide into silence,
into the soil of sleep, down dream’s 
rivulets, with no resistance, knowing 
this: a few I’ve loved have descended

for good, from air into earth, left
the world still pressing its weather east,
spring's blackberry stalks infiltrating
the beach paths, mosquitoes drinking

the sweet sera of lovers asleep
in each other's arms at dawn…. We go on
crossing over our mingled lost,
our footfalls on the sun-stained grass

a comfort to them if they listen in 
their sleep (they can’t, but they haven't gone
far). We have our dark-hour meetings
(in topsoil? synapses?) — they thank us

for breathing, as we still play the leaves
while they take to the roots (a comfort 
to us as we draw the sheets like first
layers of dust up to our cheeks).

Last night my father and I took our seats
at a cafe table in part of the city
I’d never seen. His eyes gleamed
as he piped up Let’s eat. So it was

and it wasn’t real. He looked serene — 
not rushed as he’d always been
(in his vigilance). Dawn pressed
its way through the slats, and I surfaced.

He lingered. So I’ll sink
again tonight, in trust,
into the under-life, a surrender
to depths off the monitor, to the silt

where my mother’s father still picnics
and holds a baby girl up to the sun
by a Western Pennsylvania river —
where, a closed-eye blink later,

a thin boy in Lithuania runs
from a house on fire, toward America,
into the immeasurable brightness of love.
It’s this: up from the loam of devotion,

out of the night, some will return,
by the human xylem of heartwood
and vine, to gather actual sun, 
here in the blood's branches creaking

in time; some will remain in the night,
out of reach of the light's last fingers,
beneath our prisons, bridges, beds,
in the intricate unconscious mulch

where the world dreams its births, riots,
blooms, monsoons — a matter of inches
deep, under the lids of our eyes,
in this one tissue that sleeps and dies.

Jed Myers

And finally—

Poem for My Country

Not far from my city, I walked under tall trees
by a river whose name soon escaped me.

Silty-green eddies, white froth dressing
the rocks, flat current over what I thought

must be the depths, a riffle dazzled
the shallows. I lost perspective

to the strobe of the wind-shaken maples’
foliage fringing the shore. Were they swallows

who sped and veered, who caught the living
dust of the hovering bug constellations?

A few splashes some yards upriver,
little eruptions of silver, what might be

a fish, I bent for a better look under
a branch, and saw on the edge up ahead

a kid spin a flat rock to skip, and it did.
What country is this? A moment in wonder,

no answer. The water coursed past
in and out of the bright and the dark, I heard

the elements’ vigorous frictions, dignified
groans of the cedars and firs, and imagined

the current grinding away at the stones.
What country is this? Perhaps it is known

to the singing boughs spread over the banks,
to the stones, or the invisible fish.

—Jed Myers