Friends of Fiddler’s Green

This is a folk music group which was founded in 1971.  Last night at the Cuckoo’s Nest in London, Ontario, five fellows treated us to accordion, guitars, keyboard and a tiny squeeze box, as well as impassioned singing.  The musicians used to play at the old Fiddler’s Green folk club in Toronto.  They played songs and tunes from wide in the world, some raucous and some tender.

I got the last chair in the place, back and to the left of the keyboard player.  I was immersed in sound.  Closing my eyes and tapping out the rhythms on my thighs came naturally.  And so did watching Jeff’s fingers fly over the keys.  Propped up in front of him was a little notebook, with only a few hen scratches shown for each song … and yet he played such beautiful runs!

Usually there was a chorus where we the audience could sing along.  What joy to reach a harmony or two amid the sweet melodies.  I love the blending of voices – it both sends me away and drops me inside.

Our choir throbbed inside an old Tom Paxton folk song – “The Last Thing On My Mind”:

As I lie in my bed in the morning
Without you, without you
Each song in my breast dies a-borning
Without you, without you

Are you going away with no word of farewell
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind
You know that was the last thing on my mind

Oh my God … we were so fine.  We knew the humanity within the words.  And the instruments soared with us.

Alistair Brown is a very funny guy.  Between his singing and playing, he peppered us with jokes:

(A man and his young son)

Daddy, why is the sky blue?

I don’t know, son.

Daddy, how do birds fly?

I’m really not sure, son.

Daddy, do people live out there in space?

I really don’t know, son.

Daddy, do you mind me asking you all these questions?

No, son.  If you don’t ask questions, how are you ever going to learn things?

It was a delightful evening.  From my angle, I got to look at a lot of glowing faces in the audience.  We stood at the end.

 

This Old Guitar

I made a promise to you folks two days ago that I would play my guitar yesterday … and I did.  It had been so many years and I didn’t even know if I could remember how to tune it.

I smiled as I pulled out the guitar case from its shelf and undid the clasps.  Am I really beginning again?  Apparently so.  There sat my friend with its strap laid tenderly over the strings.

In my hands now, the instrument felt right.  “Welcome home,” it seemed to say.  I resurrected memories of group guitar lessons in Ottawa in 1971 or so.  And there I was last night, tuning.

Use the pitch pipe to get the right sound for the low E string.  Place your left index finger in front of the fifth fret on the next string – the A.  Play the two strings, one after the other.  The two notes should sound identical.  If they’re slightly off, you should feel a vibration in tone.  If they’re right on, no vibration.  Wow, it’s actually coming back!

Continue the process on the next strings.  Strum them all with your flat pick.  Be extremely happy when the sound is wonderful.  Yes!  Except for the fact that I couldn’t put much pressure on the strings with my fingertips, and that adds up to a buzzing.

Okay, so some of my chords were a buzz.  The cool thing is that my fingers remembered where to go … C, F, G, D, Am, Bm, Dm and Em.  Four major chords and four minor ones – I can play a lot of songs with just those beauties!

I used to bemoan that I didn’t know how to fingerpick, and that I couldn’t move my left fingers out of the chord shape to hit individual notes.  Would I like to do these things?  Sure.  A guitar teacher could help me.  But sitting here right now, it doesn’t feel important.  All right.  Then what is important?

1.  I want to sing beautiful songs, ones that tell a story about life

2.  I want other people to hear me sing them

3.  I want other people to be touched by the stories, and to sense how they apply to their lives

I can do this.  First, I need to create some calluses on my fingertips, so I can play for longer than five minutes.  I have to learn some songs – know the chords, memorize the words.  And I have to convince someone to listen to me.  I can do this.

I started singing and playing last night … “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”.  I loved my voice and I loved hearing the guitar filling in the tones.  Was it performance ready?  Not at all.  But, to use a martial arts term, I had put myself on the mat.  The guitar was on my lap.  The words came out of my mouth.  The chords moved with the words.  Happiness.

I thought of John Denver, one of my favourite songwriters.  He loved playing too:

This old guitar taught me to sing a love song
It showed me how to laugh and how to cry
It introduced me to some friends of mine
And brightened up some days
It helped me make it through some lonely nights
Oh, what a friend to have on a cold and lonely night

New friends are coming my way.

Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound

Okay, so what do I want to do with the rest of my life?  There are many things that draw me – meditation, sacred relationships, cycling, spending time with kids.  And then there was the package that arrived in the mail today.  It consisted of two books, each offering the lyrics and guitar chords for 1200 songs.

Thirty years ago, I wrote out the titles to 100 songs I wanted to learn – singing and playing guitar.  My results so far?  Zero.  But here I sit, wanting to sing for people, wanting to touch them with stories that open the heart.  The dissenting voice inside says there’s only so much time left in my life.  A guy can have too many projects, can’t he?  And anyway, where am I going to find folks to sing to?

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a house in London where Christine and John host folk music concerts every Wednesday evening.  I had a great time.  Maybe they’ll let me sing one of these months.

Do I really want to invest the time to learn old songs?  Well … I could start with one, such as this pensive tale from Tom Paxton:

I’ve been wanderin’ through this land just doin’ the best I can
Tryin’ to find what I was meant to do
And the people that I see look as worried as can be
And it looks like they are wonderin’ too

And I can’t help but wonder
Where I’m bound, where I’m bound
Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound

Wouldn’t listeners find it easy to ask themselves the very same question?  Yes, I think they would.

But what about my guitar skills?  They’re pretty rudimentary and it’s been so long since I’ve played.  So?  I guess it depends on how badly you want to do this, Mr. Kerr.  You decide.

Okay.  I will pick up my guitar tomorrow and see what happens.  That’s a promise.

Time for bed.

Christmas Eve

My goal yesterday was to go to four carol services and one lovely dinner with friends.  It ended up being 3 and 1.  And what adventures I had!

Stop number one was a service at Belmont United Church at 10:45 am.  Oh we sang, as did the choir.  My favourite moment was when the minister stood in front of us.  He’s retiring next week.  He told the church members that he had made mistakes as their spiritual leader, and with his hand on his heart, asked for their forgiveness.  A stunning moment in time.  He was so genuine and so naked before us.

Service number two was out in the country near Belmont, Ontario, at St. James Presbyterian Church.  I didn’t expect to know anyone.  As I sampled the goodies laid out before the service, a fellow in a clerical collar approached me in welcome.  A lovely thing to do.  He was perhaps 70.  Minutes later, a woman probably in her 30’s came by to talk.  Her last name was the same as the minister’s, and I blurted out unthinkingly, “I just met your husband.”  “Oh … that was my dad.”  My yappy internal voice launched into “Bruce, you’re so stupid.  Look at the age difference.”  But then a remarkable thing happened:  My quiet voice simply said “It’s all right, Bruce.  You’re a human being and you made a mistake.”  And poof!  My embarrassment and fear disappeared.  Magical.  And I’m so blessed that sometimes I can pull myself out of prolonged pain.

An old colleague of mine invited me to sit with her and her family during the service.  More bold singing filled the sanctuary.  At the end, Elizabeth asked me what I was doing on Christmas Day.  I said “Nothing”, which is true.  After an exploratory conversation on her part, she invited me to Christmas dinner.  My mind raced.  I sure didn’t want anyone feeling obligated to have me.  At the same time, here was a woman offering me a gift.  What a disservice it would have been to say no.  So 5:00 pm today finds me in a lovely home with an old friend and some new ones.

Dinner at Leah’s place.  What an amazing chef she is.  Drop the librarian job, my friend, and open your own restaurant.  I had a great time with her family and a “bestie” couple.

My wife Jody and I enjoyed watching “The Polar Express” just before Christmas, but since she died I haven’t seen the film.  It makes me sad.  So what does Leah do after supper but pull out the book and read us the story!  Someone somewhere (my dear wife, I expect) is looking after me.

I had a phone call scheduled with my friend Sarah in New York City.  We met during the three-month meditation retreat.  I had promised to recite “Twas The Night Before Christmas” … normal speed and super fast.  So I did it, drawing forth little squeaks and laughter from Sarah and her roommate.  It made me happy to make my friend happy.

We were having a snowstorm and I decided during the call to skip my last plan of the day: going to a carol sing in the Old St. Thomas Church, circa 1824, 20 kilometres away.  It’s a beautiful old white building … and unheated!  After I hung up, I sat on the couch, my face tightening.  I remembered when Jody and I were visiting her brother Lance and his family in Drayton Valley, Alberta one winter.  We were staying in a motel and one night around 3:00 am Lance phones and says “You have to get up and see the Northern Lights.  They’re spectacular!”  Drowsily, I thanked him and pulled up the covers.  (Sigh)

“Not this time, Bruce.”  So I headed out into the weather, armed with a toque, mitts and four layers of warm stuff.  An hour later, thirty of us held candles and songsheets.  I blasted out the bass part of “O Come All Ye Faithful” with breath before my eyes and heart soaring.

It was a day.

Energy Out At School

The energy that I throw out into the world is infinitely more important to me than the energy that comes in.  People will respond to me as they choose, or not respond at all.  I have no control over that.  But I can create intentions and then follow through with the skillful actions that I want folks to receive.

I was volunteering today in the Grade 5/6 class at South Dorchester School.  It was basically assembly and party day before the Christmas break.  And I wanted to express.

During the carol sing and brain teaser contests, there was room for me to read “Twas The Night Before Christmas” to the 200 kids.  I sat in a rocking chair and moved from page to page, with the illustrations beamed to the screen behind me.  The real action was what comes next.  Many of the children knew what I was about to do but it was a surprise for most.  After I finished reading, I said “You know, I’ve read this story for years.  I wonder if I could do it without the book.  Do you think I should try?”  Lots of yeses from the assembled clan.  “Okay, but you need to be patient with me.”  Gosh, it was a perfect setup.

I got up from the chair and leaned towards the kids and then launched into Twas at superspeed.  My record is 1 minute and 3 seconds.  Young eyes widened as I ran all the words together, and mouths turned into little o’s.  The kids who had heard me before were just laughing.  Such happiness for me, and for many of the young souls I was facing.

I love creating moments, really to animate moments, as in bringing them alive with something special.  This morning’s Twas certainly qualified.  May I have many more such experiences before I exit the stage.

During the class’ afternoon party, while being jolted with cupcakes, candy canes and marshmallow/rice krispies treats, I asked Tiffany if I could sing a song.  I wanted to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, leaving out the verse with a sexual theme.  Tiffany said yes.  A week ago, the trustworthy voice in my head told me that I would sing the song to a roomful of people “in the near future”.  Well, twenty 10- and 11-year-olds certainly is a roomful.

Before performance time I got nervous, worried that I might start the song at too low a note, so that I wouldn’t be able to reach the deep “Hallelujah” note later on.  I told Tiffany that I wasn’t going to do it, and almost immediately my insides started churning.  I had just made a choice that wasn’t life affirming, wasn’t brave, and my body didn’t like it.  A girl sitting next to me (I’ll call her Mary) told me “You can do it, Mr. Kerr.”  So I flipped one more time, this time back to courage.

I haven’t memorized the words to “Hallelujah” so I stood up with cell phone in hand and gave ‘er!  I started on a note that was a bit too high, so no worries about the deep note later but some wavering on the high ones.  It didn’t matter.  I didn’t care and the kids didn’t care.  They sung the choruses with me.

I survived.  I thrived.  I expressed … with an energy that I believe reached some of those kids.  It feels like I’m building up the “out there” muscle.  And that makes me happy.  The world needs more personal expressions, more inspiration  and more courage.  I’m willing.

Where Have I Been?

I don’t know.  Somewhere that doesn’t honour the written word.

“But you love writing.”  Yes I do.

“But as someone in your childhood world said, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’  How can you say you love something if you never do it?”

I wouldn’t say “never”.  It’s been a month, or maybe six weeks.  “Pretty close to “never”, I’d say.  What don’t you just get your rear in gear and be like Nike?”

Okay.

***

In the months following Jody’s death, I gave myself little gifts.  One of those was a Jackie Evancho DVD called Awakening.   I didn’t watch it … until tonight.

Jackie has a voice for the ages.  On “America’s Got Talent” she blew the world apart with classical gems such as “Nessum Dorma”.  I remember the energy coursing through me.

So tonight I set myself up for ecstasy.  After all, this is Jackie Evancho.  I had to love the singing and the songs.  There can’t be any other response.  Except there was.

1. The video quality was poor.  Blurry.  And on medium and long shots of Jackie, little white horizontal lines would flicker on her face and arms.

2. Most of the songs were dull, with very little potential for lifting me up.  One reviewer likened it to elevator music.  There were beauties:  “Think Of Me” from Phantom of the Opera, “Made To Dream” and “Say Something”.  But pretty much I was flat in response.

“Oh, Bruce.  Something’s wrong with you.  This is the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard.”  I agree that Jackie sang sweetly, but where was the soul?

3. I don’t think Jackie was totally “there”.  It didn’t seem like she loved most of the songs.  Her smiles were small.

***

I should be writing
I should be loving this DVD
I should be happy all the time

Nonsense

The Voice

I sat in Chaucer’s Pub in London last night, listening to the folk music beauty of The Friends of Fiddler’s Green.  This group of balding gents has been at it for 45 years, and five of the six fellows only a few feet away from me were original members.  Fiddle, guitar, button accordions, bagpipes and piano blended with full-throated voices.

A song or two into the first set, we heard Stephen Foster’s Hard Times.  And when it was time for the chorus, we eighty audience members let loose:

‘Tis the song, the sign of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door
Oh hard times, come again no more.

After the last notes had melted away, the woman in front of me turned around and said “You have a lovely voice.”  I smiled and said thank you.  I was pleased.  At the same time, my head swirled with past deficiencies.

***

I was singing The Rose at a karaoke party in St. Lucia decades ago and thought I was doing well.  Jody, however, couldn’t take my off-key effort and retired to our room.  I wonder if I really was that bad.

I sang in a choir for years and never was offered a solo part.  I wanted one, and I should have asked for one, but I didn’t.  Maybe my voice just wasn’t good enough.

I was working with a visually impaired student and her Grade 8 graduation was coming up.  She and I decided to audition for the grads’ talent show.  We worked hard on The Prayer but the supervising teacher turned us down.  Was it me?

***

At the end of the folk concert, the woman in front of me extended her hand and said “I’m so glad I sat in front of you and could hear you sing all night.”

Life is a mystery

Karaoke

Last night I went with my friend Karina and her friends to sing karaoke at a London pub.  I was nervous.  Just coming off a long meditation retreat, it would be reasonable to expect that I’d moved beyond such tension.  I’m afraid not.  Meditation hasn’t taught me to eliminate fear and sadness.  Rather it’s shown me that I can hold these feelings more gently.  Instead of my vocal terror being smack dab in front of my eyes, I sometimes was able to move it to arm’s distance.  Instead of taking a sledgehammer to my fear, I had glimpses of cradling it as a mother would her newborn child.

My heart was still in my throat as I waited for my turn at the microphone.  Memories flooded in of another karaoke setting, and of someone precious to me walking out, saying she couldn’t stand listening to me anymore.

What’s true?  I love singing.  I got muted applause.  The person I was hoping would say “Well done” said I was nervous.  I’m still alive this morning.

I sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan.  It’s a lovely song.  And an angry song.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

There I was, mic in hand.  I watched the screen and the first line of the lyrics appeared.  I couldn’t remember the tune.  The blue (?) highlighter started moving over the words but my mouth stayed closed.  Up pops the second line and I start singing.  My brain says, “It’s too low.  You’ll never hit the bottom notes.”  So midstream I went up an octave and found myself at the top of my vocal range.  No way to hold a good tone up there.  Once my voice cracked.  “Do it!” said my brain.  So I dropped back down to the bottom of my vocal range.  I waited for the lowest note, cringing that my voice couldn’t reach it … But I did!  And I couldn’t have gone a note lower.  I thought, “Way da go, Bruce.  It took courage to go down.”

Then I started feeling the words.  “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”  There was no time to reflect on the fear that leads us to put down someone whose experience of life is different from ours.  The very human need to protect our version of reality.  But I wordlessly felt our common humanity as I sang.

Did I do well?  Did I do poorly?  In a larger picture, it doesn’t matter.  Did I live in the words and the feelings within them?  Often yes.  Will I keep singing?

Yes

Krishna Das

When I was telling you about qi gong yesterday, and the beautiful male voice that sent me crying, I didn’t mention that the singer was Krishna Das.  I wonder why.  He’s an American who met with a guru in India back in the 1970’s and was overwhelmed with the love glowing from him.  Soon thereafter, Jeffrey Kagel became Krishna Das.  After his guru died, Krishna felt alone and lost in the world, and descended through the realms of depression and drug use.

Eventually the love that is Krishna Das, and is all of us, emerged and greeted the world through the singing of kirtan – call-and-response chanting in Sanskrit that speaks the names of God.

When I got back from Massachusetts, I watched Krishna on YouTube and was transported again deep within my heart.  I ordered CDs and a DVD from Amazon and they arrived today.  If you would like to experience the Spirit of the man, I’d recommend that you listen to “Sri Argala Stotram / Show Me Love” on YouTube.  It’s on one of my new CDs and I played it on our stereo system a few minutes ago.  The piece artfully blends the Hindu words with “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner.

Listening to this is not just blissing out.  As Krishna’s voice goes deep, I feel the love, not only for Jody, but for all of us.  Our struggles, our imperfections, our kindnesses.  All worthy of love.  I’ve just finished melting again.  Lots of tears.  And I think of the lyrics:

I want to know what love is
I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is
I know you can show me

Christine was a woman I met before the silent meditation retreat started, and we talked after it was over.  She was grasping for what the retreat meant to her, and I was doing the same.  I found myself saying, for the first time, “I come to retreats to love people.  That’s all.”  I’d never been brave enough to tell anyone.  And it’s true.  When I hear the women’s voices repeat “I want you to show me,” I know that I have a part to play in showing love on Earth.  I’m not sure how that will unfold over time, but unfold it shall.  A good thing to do in life, I’d say.

The Beatles

I went to see the Fab Four at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre tonight, a venue which holds around 100 people.  At 8:00 the lights dimmed and the soundtrack rolled … it was a Sunday evening in February, 1964 and the Ed Sullivan Show was on TV.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, here they are – The Beatles!”  Well said, Ed.

And here they came … John, Paul, George and Ringo … guitars and drums in hand, launching into the first song.  I was in the second row and from behind me I could hear girlish screams, just like that night 50 years ago when I sat with my parents watching the music world change.  Can’t remember what mom and dad thought but I bet they didn’t like the long hair.

Soon two women in front of me were twisting and shouting.  One of them pretended to faint and flopped into the lap of the other one.  Big smile from John.  All night long my new friends moved and grooved, much to the pleasure of the band.  Actually, I moved and grooved as well, with a little less throwing of arms into the air.  What great fun.

From “She Loves You” to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band”, we heard it all.  And we sang.  My teenage life came flooding back to me and I remembered how the Beatles’ music helped keep my self-esteem afloat, even if ravaged by acne and lack of sports prowess.  I loved the tender songs, especially “Let It Be” and the big finale – “Hey Jude”.  I loved John and his granny glasses.  I so much wanted him to sing “Imagine” but I guess he never did it onstage with the other guys.

Jody was right there beside me, rocking to the hits.  Thank you for coming with me, my wife.

Before the concert and during it some, I had fun conversations with the woman sitting to my right.  We enjoyed each other’s company.  After the final bows, though, I looked around and saw her and her husband heading to the exit.  No goodbye.  That made me sad.

So it was an evening of joyous remembrance, of letting the vocal cords hang out, but tinged with a note of melancholy.  Sort of like life.  I’ll take it.