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Posts Tagged ‘songs’

Sometimes, for my day job, I get to sit in on clinics, performances or masterclasses and write about them for Berklee’s website. Once in a while, I get a little starstruck: we get some seriously talented folks here.

Last week, I listened to singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, best known for “Mercy Now,” as she talked to our students about her music, her struggles with addiction, the restaurant she used to run in Boston, and the co-writing work she’s recently done with veterans and their spouses.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could, soaking up every word Gauthier delivered in her raspy Louisiana drawl and welling up when she played “Mercy Now.” She’s a truth-teller, a storyteller, a rough-edged and empathetic presence, and I could have listened to her all afternoon.

If you’d like, you can read the story and see a few photos on Berklee Now.

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newport sign be present

Sunday at Newport Folk: slightly cooler, a little less disorientation, a lot more exhaustion than Friday. I’d moved on Saturday, then had a long morning trying to return my truck and get myself down to Fort Adams. By the time I arrived I was tired and hungry, and frankly not at all sure I wanted to be there.

I bought lunch from one of the food trucks, but I was so tapped out I could hardly enjoy either it or the upbeat set from Lake Street Dive on the main stage. (I do love Rachael Price’s voice, and I got a kick out of seeing Hozier come up and join them for a tune or two. He always looks so moody in his videos, but his grin was a mile wide that day.)

After lunch, though – and a gallon or so of water – the rest of the afternoon definitely improved.

our native daughters

I wandered over to the Quad stage to catch Our Native Daughters and was absolutely stunned by their vocals, their songwriting, their fiddling and banjo picking and their bold presence. I could listen to Allison Russell sing all day long, and Amythyst Kiah wowed the (mostly white) audience with the anthem “Black Myself.” Serious power there, folks.

After that, I hopped over to hear Molly Tuttle (a Berklee alumna) and Billy Strings in a soulful, rollicking set that included – to my utter surprise – a cover of Cher’s “Believe.” (It worked, surprisingly.) I got some tacos and returned to the same spot, sitting in the grass with my back against the fort wall, to listen to the Milk Carton Kids and take a few deep breaths. I saw them open for someone – maybe Glen Hansard? – at Berklee years ago, so hearing them at Newport felt like coming full circle.

My reason for going back on Sunday – and the day’s real magic – came at the end: the festival’s closing set, known as If I Had a Song. It was a singalong, featuring too many great musicians to count. But the first one was small and green.

kermit the frog Newport stage

Yes, that is Kermit the Frog. And yes, he cracked a few jokes, and invited the crowd to sing along as he performed “The Rainbow Connection.” Pure magic, y’all. (I adore the Muppets and he is my favorite.) Jim James – wearing a fabulous rainbow-cuffed jacket – joined him, but I only had eyes for Kermit and his banjo.

The magic just kept coming after that: Trey Anastasio (and our Berklee students) playing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Rachael Price and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band giving us all chills with “We Shall Overcome.” Brandi Carlile and Alynda Segarra jamming out on “If I Had a Hammer.” Our Native Daughters leading the crowd in “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” I was standing in the front area, clapping and grinning and singing my heart out.

One of my favorite parts of Newport was the generous spirit of collaboration – everyone up there, singing together, and having so much fun doing it. Hozier came back out with Lake Street Dive for “Everyday People,” and then he joined Mavis Staples (who looked tiny next to him but brought the house down with her vocal power) for “Eyes on the Prize.”

Robin Pecknold (from Fleet Foxes) came out onstage for “Instant Karma!” and stuck around for “Judy Blue Eyes,” which featured Judy Collins herself in an amazing magenta dress. They sang “Turn, Turn, Turn” together, and then Colin Meloy and the Milk Carton Kids came out to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” (Meloy called it “just as much of a national anthem as the one we’ve got.”)

The last song, which made me cry, featured Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and as many musicians as could cram onto the stage, swaying with their arms around each other, singing “Goodnight Irene.” Our string students joined in on that one too, adding their notes from the back of the stage.

I looked around: sunset light, fans and musicians singing together, banners blowing gently in the breeze. It was a picture-perfect ending to a weekend that embodied the sign at the top of this post: be present, be kind, be open, be together.

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January sunrise pink clouds gold blue

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song
The joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue…

A few Sundays ago, I walked into Church of the Cross, a low-key, welcoming Anglican congregation in the Fenway where I’ve visited off and on. It’s friendly, but not overbearing; people are kind, and a few of them remember my name by now. I like the mix of spontaneous prayer, raised hands and the rhythms of ancient liturgy. It reminds me, in this and other ways, of St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford, where I still am at home.

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast…

A small praise band provides the music: classic hymns, newly minted praise songs and some that fall in between. Inevitably, there’s a song or two I know, and a handful that are wholly new to me. I’ve learned the notes of the Alleluia before the gospel reading, and the later proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here
Sin would reduce me to utter despair…

On that Sunday, I looked up at the screens to find a song I had totally forgotten about: a lilting, joyful tune written by Sandra McCracken to a set of lyrics from the 1770s. I learned it years ago, from an orange-covered Caedmon’s Call album that I think I still have somewhere.

But through Thy free goodness my spirits revive
And He that first made me still keeps me alive…

I thought I had outgrown this song and most of its kindred, or set them aside, long ago. My faith, these days, is complicated and shaded by doubt more often than pure joy. But I realized that day, as we sang this one, that I still know all the words.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart…

That song kept me company for days afterward, running through my head as I brushed my hair in the morning, as I walked to and from the train station, as I ran errands on my lunch break or after work. It wasn’t in there every moment, but it showed up often enough that I had to admit: it’s still mine.

‘Tis all by Thy goodness I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found…

One of the gifts of my Southern Baptist childhood – probably, of being steeped in any faith tradition for a long time – is the steady repetition of the same words that carry and embody deep truths. Lots of memory verses and hymns still rise to my recall, sometimes without my conscious effort. Some songs immediately take me back to youth group, or college chapel services, or those Easter pageants I loved so much. And though I am far from the places and the person I was then, the truth of them is still in there, knit deep into my soul.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son…

It’s not always easy for me to believe the truths I know: that God loves me, accepts me for who and what I am, sees all my flaws and mistakes and loves me anyway, wants the best for me. I have no trouble reassuring my loved ones that grace and love are real for them, but I have a much harder time accepting that for myself.

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine… 

This song is still with me, weeks later, lodged in my heart like a bird on the wing. Some days it’s a declaration, some days it’s a prayer, some days it’s a desperate hope. Some days it’s all three. And always, always, it is true.

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neponset reflection dorchester water sky

I am a person who loves to hear the same stories over and over again.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve loved hearing my dad’s stories: anecdotes about family members or friends, or stories from when he was growing up in rural Missouri. We read – as many parents and children do – the same picture books over and over, before bed at night. (I still have a special place in my heart for a Little Golden Book called Home for A Bunny.)

I am my father’s daughter in this as well as other ways: I tell the same stories over and over again. My long-suffering husband and many of my friends have heard my stories more than once. And I am – as you know if you’ve heard me talk about my favorite books – an inveterate reader and re-reader.

I do this with music, too: I listened to Hamilton for six months straight once I discovered it and fell in love. I know nearly every word to a couple of Wailin’ Jennys albums (and so many George Strait songs from my childhood), among others. And lately, I’ve been listening to Headed Home, a 2015 release by The Light Parade, on repeat.

The Light Parade is Alex and Kara, two friends of mine from college who began making music back then (as Thus Far). I recently rediscovered their music, and it’s been keeping me company on long runs and train rides. I love many of the songs, but the first track – You Are Loved – is one of my favorites. I’ve been listening to it so often that its first line – you are loved with a fierceness you cannot understand – is playing on repeat in my head.

Yesterday I stood behind the communion table at our tiny church, looking out onto pews full of people I love and a few new faces I barely know. I told them about Alex and Kara’s song, and I said to them: we come together, every week, to hear the same stories and sing some of the same songs. And the message carried by many of those is the same: you are loved. With a fierceness you cannot understand. 

We come to church every week as ourselves: hurting, joyful, brave, broken, despairing, confident. We brim over with stories and wounds, and what we hear at church will – I hope – open up the way for healing and wholeness. If there’s one message, I said, that we should take away from here, one story I want to tell and to hear over and over again, it is this: you are loved. We are deeply and wholly loved.

May you know that today, wherever you are.

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summer sunset view porch

I hear a bird chirpin’ up in the sky
I’d like to be free like that, spread my wings so high
I hear the river flowin’, water runnin’ by
I’d like to be that river, see what I might find

—”Bird Song,” The Wailin’ Jennys

I stood at the kitchen sink late one night last month, plunging my hands in their purple rubber gloves under the stream of hot running water. I was tired from a long workday, answering emails and wrangling story assignments, and a long evening at home, taking care of other tasks.

I reached for a turquoise sponge, scrubbing bits of food off crusted plates and greasy pans. My smartphone sat on the ledge above the sink, playing this song on repeat, Heather Masse’s voice lilting along the familiar lyrics. Every time I hear her sing it, I can see her in a blue dress, swaying onstage at the Indian River Festival in PEI, three summers ago. My shoulders drop, and I exhale.

My musical taste tends toward the soulful and quiet: most of my favorite musicians are singer-songwriters who tell true stories with their notes and words. (The notable exception to this is Hamilton, but I tend to eschew the driving rock beats and funky mashups my husband loves.) I have a particular fondness for a handful of bands and solo artists, whose words and tunes have wound around my heart, knit themselves into the fabric of my soul.

This year, I’ve found myself turning often to a few beloved songs, as a balm, a solace when the world is too much, too fast, too insistent, too loud. I’ve begun to think of them not simply as my favorites, but as grown-up lullabies.

We sing lullabies to children, of course: to soothe a fractious baby or smooth a fidgety toddler’s way toward sleep. My nephews ask, over and over again, for the songs they have heard all their lives: “Edelweiss,” “General Froggie,” “Three Little Kitties.” My dad used to sing the latter two to my sister and me: his mother, my Mimi, also sang them to him and his brothers when they were small. (I love that these old folk lullabies are three generations strong in my family.)

It’s been years since anyone sang me a lullaby in the usual sense. But these days, “Bird Song” and a handful of other quiet, lilting songs are my lullabies: they soothe my anxious soul when the hurt and the frustration are beyond logic, beyond explaining.

Some of them are gentle folk ballads, sung by the Wailin’ Jennys, Grace Pettis, Hem, or my college friends Alex and Kara (known as the Light Parade). Some are old hymns that live deep in my bones: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” or “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” Some are the last remnants of the Christian pop music I loved as a teenager and have never entirely outgrown: words from Nichole Nordeman and other wise voices. And a few are newer songs that periodically lodge in my soul: the Magnificat, in particular, never fails to soothe me, and Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” has a kind of distant magic.

These songs aren’t an instant cure for what ails me, or the world: I know singing a few verses won’t heal all wounds. But they are a salve for my weary soul, a way to quiet my running mind and gentle my anxious heart. I sometimes find myself matching my steps to the rhythm of these familiar voices, or swaying slightly as I stand at the kitchen sink, as though I were rocking a baby to sleep.

I’ve come to believe that grown-ups need nurturing too, and we often have to provide it for ourselves. These lullabies, and the peace they bring, are saving my life these days.

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tiny christmas tree bookshelf

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair, I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said
For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

After the headlines of the last few weeks, this carol is resonating more deeply than ever.

I’m taking a few days off to celebrate Christmas with my family. Wishing you peace and joy in this season, friends.

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christian cds nichole nordeman

Until recently, I thought I had grown too cool for Christian music.

Don’t mistake me: I love a good old-fashioned hymn, especially the ones that periodically set up camp in my soul: Be Thou My Vision. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I Love to Tell the Story (which I always hear my dad’s voice singing). Amazing Grace.

I’m also deeply attached to a few praise songs I learned as a university student: Holy is the Lord. In Christ Alone. Blessed Be Your Name. And oh, how I love the Magnificat.

But for a few years, the Christian contemporary music that filled my ears and my CD player during my high school and college years got pushed aside. I grew tired of the often formulaic melodies and refrains, the sometimes too-packaged theology. I’ve spent the past decade or so walking into a more complicated faith, one that leaves a lot of room for gray areas and messy edges. The bright, happy sounds of ’90s Christian pop didn’t seem to fit any more.

But earlier this year, Nichole Nordeman – whose music I have loved for nearly half my life – released her first new album in ten years, an EP called The Unmaking. I downloaded it a few weeks ago, and I cannot stop listening to the title track. The musical style is familiar, but the lyrics are wonderfully honest and fresh:

This is the unmaking / Beauty in the breaking / I had to lose myself to find out who You are. 

Even before that, during these last few difficult months, I’ve caught myself humming snatches of other songs I thought I’d forgotten, half-remembered lyrics that, to my surprise, still ring true.

Keep on looking ahead / Let your heart not forget / We are not home yet, from Steven Curtis Chapman (who headlined the first concert I ever went to). I believe that He loves you where you are, from Mark Schultz. Lines from Nichole’s older songs: Gratitude, Healed, Brave, We Build. On the night of the recent Paris attacks, sick with worry and fear, I finally soothed myself to sleep by singing an old Point of Grace line over and over in my head: God loves people more than anything.

These songs wouldn’t always pass muster in a theology class, nor would some of them win any awards for musical style or originality. But I don’t care about that as much as I used to. These familiar words and melodies (and the newer ones from The Unmaking) are bringing me comfort these days. They often say what I can’t articulate, or help succor me when I’m raw and hurting. These singer-songwriters are old friends, and their voices help me feel less alone.

I don’t plan to reconstruct my entire CD library from the early 2000s, but I’m keeping the songs that have come back to me. These are the good ones. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I will definitely be humming Nichole’s song “Gratitude.”

I’m linking up with Sarah Bessey for her Out of Sorts book synchroblog. This post was partly inspired by the playlist she made to go along with the book.

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