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Saturday, February 23, 2013

On an Ordinary Sunday

When people in Barrington used to see me out running with the earbuds in my ears, they'd always ask me if I’m listening to my own songs. Help! No! But on Sunday, I do have a special playlist of songs that are a little more reflective, that help me lift my mind and heart to God, as we say. Not all of the songs are overtly religious, some of them just make me smile, but they help me keep Sunday special, as I’m often walking between the 11:00 mass in the morning and my mass and rehearsal that starts at 4:00 p.m., so I can “stay in the zone,” as it were.

Just for giggles, I thought I’d share that list with you. It’s not the entire list, but here are a few of the highlights. (The links at the bottom of the page will take you to iTunes, if you want to hear clips of the songs):

Hymn” by Peter, Paul, and Mary, from the album Late Again. I have adored this song from my high school days, with its gentle reminiscence of a simpler time and simpler faith. I think it’s Paul Stookey singing it, and it just kills me as it keeps coming around to, “all that I could say was I believe in you.”

Mystery,” by Paul Winter, from Missa Gaia. I actually also have my own song “Mystery” in the list as well, the title song from my 3rd album, but this great piece is a hymn to the God who inspires us to wonder and awe from the heart of the cosmos, suffusing everything with the energy of God’s own presence. I can never forget listening to this album for the first time while driving the Pennsylvania turnpike alone on a spring day between a gig in Latrobe in western Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. I nearly drove off the road in the overwhelming beauty of the experience. I also have the song “The Blue Green Hills of Earth,” from the same CD, in the playlist, a hymn written by Kim Oler from the perspective of astronauts coming “home to the blue green hills of earth.”

Stomp” (remix featuring Salt) by Kirk Franklin and God’s Property. Let’s face it, this song just rocks. You can’t stop smiling it’s so dang hot.

Be Thou My Vision” by Van Morrison with the Chieftains. Hello! This is Van singing a song from his childhood, complete with misunderstood and misremembered words, with the accompaniment of the greatest Irish musicians of our time and a tune as old as the Gaels. You gotta love it.

So Help Me God” by Ray Charles. Oh man, this song is awesome, from his CD My World, which I love. The prayer in the text is, “just help me one more time, this time, and I’ll be on the right path forever, I promise!” Of course, we know that we’ve made that prayer so many times, and God keeps answering, knowing how fallible we are. It’s raw and honest. I love it. And speaking of raw and honest, how about “Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart,” by Greg Brown! That deserves a list all by itself, along with his unrecorded version of Iris Dement’s gospel song “He Came Down”, a folkie sermon on kenosis. Yow.

On the Road to Find Out,” “Jesus,” and “Home in the Sky” by Cat Stevens. Enough said. I should write a blog just about Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. Yes, I will do that.

The Crucifixion,” by Phil Ochs. I learned this song in college when it wasn’t even that old, and in those days, we even used to sing it on Good Friday. By Ochs’s own admission, the song is a lengthy metaphor about the forces that caused the death of the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King Jr. There are stunning images about the “cycle of sacrifice” running through the song that appeal to my inner Rene Girard these days, but the central verse about the beautiful matador in the bullring still kills me:
The excitement is ecstatic; passion places bets.

Gracefully he bows to the ovations that he gets,

But the hands that are applauding are slippery with sweat,

And saliva is falling from their smiles.

Gosh, I really have to wrap this up, don’t I? “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from Bob Dylan’s incredible Slow Train Coming collection, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” another Dylan song but in the version by Warren Zevon from his deathbed CD The Wind, the  haunting “Letter to Eve” by the wondrous Indigo Girls from the Pete Seeger retrospective Where Have All the Flowers Gone, an anthem of non-violence with a great percussion groove and a refrain that simply chants words for “peace” in several languages, “Oh, oh pacem in terris/Mir, shanti, salaam, hey wa” as it searches for the way back into the garden of Eden.

Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” the version by Sarah McLachlan from her CD Solace. I’m not a huge fan of hers nor of the whole Enya-like new agey genre, but this version of Donovan’s hippie paean to love gets under my skin, and after I listen to it I’m singing it for days. I heard it once in a store while walking around a mall, and couldn’t wait to get home and find out who had covered it so hypnotically. As far as I’m concerned, Sarah McLachlan was born to cover this song.

One of Us,” by Joan Osborne. I’m adding this in an hour after uploading because I should have included it before! We heard this driving through North Carolina a few years ago and couldn’t believe our ears. Had to get it, thanks, KJ, for lending me the CD!

There are too many songs on the list, but I need to mention one more, the song “Sunday,” from Sondheim’s incredible musical Sunday in the Park with George. Along with most of Chicago, I was privileged to be able to see the Art Institute’s show of the works of Seurat, especially the influences and notebooks that led up to his masterpiece, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” which hangs in the AIC. Sondheim’s appealing work in this musical is to capture the both the beauty that drives the artist and the techne that moves the artist to capture that beauty in artistically “perfect” ways even when that seems impossible. The pain of “putting it together” with one’s personal life, both in relationships and in financial responsibility, is humorously and achingly caught in the music and lyrics of the songs themselves. But in “Sunday,” for me, Sondheim has caught the thing that catches in my throat as I try to sing it, the desperate embrace of the transcendence of divine beauty and the earthy immanence of the world we live in, the impossible task of the artist, the impossible task of faith, to draw near to what is essentially ineffable, and all with dots of music and color. “Sunday,” as strange as it sounds, almost always makes me cry a little, even though it has almost nothing at all to do with how I spend my Sundays and have for almost all my life. It just seems to suggest the Promethean beauty of the human struggle to describe the Creator, or at least an aspect of the Creator. I’ll leave you with some of those lyrics, and hope that this little insight into my listening habits awakens a desire in you to explore your musical world.

Leave some comments, if you’d like, about what you like to listen to, or anything else my little reflection might have stirred in you!
Order.

Design.

Tension.

Balance.

Harmony.

Sunday,

By the blue

Purple yellow red water

On the green

Purple yellow red grass,

Let us Pass

Through our perfect park,

Pausing on a Sunday

By the cool

Blue triangular water

On the soft

Green elliptical grass

As we pass

Through arrangements of shadows

Towards the verticals of trees

Forever...

By the blue

Purple yellow red water

On the green

Orange violet mass

Of the grass

In our perfect park

Made of flecks of light

And dark,

And parasols:

People strolling through the trees

Of a small suburban park

On an island in the river

On an ordinary Sunday...

Sunday. 

Sunday.