Personent Hodie

Personent hodie
One tradition I keep this time of year is performing with the Early Music Players at Theodore Parker Church, my UU Alma Mater. Or something like that. Its a long story.

Anyways – the players are a bunch of recorder and string enthusiasts who assemble at least once a year to perform on Christmas Eve before the church service begins at 5 pm. We’re always augmented at the last minute by the extremely talented and experienced Tom Zajac, who plays just about everything ancient and has a very sensitive ear. He’ll arrange things on the fly for us during the penultimate rehearsal, and we always seem to pull together and make some very special Christmas music.

We get the majority of our material from a book of carols arranged for recorder, and some of the selections are quite old. One old tune caught my ear this year, and so, I decided to pursue it.

So here it is. Now that I listen to it, I see that I’ve once again abused my trademarky tampura-like drone thing, just like I did with Red Serpent. (A voice says, ‘Same key, too.’) But I guess it’s one of those spots-and-leopards things. Plus I couldn’t resist the temptation to become a chorus of monks.

Here are the Latin words I found. All the English translations are really bad, so I am going to leave you to ponder the magnum mysterium on your own. Or you can wikipedia it.

Personent hodie
Voces puerulae,
Laudantes iocunde
Qui nobis est natus,
Summo Deo datus,
Et de vir- vir- vir-,
Et de vir- vir- vir-,
Et de virgineo
ventre procreatus.

In mundo nascitur,
Pannis involvitur,
Praesepi ponitur
Stabulo brutorum,
Rector supernorum.
Perdidit spolia
princeps infernorum.

Magi ires venerunt;
Munera offerunt;
Parvulum inquirunt,
Stellulam sequendo,
Ipsum adorendo.
Aurum, thus, et myrrham
Ei offerendo.

Omnes clericuli,
Pariter pueri,
Cantent ut angeli:
“Advenisti mundo:
Laudes tibi fundo.”
Ideo, gloria, in excelsis deo.

James Davidson Johnson

Without the headlines, without the retrospectives, without the finally-released-after-thirty-years interview tapes, without the eight-minute segment on NPR, comes the forty-seventh anniversary of my father’s death.

When I tell people that I remember him, they are often surprised. He left us when I was five and my brother Bob was two. I know that after all these years, what memories I have are mostly senses and not clear recollections of sequences of events. But I can tell a few stories: I remember much of the day that Dad took me fishing for the very first time. I caught a good old Lake Erie perch, I’m pretty sure. Dad was so proud he snatched the fish out of the bucket he had brought it home in, rolled it in ink, and made an impression on the evening’s copy of the Painesville Telegraph. That fishprint hangs next to my piano these days.

I met silence at that young age. Silence was what came back when I listened for him after he was gone – the kind of silence that swallows up the noise of cars passing by on Mentor Avenue, turns what the grown-ups are saying from words into mere sounds. Stillness like the sound a snowflake makes when it tumbles gently through the air until it comes to rest. The wind would sing at me, but its music held only intuitive meaning. What filled my eyes when I thought about him was the mad, energetic, superbly confident universe of paint splatters and bold strokes that he left behind. I used to look at his signature and trace it with my eyes, imagining him signing his work.

John Winston Lennon

Smell is the sense that triggers the most vivid memories.

The year is 1964, and “Meet the Beatles” sweeps the United States like a fire cleansing a mountain. Even the sleepy village of Painesville, Ohio gets scorched. By summer ’64, little six-year old Jimmy here probably listened to that record a hundred times. A thousand. I wanted to grow my hair long. I wanted a grey collarless suit with black piping. By the fall, I had convinced Mom to get me guitar lessons.

The big store in downtown Painesville was Carlisle’s. It was your classic department store, everything from fashions to appliances, and it was so big that it had a front door on the town square, and a back door that gave out into the parking lot on East Washington Street. Right next door to Carlisle’s was the only music store in town – I think it might have been called Pfabe’s.

Mom marched me in there and rented a nylon-string guitar. It came with a leather strap. She bought the requisite Mel Bay big-note primer and a couple of really thin picks, and I was on my way.

I can still remember the smell of that guitar and its leather strap.

John Winston Lennon, it’s all your fault.

I wanted to play “Tell Me Why”, and all I could coax out of that guitar was a single-note rendition of “Red River Valley”. I wanted to rock “Twist and Shout”, but those flappy nylon strings made El Kabong noises. I tried a G-chord, but my fingers were too small.

The lessons stopped when we moved around, but the influx of Beatles records didn’t until “Let It Be”. I was a Manson-family fearing young teen hippie by then, protesting the war and trying to play drums, and the hot summer riots were only just beginning to recede in the rear view mirror. It was Nixon-time in the U.S, and Kent State lay before us. Paul “quit” the group, and I was just sad, but I can’t say I was surprised. We all knew it – the Beatles were spent.

Years later at parties, if someone asked me “Beatles or Stones” instantly I’d blurt “Beatles!”, as if anyone could ask such a thing. Really.

John, I love you, and I love the guitar the way you do. Every once in a while, I come across a guitar that has that same old deep wooden smell, and I think of you. You’ve taught me so much. How can I ever repay you?