I’ll Fly Away

There were many, many high points at Simone’s memorial service on Saturday. In fact, you might even say the whole service was one high point from one end to the other. I cannot begin to thank everyone personally for their help and participation. I’m sure I’ll forget someone who’s dear and close to me and I would never want to hurt anyone, so thanks. You know who you are.

You know how in the Navy, or in the Air Force, when a fighter has fallen and the squad does a fly-over with one position empty? I’m not sure the same thing exists in music. Leave out a part and the harmony is strangely wrong, or the melody is missing – which might prove the point, granted, that some one is missing, but might not pay as much tribute to that person as one might want.

I cried with joy when I would sing in my kitchen with Simone and Johnny. One December evening, we called my mom and sang 3-part carols to her. She wept with delight. I was so proud my chest felt like it was going to burst, and I relived that phone call all night long as I tried to fall asleep.

Simone loved the soundtrack to “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” and we sang “I’ll Fly Away” together whenever the music sort of found itself under my fingers on guitar or mandolin. I’d do it as a duet with her, and if Johnny was around we’d sing trio.

Jennifer took Simone’s place in the flying formation on Saturday, and we sang for Simone, and I could hear a pin drop when we finally stopped and our harmony echoed around for a bit. I know Simone was smiling.

Son of a daughter of the Depression era

I just noticed something strange.

I’m about to embark on some musical transcribing, which will involve consuming several sheets of Berklee 12-stave paper (M1). I find that I still have a gut reaction to using a lot of staff paper – my gosh, can I afford it? What if Berklee stops making M1 pads and I can’t get them anymore? I like that paper so much – what if I’m using up the last of it?

This is plainly ridiculous. I’ve survived the days since it was a hard decision between buying a pack of smokes or a pad of paper to do homework on.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the last, or next-to-last, generation who will need actual paper and pencil to assist me in my mental rummaging. There’s something bittersweet about that.

Enough procrastination. Time for ear training homework.

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?

Memoir exercise

Write down 10 turning points in your life.

Here they are in chronological order, outline form:

John F. Kennedy is assassinated. My father dies in a traffic accident about two weeks later.

“Meet the Beatles” is released in the USA. I get a copy as a gift from my Mom.

I memorize every single note of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, left behind by my dad.

We move to Europe just after I turn nine and spend two years there.

At age 19, I get kicked out of college.

I fall in love with my future wife, who one day turns to me and tells me she’s with child. I decide to be the best dad there ever was.

I see my first born come in to this world.

I see my second born come in to this world.


The youngest child moves out.