Yesterday, it was raining. It had been for two days. I sat in the car and stared at the too-bright screen that told me my commute to work was going to take 45 minutes through a cold, dark morning and couldn’t help but groan. Everything in me wanted to turn around, to return to my still-warm pajamas and never crawl out of them. But that’s not an option when you’re grown, so I took a deep breath, turned on NPR, and set out.
In recent weeks, I’ve struggled with sadness. It hasn’t kept me from doing what needs to be done, but it feels like I’m covered with a lead blanket that dulls my mind and slows my body. For several reasons I won’t bore you with here, I’ve felt my “otherness” as of late, been hyperaware of things in my life that make me different from most other folks. Though I’m often surrounded by people at work, church, and home, I’ve felt painfully isolated—lonely despite the company.
But today was a better day. The sun was shining. It was wonderfully crisp and cool outside now that the rain has passed, and I spent the morning working in my new favorite coffee shop, Rev Roasters. (I have a feeling quite a few of these posts will have their origin in such a space. They’re just so full of delights, and I have the time and headspace to notice them there!) Unbeknownst to me as I stood in line, on the first Friday of each month, they serve their drip coffee for free. Their Peru Cajamarca tastes great no matter what, but mercy, I think it was even better today. I creamed and sugared up that bad boy until I was content and set to sippin’ while I enjoyed a bacon cheddar muffin and a blueberry scone.
And you know what? I felt at peace with all the people around me. Some were chatting with tablemates while others hunched over laptops, pouring themselves into whatever work or passion gripped them. In my grey hoodie, my own computer open before me and magazine proofs spread across my own workspace, I looked shockingly like everyone else. I talked to very few people, and even those with whom I spoke, we shared very few words. But it sure felt good to be among strangers, to be somehow accepted by them. We were all extras in a café scene, and for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel like I stood out for any reason, good or bad.
Strangely enough in this mixed media space, my seat was not an industrial high-top stool or a wooden chair painted with some kitschy design. It was an old church pew, one of two in the place, well-worn and smoothed by the passing of many a holy backside. My body knew its shape well, and I felt comforted by its presence beneath me. A bit of the sacred in a space where I hadn’t expected it. A man sat beside me, and when his partner, a woman (co-worker? friend?), slid over next to him to share a funny video on her phone, I felt them laughing together through the wood and reveled in the silent tremors of joy, delighted to feel their mirth.
Wonderful, too, was the moment I shared later with an older woman as I perused the calendar/planner section at Barnes and Noble, killing time before picking up my youngest from school. From opposite sides of a shelf, we sang along with America’s “A Horse With No Name,” she on the melody and I on the high harmony. A little concert for no one but ourselves.
Today, in more ways that one, “it felt good to be out of the rain.”
Listen up, kiddos, and I’ll tell you a sad, sad story.
The hubby and I have a very short list of performers we will pay top dollar to see. Prince was one of them, so when he announced he would be playing two shows at the Fox here in Atlanta, I battle planned, logged on, and scored two tickets as an amazing early birthday present for myself. I then went to the Fox to pick up those tickets in person on the day of the show. And by the time I got back to my office with the tickets in hand, Prince had cancelled due to illness.
The rescheduled show the following week conflicted with a work trip, so those two tickets went to another lucky couple. No big deal, I told myself. He’ll play another concert here soon.
But he didn’t.
He never played again after that night. Because he died. On my birthday. I can’t make something like that up. (David Bowie died on my husband’s birthday, so 2016 was rather calamitous.)
So I made a vow to myself. If there was a performer or band I wanted to see, I would buy the tickets without hesitation. After all, few of the artists I like are getting any younger. (Truth be told, neither am I.) So along with my husband, Wayne, and a couple of gal pals, I embarked on a year of musical delights.
Concert One — Duran Duran
Chastain Park Amphitheater (4/8/17)
For our first concert, we selected a band we’d both liked for a long time, and not just for the 80s stuff either. “Ordinary World,” which I’ve shared here and some of their stuff from the 90s is stellar. And have you listened to Paper Gods yet? Holy Jim Croce, that’s a good album! It was a perfect night weather-wise, and we had an absolute ball. Oh, and we decided that we would need to bring earplugs to future shows, which made us feel old at first. However, I’m glad we decided against vanity because, after nine or ten shows, the ol’ eardrums would have been pretty well used up.
These were actually the first tickets we bought for the “Year of Concerts” as we came to call it, and the hubby was probably more excited about this one than I was. He was the bigger RHCP fan in high school and college, but I was still really jazzed about seeing them. Plus, Babymetal was the opening act! My friend Ed is a huge fan of theirs, and he introduced me to their stuff years ago. It was amazing to hear those ladies live and in person.
They’re not 20-somethings anymore, but dang if the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t put on a high-octane performance. I chose a slower track from them to share with you, “Under the Bridge,” but they brought it all night long. We got a great show for our money, which had yet to run out. That part comes later….
I knew the minute the show was over that this one was going to be my favorite. Every man and woman on that stage was on fire that night. (I was especially blown away by the Webb Sisters who sang backup.) Everything sounded great, and the audience was locked in. Some shows I took in this year were much less enjoyable than they could have been because people weren’t there for the music. They were there to socialize and take pictures for social media. But not this show. Everyone there was listening, singing, cheering, and having fun. It was a great great night, and having Joe Walsh as the opening act? Top notch!
And then Tom Petty became the reason I was glad I started this whole concert-going madness. When he died on October 2, 2017, Wayne and I both knew that we’d been lucky to see him and the entire band together. We now have some wonderful memories from the 40th anniversary tour, something later generations will miss out on. Of all the folks who have died this year, Tom Petty has hit me hardest, both because I love his music and because I know from first-hand experience what a great talent we lost.
Yes, you read that right. The night after Wayne and I saw Tom Petty, I went to the first-ever concert at SunTrust Park, the new Braves Stadium, with a couple of girlfriends. The sound was way outta whack to say the least, but Billy managed to shine through it and put on a super fun show. (I wish I could say the same for his opening act who was so awful that I’ve forgotten his name out of sheer spite.)
The best thing about the night was the fact that Billy improvised quite a bit, brought in a lot of other folks’ music, and told a lot of great jokes and stories. He’s probably best in a smaller venue just for that fact alone. He also let us vote when it came down between two equally popular songs, so some of the tracks I never expected to hear like “Vienna” and “Zanzibar” were performed. Two of my favorites —“Leningrad” and “Allentown”— didn’t make the cut, but with a catalogue as big as Billy Joel’s, it’s a wonder we got past the greatest hits. (And for the record, this was the concert where a bunch of chumps two rows ahead of us talked and snapped pictures the entire time. What a waste.)
These tickets are the quintessential definition of an impulse buy. We were on our way down to Jacksonville for vacation and heard a commercial for this concert on a local radio station. Before we had reached my parents’ house, I’d already bought the tickets on the Ticketmaster app. And, with ready-made babysitters eager to take the kids, the next night, Wayne and I were once again awash in 80s/90s bliss. We also got to see the new Daily’s Place concert venue, which is part of the EverBank Field complex (where the Jaguars play). It’s not a bad little joint to take in a show, and they have a solid set of concerts coming up in the future!
Of all the shows we saw, this one was the most logistically complicated. In fact, we planned our entire vacation around it! (I even became a one-year member of the U2 fan club to get early access to tickets because I knew they were going to sell out.) They did a lot of their early stuff from War and Rattle and Hum as well as a few tracks from Achtung Baby, but the big draw was the fact this tour was put on to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. And they played the entire album…in order. My favorite song from that wonderful record (which was one of the first I ever bought) is “Red Hill Mining Town,” and I never actually thought I’d get the chance to hear it live. Totally worth all the hassle and travel to see them in Tampa.
After this one, Wayne thought I’d be about done, but oh no….there was more music to be had. So the credit card came out for three more shows!
This was our second time seeing The Doobie Brothers (in the same venue no less). We got the chance to see them and Don Felder in 2016, and they were great both times. It’s amazing that they still have the range and can create those amazing Doobie harmonies that I grew up loving. This time around, I got to hear “Eyes of Silver” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” which was pretty satisfying.
This was the first concert we got rained on, which put a damper on things for Wayne, but I just jammed on through it. After all, part of the reason we started all this concert nonsense was to remember that just because we’re working full time jobs and raising two kids, we’re not too old to have fun (even if we were soaked.)
And then, holy crap, came Chicago. Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, and Walter Parazaider (four of the seven founding members) are still in the band. And let me tell you kids, they haven’t lost a step. Those chops held up for more than two solid hours of playing time, and they sounded absolutely fantastic. The licks were hot, the rhythms tight. It was a super impressive show no matter which way you cut it. Wayne is on the record as saying this one was his favorite.
Concert Eight — Blondie and Garbage Chastain Park Amphitheater (8/6/17)
This is the only concert we bought more for the opening act than for the headliner. I have long been a fan of Garbage. In fact, back in the day when every other girl wanted to be Gwen Stefani or Courtney Love, I wanted nothing more than to be the sexy Scottish songstress, Shirley Manson. This was the second show where weather got in the way, and Garbage had to stop in the middle of their set, but “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” did eventually get played, and Wayne finally after so many concerts finally decided to dance for the first time thanks to “Push It.”
A funky little duo called Deap Vally kicked off the night’s fun, and I was really impressed with them. It’s nice to see that a new generation of female rockers is alive and well.
Blondie was also stellar and sang all the songs you’d expect. But the most amazing thing about it didn’t hit me until we were leaving….Debbie Harry is 72 years old. Seriously! And she still rocked the house and performed “Rapture” in its entirety. The great ones really do go the distance.
Glen Frey was the other great one we lost this year, so I jumped at the chance to see the Eagles with Vince Gill and Deacon Frey playing in his stead. I saw the Eagles back on the Hell Freezes Over tour in Cleveland in the 90s, and it was just as wonderful the second time around. Gill was superb as lead on some of the older, country-leaning tunes, and Deacon held up rather well for a young fella. Joe Walsh (who we were seeing for the second time in one year) stole the show on more than one occasion. He. too, is a rock god that refuses to act his age. What made this one great was the fact I got to see it with Wayne, my friend Amy, my aunt and uncle, and my parents (who introduced me to the Eagles when I was knee high to a grasshopper).
Oh, and if you want to know what love is, my friend Julie let me use her AMEX to buy the tickets early. The first show sold out, and AMEX cardholders got early access to the second. I wasn’t about to miss out, so I called in a favor. But letting someone charge $800 to your card? That’s trust on a biblical scale.
I also love shows in dives, bars, and dingy clubs, so I jumped at the chance to see James Armstrong live this month. I’ve just recently discovered this cat, and I think he’s rather dishy. He just put out a new album in October that’s doing really well, and he puts on a great live show. Blind Willie’s is a great place for live music in Atlanta, and I’ll definitely be back in there soon.
So there you have it. One year. Ten shows. Twelve different bands and performers I’ve always wanted to see. We’re a little poorer (okay, a lot poorer) for it, but I honestly say that I’ve never had more fun than I have in the last twelve months. Going to these concerts, experiencing all these unforgettable performances, helped me remember that I don’t have to settle for a humdrum life. It’s so easy to do!
I don’t want my nights to evaporate in a haze of Netflix binges and bottles of chardonnay. Like Billy Joel says, “But you know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old.” I’ve chosen to get what I want, which to live, to make memories, and to use up every minute of my life (and dime in my pocket if that’s what it takes) in a way that makes them precious. To that end, we’ll continue the concerts in 2018 and beyond….just on a slightly smaller scale. What’s next? The Foo Fighters on April 28th at the Georgia State Stadium. Another concert for another birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate turning 40.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time performing and contemplating church music, I know how hard it can be to keep your passion for it intact. That’s why speaking with Keith and Kristyn Getty was truly refreshing. Not only do they have a great love for leading worship, they also are intentional about creating music that helps the church sing well together.
This Q&A with the talented husband and wife duo is featured in the September 2014 issue of In Touch magazine. If you’d like to receive your own copy of this magazine free of charge each month, please visit this page and give us your name and address. There are some great articles and series in future issues, and I’d love for you to be as blessed by reading them as we have been putting them together!
This week, I had the chance to attend the Richard Ellman Lecture Series at Emory University. It is a four-part event, held biannually, that features a great literary thinker. The last presenter, Margaret Atwood, was wonderful, and I expected nothing less of this year’s speaker—Paul Simon.
He gave two lectures, had a public conversation with Billy Collins, and gave a concert to bring the event to a close. I had tickets to all parts except the concert (because they went like wildfire the morning they were released). But that didn’t matter because, during the conversation, I got to hear Billy Collins read five poems and Paul Simon sing three songs—“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
I also briefly met both men after their time on stage was up, which was a thrill to say the least! And, despite the long, hectic day, they were wonderful and gracious and signed the stuff I stuck in front of them.
During their discussion of songwriting/poetry, they agreed that there is no moment in a piece of writing that is without consequence. As Mr. Collins said, “No line must sleep; every line must make a contribution.”
They went back and forth for the better part of an hour discussing exactly how to go about it (and how you could know you had accomplished this lofty goal.) However, the most interesting point for me was the “wildebeest note” example Mr. Simon gave.
Apparently, when he was recording “Rewrite,” a song on his 2011 album So Beautiful So What, a note at the end of a repeated phrase just sounded “wrong.” Not out of tune or a poor fit for the key, just flat out wrong. It sounded, according to him, “like a note being played on an acoustic guitar in a recording studio.”
That’s exactly what it was, but he wanted it to have an altogether different color, a distinctive depth of tone. So he said he thought on it for awhile and decided to blend that slightly pear-shaped note with a sound he had recorded on his last visit to Africa.
Yep, you guessed it….a wildebeest. There is a note in “Rewrite” that is part guitar and part wild animal, but for the life of me, I cannot hear it. Can you?
He went to amazing lengths to get a sound precisely correct. He labored over it for who knows how long until it resonated just the way he thought it should. My ears cannot suss it out, and had I not attended this lecture series, I wouldn’t even know to listen for it. But it’s there just the same.
That’s the kind of attention to detail that has to be present when we create anything, be it in the field of music, art, dance or writing. And it made me ask myself, “Am I always paying that much attention to the things I create? Have I settled for an almost-right word instead of going back to the thesaurus one more time? Have I gotten lazy with my sentence structure and gone for what’s safe instead of what’s best?”
Hearing Paul Simon tell this story made me realize that creating something from nothing is hard. I mean damned hard. But it’s also worth it. And with everything I write in the future, I’m going to ask myself if I can add a “wildebeest noise,” a certain element that makes the piece feel natural and beautiful. There will always be an element I can slyly place in my work to make it flow more organically without sounding forced. To be worth it, writing must be done to that level of painstaking detail. Always.
Can you tell me a way you’ve done it? Is there something you’ve added, some tweak you’ve made to a piece of art or a performance that made it perfect? Was it worth it even if you were the only one who knew it was there? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments. Lay it on me!
Ever wonder what the Psalms sounded like? Me, too. Hence, this piece was created for the October issue of In Touch magazine.
If you like this piece, I highly suggest you visit our homepage to read articles by writers much, much, much more talented than I. Better still, get a free subscription to our magazine and it shows up in your mailbox like clockwork, all shiny and whatnot.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about this piece. Why not share them with me in the comments section below?! (I’m so serious that I used an interrobang, people! For real.)
According to their research, “as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.” The reason for this is fairly obvious. Directors will indicate where choir members should breathe as well as how quickly and loudly we should be, and when we do these things in unison, our hearts begin beating at relatively similar rates.
But that’s not the most interesting part.
They also found that “the more structured the work [is], the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together. Slow chants, for example, produced the most synchrony. The researchers also found that choral singing had the overall effect of slowing the heart rate.”
I’ve been a musician (both instrumental and vocal) for a large portion of my life, and I can tell you that I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. When everyone is locked in on the conductor, fully focused on making a performance as perfect as it can be, and attentive to details like diction, phrasing, and dynamics, the feeling borders on rapturous.
I feel connected to something larger than myself both physically and emotionally in these moments. I’ve often told people that it’s like catching a wave. As the music develops, it carries me with it from crest to trough as the measures roll blissfully past. There are some pieces I’ve sung (especially in churches built with good natural acoustics) where the last note hangs in the air like a poignant memory. And as we listen to it fade away, I can look around and tell my fellow performers experienced the same thing I did. It’s all silent smiles and faces blushed and beaming. For the briefest of moments, we are transported somewhere else, and I can’t help but think that it’s something approaching heaven.
Something similar to it happens in 2 Kings 3, king of Israel, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom all approach the prophet Elisha to inquire of the Lord. He tells them, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, surely were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not look at you, nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” The next verse has long fascinated me. It reads, “Then it happened, when the musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.” By listening to music, he is connected to the divine and is given a prophesy by almighty God Himself.
When we worship God with music, I believe we open ourselves up the same way Elisha did. When we are focused on giving Him the praise that is His due, I think we receive something as well, something we define as a “synchrony” though the term hardly does the sensation justice. I believe we are decanting something of the divine, and the joy we feel is just a heady taste of what awaits us in glory.
In Ezekiel 11:19-20, God speaks through His prophet who says, “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.” As Christians, we have been granted a “heart of flesh” that is sensitive to the still, small voice God uses when He speaks to His children. And worship is one way we can feel the beating of that “one heart,” the one perfectly aligned with His will, and know without doubt who He is and who we are in Him.
In case you’re in the mood to hear something beautiful, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite groups, the Soweto Gospel Choir, singing “Hosanna.”
What do you think about music? Is it something larger than us, something that gives us meaning….or are you of the mind that we give meaning to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
In Zora Neale Hurtston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie describes the moment she falls out of love with her second husband by saying,
Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just some thing she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further.
While it’s nothing so dramatic as all that, it is the only way I can think to describe how I feel about church music right now. Corporate worship, as I have always known it, has fallen off a shelf inside me.
I’m not judging, casting blame, or saying one form is superior to another. If you’ve found a way to worship that connects you to God, I applaud you. Keep singing, playing, clapping, or banging a tambourine for all you’re worth. But with regards to the “worship wars,” I can’t muster the strength to choose a side any more. The argument has left me hollowed out and deflated. No matter the packaging or presentation, all worship feels consumption-based to me right now. It’s all well-manicured voices, sterile words on a screen, and a congregation that just follows along. No matter what church I go to, worship feels too big. Too glossy. Too plastic. To my ears, it’s shiny sound without a soul. I don’t know why.
But it makes me ache.
I’m hungry for something authentic, something real and raw and unmistakable. I want to worship in a way that is focused on devotion, not performance. For too long, I’ve just accepted it. I’ve told myself, “This is just the way it is now.” But still, I find myself longing to lift my voice, my hands, and my eyes to God in the middle of a group–not in front of them or in lockstep behind someone else telling me what to feel.
Maybe that’s why the tradition known as Sacred Harpsinging appeals to me so much. It’s certainty different from much of what I’m used to. For one, politics and denomination wars are not allowed inside the house, and part of me rejoices at that.
Another thing I admire is that despite its long tradition, the music remains relatively unchanged. As you can see by the picture I took, it uses shape notes. And what’s even better is that everyone sings. With gusto and in harmony. And while the pitch is relative, it always seems to work out. One doesn’t “lead” per se. The person who directs stands in the “hollow square,” as they call it, keeps the tempo and cues when necessary, and everyone has a chance to lead at least once. Also, this isn’t a service in the traditional sense. There is no preaching like there is on Sunday morning, just music. It’s something many of the participants do in addition to the activities at their church.
I’m still in the first stages of learning about this interesting community of musicians, but after having participated in one singing, I can honestly say that they are passionate, about the music if nothing else. Some of the people I met were lifelong Christians–everything from Primitive Baptists to high church Anglicans. I also shared dinner on the grounds with a woman who openly declared, “I’m not religious.” But there was something she loved about the music, perhaps the gritty realness of it, that kept her coming to participate. If that diverse a group can get over themselves to sing, there must be something to it. And I intend to find out what it is.
I’ve also procured a copy of a documentary two Sacred Harp singers recently produced titled Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, which looks to be a treasure trove of stories and sound. And I am the happy, proud owner of a copy of The Sacred Harp hymnal, which I hope to be able to study in detail as I learn about how the songs in it have been composed and their respective histories.
Part of this exploration is because, well, I’m happiest with my nose in a book. A researcher by nature, I find the answers to a great many questions I have by taking the longitudinal view of things and combing through what has already been said. The answer is usually somewhere in the middle.
The other reason is because I’m hoping to put down roots somewhere. I’m tired of shallow worship and simple faith. I’m desperate for something I can’t yet define. Sacred Harp very well may not be it. I’m well aware of this. I know that no system of worship, no matter how “right” it is, can be a substitute for God and a relationship with Him. But I’ve been stirred. Something in me has been overturned, and my soul is disquieted. It’s time to go wandering, to be a pilgrim again. The answers are somewhere I’m not, so I go to suss them out.
Here’s a brief video I shot on my iPhone at the singing I attended. There are much better ones out there, ones with better video and sound quality, but I wanted to share a little of what I experienced that afternoon.
If you’re interested in Sacred Harp singing, I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn from your research. Maybe we could even meet one day to sing together. I’m also hoping to hear from others on the state of worship in America. Do you think I’m way off base feeling this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please share them in the comments section below!
A friend of mine called me into his office (where the really cool speakers are) to show me this video. Take a gander at it and just try to keep your jaw from dropping.
I love music, but my math skills are sub-par at best. And while I understand the basics of harmony, chord structure, and pitch, I don’t think I will ever fully understand the science behind harmonics. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Because I can’t see all of the scientific principles at work and don’t know the terminology, I am free to enjoy it freely from a more spiritual perspective. I don’t know about you, but when I look at those perfect patterns emerge from nothing more than tones, I see the handiwork of God. The One who drew order out of chaos and created beauty from the void is such a craftsman that even the things we cannot see are perfectly formed and balanced. I like the idea of all these beautiful patterns, like the mandalas prized by practitioners of Hinduism and Buddhism, floating around us every day, knitting our world together in a way we could never comprehend.
But unlike those beautiful works created through hours of painstaking labor, the designs made with salt happen almost instantaneously. And rather than decay or descend into chaos as the dial is turned higher, the patterns become more ornate and stunning. I’ve watched the video at least ten times, and I still gasp at some of the patterns that emerge.
John Dryden wrote one of my favorite poems called “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” in which he praises music, the force God used to call the world into being. The opening stanza reads:
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high:
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot and moist and dry
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began;
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
Music—harmony, sound, tones, pitches—is how order emerged from “the heap of jarring atoms.” Dryden imagines it is what God used to build the “universal frame” of our world, and he might not be too far off base. Genesis 1:2 says, “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” He called forth light, water, earth, sky, stars, birds, beasts, and man. I can’t help but imagine them coming together like the patterns in the video—order out of nothingness, called into being by the very voice of God.
The Almighty is present in everything. We just have to be ready and willing to see Him, even in the places we least expect. This was one of those places for me, and now that I’ve witnessed it, I know my God a little better. In some small way, I see Him, and I’m left clapping my hands like a child, overwhelmed by the revelation.
What do you think of this video? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Oh, and if you’d like to hear it with just the tones and vibrations rather than the lovely soundtrack, you can watch the video below. Beware, it’s super loud toward the end!
There’s not much to be proud of when you’re from Arkansas, but we do have Johnny Cash. He would have been 81 years old today.
Born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, a little hole-in-the-wall town about four hours away from Paragould, a similar hole-in-the-wall town I once called home. He grew up during the Depression, worked in the fields with his family, and was raised with a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other. All of these things were essential to making him into the man he was, and they were an integral part of his music over a nearly fifty-year career. He might have varied the delivery and style, but everything he sang was uniquely his.
I could wax philosophic about Johnny Cash for hours, but I think it’s best to keep it short for the purposes of this blog. If you are interested in his life story, I highly suggest The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner and Cash: The Autobiography by the man himself.
People who know me don’t understand why I dislike country music as a genre but adore one of its legends. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia and synonymity.
His music was the soundtrack for many of my happy childhood days. My grandfather owned a flooring store where both he and my father worked, and I spent untold hours running around and climbing over rolls of carpet and scaling piles of tile samples. Often, my grandmother worked a shift, and she always listened to a country and gospel station that played a hefty dose of Mr. Cash. Whenever I hear certain songs of his, it takes me back to a day when I had a permanent case of rug burn on my knees and the biggest problem I had was getting a B in math.
I also admired him for more than just his music. It was the way he approached life, how his feelings permeated every word and chord of his music. He was a man of strong (if sometimes misguided) opinions and principles, and once he sunk his teeth into something, you would have a heck of a time wrestling it back from him. He lived passionately and loved fiercely—two traits that I admire. I think, like many people, I see a little of myself in Johnny Cash.
But I’d like to try to explain it using something more specific—five reasons and five songs.
1. “Get Rhythm”
This was the B-side on his first hit record, “I Walk the Line.” I think I love his optimism the most. The shoeshine boy he describes has been dealt a pretty tough hand, but he makes the best of it—a lot like Mr. Cash himself. I also enjoy this song because it demonstrates his ability to bend the rules. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums or horns to be played on stage, but Cash needed the percussive sound for his music to work. His trick? A dollar bill folded and wedged under his strings to mute the sound and create the “chicka, chicka, chicka” sound you hear in both recordings.
This is one of those songs he and June sang together often, and it never fails to entertain me. It’s obvious they’re crazy about one another, and he was always willing to show how vulnerable he truly was when the love of his life was around. She brought out a side of him you didn’t see otherwise–something lighter and more whimsical. He could make fun of himself and drop some of the “outlaw image” when he shared a stage with her. (I also remember watching him perform this one with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.)
3. “Folsom Prison Blues”
Though he never spent any time in prison himself (beyond a few nights in jail for drug-related offenses and for trespassing to pick flowers…no kidding), Cash could write music that perfectly captured what it felt like to be incarcerated. There was something in him that identified and empathized with the downtrodden, the maligned, and the marginalized. He knew what it meant to live without hope, like you were scratching at the walls of a very deep hole you might never crawl out of. He understood the darkness and desperation that could claim a man’s soul, and he used it. He wrote songs about that place in the human heart, and both prisoners and free people could identify with it. That’s a tough thing to do once, but he did it in several songs ranging from this one to tracks like “San Quentin” and “I Hung My Head.”
4. “I Shall Not Be Moved”
This recording is from My Mother’s Hymn Book, which Cash said was his favorite album of the dozens he recorded over his career. He was a man of faith, though he walked away from God more than once, and his love for Christ and of gospel music permeated everything he did. This song is so simple, which is what makes it great. He uses it to make a bold statement about himself and the strong faith he gained over a lifetime of struggles and long walks through spiritual darkness. His gospel songs are all wonderful, but there’s something plain and proud about this version I admire. Like all believers, I want to sing this song and mean it….just like he did.
Bono said, “Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.” I couldn’t agree with him more. This song, and the video that went with it, was the one that introduced Cash to younger music lovers who might never have heard of him. This single song created a passion for his music in another generation. But instead of the quiet, raging whisper of Trent Reznor, Cash sings it with a melancholy and bittersweet longing that makes it impossible to turn away from. This is a man who knows the end of his life is near and that everything he fought and bled for was worthless in the end. He sits at a feast table alone, surrounded by the hollow wreckage of fame, and tells us point blank, “You can have it all, my empire of dirt.” In his late 70s and with a voice fading and cracked with age, he still sings with an intensity that is inescapable. That’s the beauty of Johnny Cash; he got better with age. What made people love him in the 1950s still had the power to captivate; he was the real deal.
In everything from “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” to “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash revealed a little piece of himself—whether it was the rebel, the lover, the champion of lost causes, the penitent, or the lost soul. He was a man who, though he wasn’t Native American himself, fought for the rights of that unique people group and who wore black, as he put it, “on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of ‘the prisoner who has long paid for his crime’, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.”
He once said, “With the Vietnam war as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’… Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Like an Old Testament prophet, this modern-day Elijah still speaks of faith, of fumbling around in the dark searching for the truth, and of freedom. And he’s the reason why I’m proud to be an Arkansian.
There are rare moments when God blesses His children beyond measure, and what you’re going to read below is an example of just that. If you had told me two years ago that I would have been living in Atlanta and working full time for a magazine, I would have called you a dirty liar. However, after a long, dark period of strife that I’m not going to get into here, I’ve finally made it to a mountaintop. From where I now stand, I grasp the reasons for the spiritual valleys I’ve had to walk through. Like so many things in life, God has put them in their proper perspective.
The August issue of In Touch Magazine features two people who are very special to me–my grandparents, Boyce and Sybil Lindley. They are also going through a spiritual valley right now, one that they never expected to have to slog through. However, they aren’t walking through it alone. It was my pleasure and my honor to share their story with our readers this month, and I do hope what I wrote helps a couple or a family going through the same struggle they are.
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