Margaret and Music


By Jim Harper

So, as you all— I am Jim, by the way, the middle brother —as you all probably know, music is very important in the Harper family.

When we were growing up, we were each either assigned or picked an instrument to play… some of us went further with this than others. (laughter) And I always sort of thought of it in my mind as the Bach Family Orchestra. I sort of thought that maybe Dad had so many kids to fill the gaps in the orchestra. But, that never panned out.

So, Margaret played the cello. That was her division, her instrument. And she also played the piano, just like Carol and Dorothy. But she also loved to sing.

She got together with Judy Petke and Rosalyn Hines at Bair Lake Bible Camp — we spent most of our summers at Bair Lake Bible Camp — and they formed a trio: The Bair Lake Lovelies. And they had wonderful harmonies.  And I think they even sang out here, in Lombard, under a different name: The Lombard Lovelies.

But I came across this quote by Garrison Keillor, who I think Margaret enjoyed listening to, from a piece he wrote, Singing with the Lutherans. And I presume by that, he meant Singing with Sanctified Brethren, because that’s who he grew up singing with.

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

So, when we turned off life-support for Margaret, we sang her into heaven. She lasted two songs, and her heart stopped.

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Here is my playlist for the prelude with some choice lyrics. One of my favorite piano quotes is from my sister Dorothy: Play the words.

Sweet, Sweet Spirit  — Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.

King Jesus — For He opens doors for me, doors I’m not able to see, That’s why I say King Jesus will roll my burdens away.

He’s Able — I know my Lord is able to carry me through.

Softly and Tenderly — You who are weary, come home.

There Is a Fountain — Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.

I Will Sing of My Redeemer — How the victory He giveth over sin and death and hell.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say — I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn, and sad. I found in Him a resting place and He has made me glad.

Wayfaring Stranger — I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.

Come Thou Fount — Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.

Abide with Me — Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

My God Is Real — [written by Mahalia!!] His love for me is just like pure gold, My God is real, for I can feel Him in my soul.

Come, Ye Disconsolate — Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand — At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Blessed Assurance — Angels, descending, bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.



Come Rain or Come Shine, The Book

I once prayed, Lord, please let Jan Karon live long enough to get Dooley and Lace married. The answer to that prayer was a whelming flood; I started crying on page 32 and sniffed and sobbed my way—punctuated by laughs—to the final page. Redemption, benediction, healing, holy amazement, connection. Reading this brings the satisfaction of resolution, the “two bits” after the “shave and a haircut”.

Weddings are my thing. Joyful solemnity, giving, sharing, joining, celebrating, laughing, crying, hugging, singing, dancing, rejoicing, thanksgiving. I love a good wedding and I’ve been to a few profoundly remarkable ones.

There was joy in the air; you could sniff it as plain as new-cut hay.

The focus of Come Rain or Come Shineis on the month before and the day of The Big Knot. Dooley and Lace want a small, intimate ceremony at Meadowgate Farm. Karon enjoys poking fun at the myth of a ‘simple country wedding.’  There are obstacles and annoyances. There are secrets and surprises. There is the unrelenting pressure of diminishing time to get the place wedding-ready.

DSC_0964The main character is Lace Harper. Her journals reveal her heart, her hopes, her fears, her loves. She wants to find a wedding dress for under $100; she is thankful for the callouses which document her hard work. She wants to get it—this whole starting a new family—right. I appreciated the ways Dooley and Lace honor the memory of Sadie Baxter (benefactor) and Russell Jacks (Dooley’s grandpa) in their wedding. Fun stuff: there is a Pinterest page for Lace Harper’s wedding!

Jan Karon and Wendell Berry are both skilled at portraying a community where giving, helping, and reciprocating are the norm. In their novels they don’t cover up the hurts, the anger, the tensions, the troubles. Weddings can be awkward with family drama. Karon handles the presence of Dooley’s birth mom, Pauline Leeper, in the same room as his siblings with utmost care. There is no easy resolution, no instant reconciliation, just baby steps, tiny beginnings towards the on-ramp to healing.

I connected with this book in many ways. This summer we went to a small, simple country wedding (see picture above) in a pasture. My son and daughter-in-law have a wind storm and fallen trees in their wedding story, too. I know what it is to be gob-smacked by blessings, reduced to silent tears of joy. Live music is the best for dancing the night away. I love the song in the title.

‘Why can’t life always be lived under the stars,’ she said, ‘with great music and family and friends?’

♪♫♪ Come Rain or Come Shine ♪♫♪ is a standard (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics Johnny Mercer) that has been covered by scores of recording artists. I used it ten years ago when I made a PowerPoint slideshow for Curt’s folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. In the course of my work, I listened to B.B. King and Eric Clapton on endless repetition. And I can honestly say, I never tired of it. But there are so many recordings of this song, that I put my listening of them in this post.

This book.

I finished it last night. I started it again this morning.

Fixated on A capella Hymns

corksacredharpIt was near St. Patrick’s Day. I typed “Irish sacred music” in the search engine. And I discovered Cork Sacred Harp. My husband Curt was on medical leave and we sat entranced for hours watching videos on YouTube. And now it’s become a daily habit to listen and sing along to our favorites a capella singing from Ireland.

In 2012 we rented this DVD about Sacred Harp singing from Netflix. The quote in the photo above says, “features some of the most raucous group vocals that have been recorded.” True, that. The music in the movie is primitive, unrefined, at times jarring. It is intense, heartfelt, loud. We found ourselves simultaneously compelled and repelled. And so intrigued that I bought the DVD. What is shape note singing? See this article. The shapes correspond with fa-sol-la-mi; the first swipe through a song the singers use these syllables. With several parts singing different notes, it may sound like random mish-mash to begin with.

Listen: The music is often fugal. This means that there are the melody lines enter in a staggered fashion, braiding tunes until all parts sing together. Here’s a good example, a hymn tune we regularly sing to a different text:

Why has this music captured me? I think it is the clean—yes, even sharp—edges of rhythm. It’s that the majority of the songs are in minor keys. It’s the full sound of people singing with gusto. If I had a gun to my head and had to say my favorite hymn (a funny thought experiment) I would say Come Thou Fount. Here it is to the tune I Will Rise.

I don’t like every one of the videos listed under CorkSacredHarp, but I’ve “liked” my favorites and then watch that “liked” playlist daily. I don’t get weary of them. Here is a list of my favorites. The title is name of the tune.

146 Hallelujah – might be the best known Sacred Harp song
63 Coronation – All Hail the Power. The frail woman in the inner square: priceless
30t Love Divine – Tollie Lee is the most lively, engaging leader
350 Nativity – Another example of fugal singing, one we love to sing at my church
128 Promised Land – I love Shirley! I am bound for the Promised Land.
45t New Britain – Amazing Grace done Sacred Harp style
569b Sacred Throne – I grew up singing this tune to Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
59 Holy Manna – Eimear and Sadhbh are my favorites. The song, too.
547 Granville – This gripping lament was written in 1986 by Judy Hauff
344 Rainbow – We sing this “as is” except for the solfege at the beginning.
148 Jefferson – You will never hear Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken the same again 457 Wayfaring Stranger – Another familiar song with glorious harmony
117 Babylon Is Fallen – Oh. my. I wake up with this song on my lips.
448b The Grieved Soul – What is that that casts thee down? A song for depression.

I suspect that 95% of my dear readers will not enjoy, explore, pursue this music; there is no accounting for taste. But I know there are a few of you who will become as fixated as I have become. You will lose of day of productivity soaking this music into your system. Someone said Sacred Harp is a capella Heavy Metal. (I copied it from a website in German!) This metal is embedded in me.

The Approaching Storm

german-wine_2492047kNora Waln’s book, The Approaching Storm: One Woman’s Story of Germany, 1934-1938 is a portrait of a culture. I read it to get insight into the Nazification of Germany from a ground level view. Waln, a Quaker pacifist, and her husband moved to Germany for his musical studies. They had extended visits throughout Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Much about the culture was winsome. Here, regarding music:

It was usual to see people whose hands were callous with toil playing musical instruments. No gathering was without its song. They scattered music over their great river, over their wine-clad hills, and along their forest ways. (p.53)

About books:

I had entered Germany with the feeling that these people had no money for luxuries, and I had not yet learned that among vast numbers of them a book is not counted a luxury. I had never heard anyone express surprise on learning that a person had gone without meals or material things to buy a book. (p.118)

By far, my favorites passages were about the vineyards. If you’ve read Wendell Berry you will appreciate this. There were pages about tending vines, cultivating soil:

A vineyard keeper worthy of his title has his wood lot for poles, his field for potatoes, his orchard of fruit trees, his stabled cows, his dwelling house, and his vines. He eats bread of his wife’s making which is baked in the village oven, and the fire is banked over Sunday. His laundry is rubbed clean at home, rinsed in the clear waters of the Ahr, and bleached on the grass. He walks without arrogance but with self-respecting dignity. And, Protestant or Catholic, he brings his children up to earn their keep, pay their debts, revere God, and love the Fatherland. (p.151)

Beautiful roads:

The Germans build well. The roads are not ugly scars across their land they are things of beauty, exciting in their charm. They are invisible a short distance off; then one comes on them—silver ribbons. No telegraph poles, advertisements, rows of refreshment stands, gasoline stations, or ugly houses line their banks. (p.138)

I needed the review of the Reichs:
First Reich (Deutsche) the Holy Roman Empire established by Otto the First 962-1806  Second Reich (Second) Otto von Bismark, Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia 1862-1918
Third Reich (Drittle) National Socialist government, the Nazis

Wien_-_Stephansdom_(1)I learned about a cathedral to Saint Stephan in Vienna, the “Stefansdom”.

The Stefansdom has been raised in the same way [as Mongolian prayer mounds]. It is a heap of gifts to God. Each generation has made its offering in the fashion of the time—Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, and nineteenth century. Each piece is beautiful. (p.263)

But then she describes Hitler’s rule. It was impossible for a young boy to escape being in Hitler’s Youth. While they were often given extra latitude (Hitler had read and enjoyed a previous book Waln wrote) they saw the troubles their friends experienced. Soldiers were optimistic and accepted injustices to themselves with a spirited defense of the army.

One story about a Christmas dinner captured me. The hosts guests included  Christians of Jewish descent. The maid and butler made a brouhaha, refused to serve the Jews, and quit in the middle of service. The hosts refused to let their friends leave and carried on amidst their own embarrassment.
Waln said that she was so traumatized in 1938 that she was unable to write.

I’m glad I read this book. Most of my questions weren’t answered, but one thing was clear. Most citizens were in denial as they gave up freedoms one by one.

Remembering Glenn Gould


My new latest ‘thing’ is Glenn Gould. My friend Terri recommended A Romance on Three Legs, I watched this video of the author discussing it, and my mind told myself, “Let the fascination begin!”

I’ve watched videos, listened to CDs, read Hafner’s book and I continue to be mesmerized. The best film so far has been the 2010 documentary, Genius Within . Gould’s music accompanies me while I chop veggies, sweep the floor, write blog posts.

Who was Glenn Gould? He was a Canadian pianist whose ability, style, precision, musicality, phrasing, was simply in a galaxy all his own. Many stories have been told about folks who, having never once listened to classical music, were stunned and converted by some piece they inadvertently listened to on the radio. His playing grabs you.

“You are one of the few authentic geniuses recording today. If you wanted to record the complete works of Alban Berg on a kazoo, I’d gladly do it.”  RCA executive to GG

Katie Hafner’s book focuses on the piano that Glenn Gould played, a Steinway CD 318. It’s a great introduction to Gould, but also a great introduction to Verne Edquist, the blind man who was Gould’s principal tuner. In the video linked above, someone has a question, Hafner can’t answer. She calls Edquist in the middle of Q and A and finds out. The Steinways, a German family who emigrated to America to build pianos, provide an engaging back story.

Gould had many eccentricities, and his life story is ultimately a sad one, leading me to the question, “Is there such a thing as a balanced genius?” He died days after his 50th birthday from a stroke. One ‘tic’ he had was humming whenever he played the piano. I remember attending a concert in 1989 with a pianist who shared this quirk. At the social hour afterwards, I remarked to some bystander what a shame it was that someone in the audience insisted on humming along. “Oh, my dear,” the lady said, “That was our own dear [insert pianist’s name]. She can’t help herself.”

I suppose it can be said that I’m an absent-minded driver. It’s true that I’ve driven through a number of red lights on occasion, but on the other hand I’ve stopped at a lot of green ones but have never gotten credit for it.  — Glenn Gould

Once in a while I try to figure out why Glenn Gould fascinates me. What keeps me looking for more to read, more to watch, more to listen? He is an enigma – charming, yet reclusive, gifted but abhorred performing, confident but lost.  I haven’t come up with an answer yet. But I know I’m not alone. His magnetic pull continues thirty-two years after his death.

The critic Tim Page said that in his last decade, Gould was “no longer just an arrogant, albeit sweet-tempered genius. He became a sweet-tempered melancholy genius.” Today, September 25th, is the anniversary of his birth. Give yourself a gift by listening to Glenn Gould. Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a good place to start.


20 Feet from Stardom

20FeetFromStardom Backup singers are like ghost writers. The invisibles.

20 Feet From Stardom tells the story of some of the legendary backup singers you’ve never heard of. It’s a poignant story, told with bursts of beguiling harmonies, of the different mindset of the backup singer who goes for the blend and the lead singer who basks in individuality. And the near impossibility to move from the back to front and center.

Where did the backup singers come from? Most of them were pastor’s daughters who grew up singing melodies, harmonies, and call-and-response, in church. Music was their oxygen. They didn’t require written music; they could hear the chords in their head and make magical tones singing together.

A few quotes:

Stay cool.
Stay humble.
Stay beautiful.
Do the work.
— Merry Clayton

It’s more than leaning on your talent. You gotta be disciplined. You gotta get up in the morning.
— Tata Vega

Real musicians—there’s a spiritual component to what they do that’s got nothing to do with worldly success. Their music is much more an inner journey. Any other success is just cream on the cake. There’s this idea that you can go on American Idol and suddenly become a star; but you may bypass the spiritual work you have to do to get there. And if you bypass that, our success will be wafer thin.

— Sting

Fun catch: Ashley Cleveland, my walking partner (by me listening to her CDs, we’ve never met) has a cameo appearance at 87:14.