I still remember the Christmas morning when, after unwrapping most of our gifts, my mother pointed to two cards stuck on the tree, one with my brother’s name on it and one with mine. A string ran from each card, leading us in different directions all over our house until we came to find our guitars.
For almost twenty-nine years I have had a six string of some sort. Mom and Dad hired a guy to give us lessons, but I lasted with those about as well as I did with the piano lessons in the second grade. But I did sit on the side of my bed and try to play along with my records, learning chord shapes from my friends and how the chords went together from listening to people I loved to hear. Like any guitar-toting teenager, I dreamed about being a singer or being in a band, but I wasn’t one of those who spent his afternoons learning licks and doing whatever it took to be a musician.
For me the magic of the guitar was that it always seemed to come with a group attached to it. I learned how to play because there were a group of us at Nairobi International School who all had guitars and we brought them with us and sat around during lunch (and some classes) playing and singing together. I have always had the good fortune to have friends who were better guitar players than I and who were wiling to teach me. In college, I found friends in my Baylor dorm who loved to sing and play and so we did, night after night. As a youth minister, I played and sang with my group because I loved how it made us feel connected. University Baptist Church was known for its youth choir, so the kids could sing well, so we sang every chance we could and they would find harmonies to add to what we were doing. When I play some of those songs, I can’t help but hear them still:
and the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
I’ve sung and played in a lot of church settings. When I wrote songs with Billy Crockett I sang back up for him a time or two. Then there was the weekend in Baton Rouge where he had a gig at the LSU BSU and I drove over to meet him. He was flying in – and was delayed. So someone there who knew I wrote with Billy suggested I sing until he got there. Of course I couldn’t sing any of our songs; he was going to do that. I took my guitar and sang everything I could think of. For and hour and a half. It’s still my longest gig.
Boston was a big Open Mic town. There were lots of little clubs and bars that set aside nights to let folks come in and take their shot. Club Passim in Harvard Square, one of my favorite rooms anywhere, had one on Tuesday night and I used to go and run sound. I thought about getting up there, but I never did. Actually, I never got up on stage in any club for Open Mic on any night in any town until last night.
I found out a couple of months ago that the Broad Street Café, just a block away from our house, has an Open Mic on alternate Wednesdays. Ginger and I have walked over a couple of times. The way an Open Mic works is those who want to perform show up at a given time (7:30 at Broad Street) and sign up for a time slot. Some places make you draw, others just take you in the order you show up. At 7:30, I was in the middle of the dinner rush, but I had remembered it was Open Mic and decided it was time to go and play. Part of it was I am singing and playing with my friend Terry on Saturday for a benefit and I wanted to feel ready for that. Part of it is I am working eleven hour days right now and feel like all I do is go to work and come home and I didn’t want to feel that way. Mostly, it just felt like it was about damn time I got up there with my guitar and sang for a room full of people who didn’t know me.
I called Ginger and asked for a date to walk over after I got home from work. By the time I got home and showered and we got to the café, it was working on ten o’clock and I only had to wait about three performers before I closed the evening. The two guys who sang before me called themselves “Lila” (not sure why), did a sort of acoustic hip-hop thing, and were both high.
I didn’t sing for a room full of people. I think there were ten or twelve. Fifteen if you count the dishwashers and the bartender. I didn’t care. I plugged in my guitar and started the intro to John Hiatt’s “Through Your Hands,” which in one of the songs we are doing on Saturday. It was hard to hear and it was my first public performance of the song and it was, well, a little rough. I did alright, but no one stopped their conversations to listen. Each performer gets to sing two, so I chose a more familiar song – no, I chose my favorite song for the closing number. I don’t remember when I learned the song, but it is one that lives deep in my bones, that moves me in ways I can’t articulate.
The song is John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”
The first time I ever played it publicly was at a church banquet in Winchester, Massachusetts and I led into the song by saying, “I relate to this song more than any song I know.” Then I sang the first line:
I am an old woman named after my mother . . .
Last night I didn’t say anything. I just started playing the introduction and then singing the words and it felt good and I didn’t care that the high guys were talking almost as loud as I was singing because I was singing. At Open Mic. After all these years.
The lines in the last verse that has always killed me snuck up softly as I stood there after my eleven hour day, just a couple of phrases away from ending the evening of performers I didn’t hear:
how the hell can a person go to work every morning
and come home every evening and have nothing to say
“That’s why I’m here,” I thought. “It’s been a long day, but I still have something.”
I finished my short set and stepped down to talk to Ginger and to pack up my guitar. As we were walking out, I turned to one of the high guys and said, “Good job tonight.”
He smiled and said, “You, too, sir.”
“Just give me one thing I can hold on to,” says the song. Last night, for me, that was it.
P. S. — And here’s the person who taught me the song.