Next Sunday I am going to be a part of a bluegrass group that will be the service musicians for our morning worship. Most of the group is one family – parents and three boys, all of whom play instruments. The youngest one, who is six or seven, plays the mandolin likes it’s part of him, smiling through his spectacles as he strums away. As we have been practicing, I’ve been mindful of the ongoing celebration of what would have been Woody Guthrie’s one hundredth birthday (July 14, to be exact) and, somehow, I go from my diminutive mandolin player to Woody to John Berger, who described the Okie folksinger. “Now I can make is simpler,” Berger begins and then goes on.
Guthrie was a charismatic performer and guitar player and a natural improviser. He sang old songs, and he sang many new songs written by himself to old tunes. One of these is entitled, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” He puts these words into the mouths of the thousands who had to take to the road from the city of Pampa on the west Texan plain during the Depression.
On the radio I heard recently a recording of him singing this song, whose refrain he had changed to: “Hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.” Or so I thought. Perhaps I misheard. No matter. Like this, it’s a refrain which addresses the subject of any drawing which has insisted upon being put on paper.
“Hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.”
Tonight I have the privilege of going to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert. I am driving with friends to Greensboro, North Carolina, for what will most certainly be a memorable evening. Bruce is a descendant of Guthrie’s in many ways, even covering some of his songs. I watched the video of Springsteen’s keynote address at SXSW this past week and he said,
The purity of human expression and experience is not confined – there’s no pure way of doing it; there’s just doing it . . . . At the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that is what’s valuable.
I must add one other musical piece that has set my week swirling in thought and melody. Last Thursday Ginger and I sat on the front row of the Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt concert at the DPAC (or the Tupac, as we like to call it). On our very first date I took Ginger to see Lyle – twenty-three years ago – at a little club in downtown Fort Worth aptly named the Caravan of Dreams; thus began our journey. We’ve seen him every time he’s come to our town – whatever the town – since then. The two men sat side by side and swapped songs, some of which pulled up moments from our past that still hold on and others that were harbingers of future memories yet to take hold.
I realize this post so far follows a rather impressionistic melody line, rather than offering clear verses, yet I keep coming back to Berger’s chorus, if you will:
hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.
One of the moments I am looking forward to on Sunday is the music we will offer in response to the Prayers of the People, which is the part of our service where people offer their joys and concerns, as we say. I am singing with the little mandolin man. The lyric is the last half of one of the verses from “Sweet Hour of Prayer” –
and since he bids me seek his face
believe his word and trust his grace
I’ll cast on him my every care
and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer
I love the hymn, and I love singing it, but what I’m looking forward to is the dynamic between me and my companion. He is about half my height and stands and gazes up at me while I sing; he never looks at his hands. Something in the exchange at practice yesterday made me want to sing to him,
hold on, hold on . . .
I’ve had Bruce’s new record, “Wrecking Ball,” playing in the car all week in lieu of NPR getting ready for tonight. The chorus of one of the songs that’s kept me singing is
big wheels roll through the fields
where sunlight streams
oh meet me in
a land of broken dreams
Or so I thought. This morning was the first time I had a chance to sit down with the lyrics to find nothing was broken; the last line reads
a land of hope and dreams.
No matter. Any of the songwriters mentioned in this post offer an invitation to engage, to do more than listen, and to make something out of both the beautiful and the broken pieces of this thing called life. All of them have also wound their songs in and out of my days for the better part of my life. Thursday night, I called out for John Hiatt to sing one of my favorite songs, which was deep enough of an album cut that he could not remember the lyrics – “Before I Go.” The last verse says,
ghosts on the trees, there’s ghosts on the wires
asking questions and showing signs
shivering with truth, they’re lighting fires
lighting fires all down the line
and I will try, and I will stumble
but I will fly, he told me so
proud and high or low and humble
many miles before I go
many miles before I go
I feel like this post rambles along like a Dylan lyric (fifty year anniversary of his first record, by the way). I mean that in a good way. These songwriters, among others, are those who have held on to me and made me glad to have known them. Tonight, I will dip myself in the stream of the music that has washed my soul once again, sing along at the top of my lungs, and do my own share of shivering with the truth, doing my best to be thankful down to the bone.
Hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.