My reading this morning came from one of the books I got for my birthday: The Intellectual Devotional. The subtitle is great: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class. The book is a series of daily readings, each day of the week focusing on a different field of knowledge.
Monday – History
Tuesday – Literature
Wednesday – Visual Arts
Thursday – Science
Friday – Music
Saturday – Philosophy
Sunday – Religion
Today’s topic was melody. The entry began:
Melody, often referred to in everyday speech as the tune, is perhaps the most immediately recognizable element of music. A melody can be played on one instrument or many and, along with harmony and rhythm, is considered one of the three basic elements of all music.
Driving home from work tonight I started thinking about some of my favorite melodies. The one that stuck in my mind was an old American folk tune, “The Water is Wide.” I particularly love the way James Taylor sings it.
the water is wide I can’t cross o’er
neither have I wings to fly
give me a boat that can carry two
and both shall row my love and I
I realize I’m typing lyrics and not melody, but I’m counting on you to sing along at home. There are a lot of tunes that can get down inside of me and pull up all kinds of emotions. What I realized as I thought about them on the way home is the melodies that move me are the ones that lend themselves to harmony, because of the three basic elements of music, harmony is the one I love most. As long as I’ve been singing, I’ve looked for the harmony part.
In ninth grade I got a record player of my very own to keep in my room. We had a stereo in the living room, but the record player meant I could listen to my music in privacy. The next thing my parents gave me was a pair of headphones and they thought they were all set. They were wrong. One of my favorite records was Crosby, Stills, and Nash – the one with the three of them sitting in front of an old house – that had “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Marakesh Express,” and “Helplessly Hoping,” among others. I would go in my room, put on the ‘phones, start the record, and lay down on my bed to listen, and to sing along.
I sang the harmony parts. All of them. What the rest of my family heard was only me, singing at the top of my lungs and changing from part to part, which sounded a lot like a howling cat on crack. Their revenge was I sang with my eyes closed. So they all stood at the door of my room and laughed until I opened my eyes and found them there.
In college, I remember buying James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, still one of my favorite albums. All those years later, I was still sitting and listening and singing along, once I’d heard a song one time. The record is full of great harmonies, but I had one unsurpassed moment my first time through. He started singing “Long Ago and Far Away” –
long ago a young man sits and plays his waiting game
but things are not the same it seems as in such tender dreams
and then the harmonies came in
slowly passing sailing ships and Sunday afternoon
like people on the moon I see are things not meant to be
I couldn’t believe it. But there was more. He began singing the chorus
where do the golden rainbows end
and then Joni Mitchell’s voice came in behind him
where do the rainbows end
and it may have been my best moment ever listening to a song. Her harmony line still grabs me by the heart.
One of the things still on my To Do List, as far as my life is concerned, is to sing in a bluegrass band, mostly because I think it’s the best music for harmony. The simple melodies yearn for company and make room for layer upon layer of voices. I also like it because the harmonies are found rather than predetermined. Though I’ve been around music all of my life, I can’t read it. I learned to play guitar by ear and by learning chords; I find the harmony part by listening and joining in, or learning it from someone else. Growing up Baptist meant learning a lot of good old gospel hymns, which carry the same kind of invitation. One of the curious things about many modern hymns is they are written to be sung in unison and without harmony. I think they are making both a musical and a theological mistake.
At the risk of offering my third big metaphor in three days, which feels a little excessive even for Lent, my other realization driving home tonight was I’m built to not only sing harmonies, but to live them as well. I like being the pastor’s husband rather than the pastor. One of the things our congregation expects with some regularity is in the middle of a sermon or another part of the service, Ginger will say, “Milton, would you sing this song?” and I stand up and sing. I don’t know it’s coming, yet I’ve been harmonizing with her long enough to not be surprised. I know my part: she’s Gladys Knight and I’m a Pip. No — The Pip.
At the Inn, one of the things I do best is get things set up for Chef before the dinner rush. I know him. I can tell when things aren’t going well, or he feels isolated. I know how to find the harmony part that gets him back to the melody and we both have a good time. It happened again tonight.
If I ever got to meet Joni Mitchell, I’d have a lot of questions. But I would certainly put on my James Taylor record and say, “Tell me what that moment was like.” I don’t expect she would have an answer, but I’ll bet we’d listen to the song over and over again before she went home.
PS — There’s a new recipe.