Advent, My Way #24

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My favorite Christmas song, from my favorite Christmas album.

In all my ambivalence about the religious aspects of Christmas, I know one thing—I hope you all will find happiness and contentment at this season.

As the song says,

I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer,
From a heathen and a pagan,
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Browne

The streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

They call him by the “Prince of Peace”
And they call him by “The Saviour”
And they pray to him upon the sea
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

Advent, My Way #7

It’s time to decorate for Christmas!

You bring out the ornaments—the ones your kids made when they were little, the ones you were given the year you bought your first house, the ones you made from something you saw on Pinterest.

You find the wreath and tartan ribbons and lights for the tree.

You dig out every candle you own and the candlesticks and that special plate for Santa’s cookies.

Of course, you’d never forget the special Christmas stockings, to be hung by the chimney with care.

But what about books? So many of you love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

In our usual minimalist planning for Christmas, I don’t think about this kind of detail. But there are three books that I will run across occasionally during the year that make me think, “Damn. I should put that out at Christmas—I love that book.”

And this year, I’m remembering!

The book I love the most is this one.

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My sister and I grew up in that era when it seems that every kid took piano lessons.

I didn’t care much for the lessons and never learned to play the piano very well—it seems one was expected to practice between the weekly lessons!

But this little book of Christmas music moves me no end.

It sort of captures what Christmas looked like in the early 1960s. I swear, in that era, Santa and the reindeer were not as plump and cutesy and cartoon-ish as they have become.

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It has my grandmother’s handwriting on the cover. I love seeing the unique handwriting of people I’ve lost from my life.

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It has the songs that I loved best then and the ones that still hit me in the solar plexus now. They’re all here: Silent Night, Away in the Manger, The First Noel, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

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And it has a few that make me smile now, even though I paid no attention to them then.

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It also displays my incredible artistic talent and vision, as I used it as a coloring book. I liked coloring better than playing the piano. (That got me in trouble when I colored the libretto from my mother’s recording of Carmen . . . )

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So, the music book will sit out this year, on a music stand because we don’t have a piano any longer. Seeing it will remind me of a simple time, loving family, the moving melodies of Christmas, and of my sweet, magical childhood.

And, I’ll ask it again. What about books? You love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

They Sang As If They Knew Me

Morland_Maid-IroningI love linens. I love ironing. I love folk music.

And I love a man who loves a woman who irons.

Imagine, just imagine, how I would feel about the melding of all four of these loves! Can you imagine?!

Well, my friend with a Vintage Attitude could imagine, and she rocked my world by introducing me to this song:

DASHING AWAY WITH THE SMOOTHING IRON

(YouTube video)

‘Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-washing of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

‘Twas on a Tuesday morning
When I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-hanging out her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

‘Twas on a Wednesday morning
………………..
A-starching of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Thursday morning
………………..
Ironing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Friday morning
………………..
A-folding of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Saturday morning
………………..
Airing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Sunday morning
………………..
A-wearing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

Oh. My. Goodness. I finally have a theme song.

The lovely lassie spends every day of the week working on her linens—I can relate!

But who would write a song about ironing linens??

Ah, the British, of course. The song seems to have been first published by the musicologist Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and appears to originate from Somerset.

Those Somerset gals knew their linens!

I love that the song has a long history but, more than that, it’s a song about being adored for taking good care of linens. You don’t find a lot of folksongs honoring the hard work women did!

And work hard this woman did, to keep the linens clean.

She washes them. She hangs them to dry. She starches them. She irons them. She folds them. She airs them. And she even wears some of them, on Sunday, when she rests from the other tasks and steps out on the town!

Maybe I should change the last two verses of the song, to reflect the other steps I take—that’s the very essence of the oral/folk tradition, right?

My last verses will go like this:

‘Twas on a Saturday morning
………………..
Taking pictures of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Sunday morning
………………..
A-selling of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away!

Now if I can just get my husband to learn to play this song on his guitar. And to agree to gaze adoringly at me while he sings it . . .

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How about you? Do you have a theme song that sums up large chunks of your life?

Made on the 4th of July

IMG_8143What do your “hands at home” make for a special celebration? The decorations? The flower arrangement? The bread? The ice cream?

One day a year, on America’s Independence Day, we go a step further.

We make music.

IMG_8178Two of us have sung together for over 30 years. A little girl grew up singing and joined in. Two of us married and brought new musicians to the group.

We play and sing only a couple of times a year but always, always, on the 4th of July. Most of us never pick up a guitar at any other time.

Because we play together only once or twice a year, we play with no finesse. Self-taught, we play really easy songs and try to avoid F-chords (or those F-ing chords, as a wit among us calls them). We have trouble finding enough capos, let alone the same key. We drink beer and complain about how much the guitar strings hurt our fingers.

We sing songs you may know—of green alligators and long-necked geese, of times that are a-changin’, of Charley on the MTA.

We have loyal listeners who never find fault (mostly because they are related to us!)

Every time we get together and play, I think we should do it more often—there’s something about making music, even not-very-good music, that seems to be at the core of what it means to be human.

When we sit by the campfire and sing, it’s hard not to think of other fires, other songs, other singers who have found warmth and community and harmony through making music.

It may only happen once a year for us, but the feeling lasts. That feeling always makes me think of one of my favorite songs, by John McCutcheon:

And I wish you songs to speed you through the evening,
And I wish you rest at the close of the day,
And a harbor safe till the morning light,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night

So gather `round, you friends and lovers,
Let the darkness come for the fire is bright;
Though the road is long, love makes us stronger,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night.

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The Voice in My Head

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Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake

I hear voices. More precisely, I hear one voice. It’s the benevolent and stirring voice of an old man who died a few months ago.

Do you think that’s weird?

If you knew me better, it would make perfect sense.

The voice I hear is that of American folksinger, Pete Seeger, and it’s always singing.

I have been hearing, and being inspired by, Pete’s voice since I was a teenager and it has been a sort of soundtrack of my life, in ways large and small. Listening to recordings of him singing with The Weavers introduced me to folk and topical music, and completely changed my musical tastes forever. His version of “We Shall Overcome” made me want to write a doctoral dissertation and a book about the music of the civil rights movement, thus shaping my academic career.

When I drive along the Hudson River to visit my sister, I hear the voice sing “sailing down my golden stream.” When I get a big sloppy kiss from my husband, the voice whispers “kisses sweeter than wine.” When I see McMansions lined up along the road, the voice sardonically comments on “little boxes made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.” *

There are guys replacing a floor in our house right now and all that I can think is, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.” I work every day on a quilt that is covered with words I learned from Pete. Hell, when I go looking for my little black cat, Flower, I sing along with Pete—“Where has little Flower gone?”

It’s not just his voice. When I was a young woman, I bought a banjo and decorated the head because Pete had a banjo and decorated his. We have what amounts to a small shrine to Pete in our house.

You have your heroes, I have mine.

I wanted to write something when Pete died in January but the time was not right. I was away from home, caught up in a vacation with friends and dolphins. I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t pull my thoughts together.

I felt like Pete’s voice had gone silent and I simply couldn’t find words to say how that made me feel. The soundtrack of my life . . . gone? Would this be, for me, the day the music died?

As I’ve had some time to process the death of this hero of mine, I’ve seen clearly that Pete’s voice will never go silent; his music will never die. He spent his life doing what he could to teach America to sing and to care enough to raise a voice. In so doing, he ensured his continued presence and influence.

He taught so many of us so much.

He taught us that it is more fun to sing along than to sing alone.

He taught us that words, and music, have consequences.

He taught us, and showed us with his actions, that individuals matter and can make a difference, whether it’s in the realm of civil rights, war protest, or cleaning up a dirty river.

He also taught us to carry it on. As he grew older, he didn’t stop singing. He didn’t rest on his considerable laurels.

He found ways to carry it on. He brought in younger singers, like Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, and his own grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, to sing with him. He acknowledged, and seemed to embrace, his declining abilities and used it as an opportunity to counsel us others to do the same:

And when these fingers can strum no longer,

Hand the old banjo to a young one stronger.

But he never fully handed over the banjo to the young ones stronger. He kept singing. He sang in 2008, at President Obama’s inauguration. In 2011, at 92 years old, he led the Pete Seeger March, which walked in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Four months before his death, he performed for Farm Aid.

I took a walk yesterday and, as I often do, I listened to Pete on my iPod. It made me sad but it made me happy. All this wonderful music, carrying on. Then came the song that, to me, sums up Pete’s approach to life. It’s from the tribute album, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The album concludes with Pete singing, in his quavery old-man voice, a flickering shadow of the rich tenor of his youth. He sings:

Yes I’m still searching,
For a way we all can learn,
To build a world where we all can share
The work, the fun, the food, the space,
the joy, the pain . . .

That’s the voice in my head. The soundtrack of my life. It’s Pete Seeger voice, young and vibrant, and hopeful. Old and thin, and still hopeful. The voice in my head gives me hope. Thanks, Pete. You’re my hero; may you always be the voice I hear.

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Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake

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* Pete did not write all of the songs we associate him with. But that doesn’t make them any less his songs.

 

A Quilt for All Reasons: IBMTD #5

1812Since I finished my last quilt (finally!), I’ve been meaning to start a new one (IBMTD). I love to have a project to pick up and work on at odd moments and I love the process of stitching and watching something pretty develop from my own hands.

But I hadn’t started anything because I simply wasn’t inspired. I didn’t know what direction to go, what pattern to use, what fabrics to choose. Nothing was speaking to me.

But then I learned about a quilt challenge that has been going on for a couple of years to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This project focuses on the making of “cot to coffin” quilts and has been taken up by quilt guilds in towns where battles took place in the War of 1812. Quiltmakers design and make quilts of 70 inches by 30 inches, using techniques and fabrics consistent with what quilters would have had access to in 1812-1814.

The moment I heard about this project, I was smitten, and inspired to make a quilt for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, NY, to take place in September 2014. Other members of the local quilt guild will be making quilts, too, and the entries will be displayed during the celebration.

The Cot to Coffin project and my plan for my quilt let me bring together so many elements that I love:

First, of course, I love that I’m quilting. I love adding my hands to the tradition of working with textiles to create beautiful, meaningful, and useful objects.

Second, this project takes history out of the dusty past and asks us to re-consider an unusual war. The War of 1812 was supposedly fought between Great Britain and America but really mostly affected the lives of Americans and Canadians, as well as native peoples of the area.

When the war was over, both Americans and Canadians considered themselves to have been victorious and the outcome has led to 200 years of peace and good will between the two countries—you can’t make that claim for a lot of wars!

I also love that these quilts focus us on people often overlooked by history—the foot soldiers and the women left at home as the battles were waged. The size of the quilts was determined at least in part because of a tradition documented from the later quilts made for Civil War soldiers. The size of 70 inches by 30 inches is “about the size of a man” and organizers of this quilt challenge thought it was possible that such quilts, which were “small enough to roll into a backpack while on the march . . .  and may well have served as a burial shroud,” would’ve been used in earlier wars as well.

I imagine a mother or wife hurrying to make a quilt to send with her son or husband, to keep him warm and to bring a bit of home into battle. And, should the worst happen, the quilt, and the love stitched in, could carry the soldier to his grave.

Third, this quilt challenge appeals to me is because I grew up in the Plattsburgh area and have been hearing about the Battle of Plattsburgh my whole life. I can envision the locales where the fighting took place and I see historical markers every day that remind me of the battle.

Beyond this, my own ancestors have lived in the North Country of upstate New York at least since the late 1700s and, since I know they fought in the American Revolution, it seems likely that some of them also fought in the War of 1812. Did some woman in my lineage make a quilt to accompany a man she loved, as he went off to fight?

Even if not, I know that eyes related to mine watched the battle. The family farm was on a hill overlooking Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain. The story passed down through generations tells of my forebears hiding the cows in the woods, so British soldiers wouldn’t take them for food, and then watching the battle take place on the lake below.

Fourth, this project excites me because it will allow me to honor a song I’ve loved for a long time. I’ll tell you more about all of this in future posts but a key part of my quilt design is a set of panels upon which I’ll embroider the words to this song.

The song is called “The Banks of Champlain” and I learned it years and years ago from an album by my folk hero, Pete Seeger. The song is said to have been written by the wife of the field commander of the Battle of Plattsburgh, to convey her thoughts and worries as she watched the battle unfold.

I love this romantic narrative, as it poignantly relays the thoughts of a woman who worries about her husband at war. She doesn’t just send him off to war and worry from afar but, rather, she watches as he fights the war before her very eyes. Her husband, Alexander Macomb, and his counterpart, Commodore Thomas Macdonough, are given historical credit for the strategies that allowed a small contingent of Americans to defeat the much larger British force.

So, I have a new project that combines a craft I love, history, romance, a family angle, a folksong—what more could I want? One more thing—a clear, unequivocal deadline! With my history of letting projects languish incomplete for years, it’s motivating (and a little terrifying!) to have a specific date by which this needs to be finished.

And that date is the end of June. Expect to be hearing more as time gets tight!

“And Then She Made the Lasses O”

green growYesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, 18th-century Scottish poet and songwriter.

Burns is best known for “Auld Lang Syne,” which Americans sing on New Year’s Eve and Scots sing at Hogmanay. He also wrote “Scots Wha Hae,” a patriotic anthem of Scotland, and dozens of other poems.

My favorite, though, is “Green Grow the Rashes O.” It’s a paean to women, based on older (very) bawdy songs. I love Burns’ version for its theme of artistry and crafting, and for Burns’ gentle honoring of all women.

In the final verse of this song, a “toast to the lassies,” Burns casts Nature as an artist, who turns her loving hands to the making of humans.

At first, while an apprentice, Nature practices on making man.

And, then, having worked out the kinks, Nature makes woman:

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her ‘prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O

What’s not to love about that sentiment?!

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Full lyrics:

There’s nought but care on ev’ry han’
In every hour that passes, O
What signifies the life o’ man
An’ ’twere na for the lasses, O

The war’ly race may riches chase
An’ riches still may fly them, O
An’ tho’ at last they catch them fast
Their hearts can ne’er enjoy them, O

But gie me a cannie hour at e’en
My arms about my Dearie, O
An’ warly cares, an’ warly men
May a’ gae tapsalteerie, O

For you sae douse, ye sneer at this
Ye’re nought but senseless asses, O
The wisest Man the warl’ e’er saw
He dearly lov’d the lasses, O

Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man
An’ then she made the lasses, O

Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.