My Conscience Speaks In Joan Baez’s Voice. And I Don’t Care If That’s Weird.

A friend once offered some questions she’d brought back from a writing retreat. I can’t remember them verbatim, only that they were mind-opening. Especially the one that went something like this:

“Give your Inner Critic a persona and a voice. What does s/he say?”

I didn’t have to think at all. My Inner Critic–sometimes self-doubt, but more often simply my conscience–sounds like Joan Baez. She IS Joan Baez. And she usually wants to know, in her beautiful, stripped-down, poetic but peremptory way, why I’m not making more out of my time on Earth.

Do I need to explain this foible of mine, or defend it? Maybe I will, someday. But right now all I want to do is celebrate and share Joan singing, “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

The song, written by Zoe Mulford, captures in song the moment Barack Obama did just that, in June 2015, while giving the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was shot in his own church along with eight other worshippers by a young man in the depths of hate. But it also captures…amazing grace. The kind that turns hopeless grief into hopeful action. The kind that speaks, decade after decade, in Joan Baez’s voice, asking me if I’m living the best life I can lead.

That’s all I think I need to say. If the hatred of our age is getting to you…just listen to Joan. Then comment and/or share as you feel moved.

Road Trip IX, Days 17-22, Dallas to North Georgia: Crossing the South While Reading U.S. History

If I had titled this post, “The Confederates Actually Won,” I wonder how many of my white readers would be shocked?

I’m a Southerner born and bred—a Tarheel, as many of y’all know. But by true Southern standards, I’m also not. My mom was born and raised in LA, my dad born in Germany and raised in a weird immigrant/Quaker/Jewish/freethinking mishmash in Philadelphia and LA. They created their own mishmash of Quaker education/ back-to-the-land farm life/ world travel for me to grow up in. So…not REALLY a Southerner.

Our first night in one of the original 7 states of the Confederacy: Texas…in the wonderfully-named Possum Kingdom State Park

Except when I’m not in the South. Starting with college, up north, that’s when the nostalgia kicked in–and living now in the northwest, it still kicks. I find myself longing for the soul food my mom never cooked; when I speak to a fellow Southerner, my vowels lengthen on words like, “I’m fine.”

And that’s not even to mention the great passion The Mate and I share for the Carolina Tarheels.

But now we’re here, crossing the Lower South on our way to NC. And I’m reading These Truths by Jill Lepore.

Even thicker than it looks.

Hold that thought for a sec. First I have to give a shout-out to Dallas, or rather, to the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, where we spent three days with friends. This part of Texas is really into Mardi Gras.

Masked dinner! Not pictured: dinner (jambalaya, cheese grits & greens, etc…)

Maybe it always was, maybe the influx of New Orleans refugees from Hurricane Katrina played a role, but whatever–laissez les bon temps roulez!

Really fun parade, despite near-freezing temps

I was touched and heartened by the mix of races and ethnicities out celebrating together.

“Old” Texas lives…

…with “New” Texas!

And don’t forget Pomeranian Texas! (These guys were part of a whole group of “Recycled Poms”!!)

With my friend, I also walked the Fun Run (note to self: Fun Runs really are fun when you’re not racing! Who knew?). These adorable girls spontaneously danced in front of the start line when their favorite song came on…

They had great moves!

And then there was this little guy, along the course:

Why, indeed? Love it!!!

But the day after we left oh-so-cool Oak Cliff, we found ourselves in Vicksburg. Not often drawn to historical attractions on our road trips, we decided to pay our respects to the Vicksburg National Military Park–site of the Union’s 18-month campaign to capture this all-important center of control over the Mississippi River.

Monument to fallen Confederate soldiers–both sides have many monuments, but I only captured this one’s image

In the past, such a reminder of the viciousness of the Civil War (nearly 4,000 men died on these hills and vales, with thousands more wounded, captured or missing) would just reawaken all the complexity of my feelings about being Southern. As I’ve written in the past, I’m very conflicted. One of my songs tries to express that conflict:

If my old neighbors have their way, I’ll be burning down in Hell

But just ’cause I’m a sinner–it’s nothing personal.

They hate everything I stand for, but I know who they are

So don’t you ridicule their accent when they talk about hellfire.

But, as I mentioned, I’ve been reading Jill Lepore’s book. Let’s get back to that, shall we? It’s a comprehensive history of this country. I have a Master’s in U.S. History, and I’ve taught it to teenagers. These Truths both reminded me of things I knew, and taught me things I didn’t.

Things I knew: 

–The Supreme Court–of the whole country!–ruled in Dred Scott, 1857, that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.”

–The Radical Republicans’ compromise with the ex-Confederates to end Reconstruction left millions of Southern Blacks at the mercy of Southern Whites..who showed none. (Radical Republicans were NORTHERNERS.)

–The Supreme Court–of the whole country!– in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, ruled that “separate but equal” was constitutional.

–Following the Great Migration of Black Southerners to the North and West to escape Southern terrorism, NORTHERN real estate laws and other restrictions trapped them into segregated neighborhoods

Things I didn’t know, or at least didn’t know enough:

–The People’s Party (the most successful third party in US history), “rested on a deep and abiding commitment to exclude from full citizenship anyone from or descended from anyone from Africa or Asia.” (p. 343)

–“By one estimate, someone in the South was hanged or burned alive every four days” in the first few years of the 20th century (p. 369)

–The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg included none of the Black soldiers who had fought there. (p. 389)

–The enlightened Woodrow Wilson? “…like other Progressives, Wilson not only failed to offer an remedy of racial inequality; he endorsed it…’Mr. Wilson bears the discreditable distinction of being the first President of the United States, since Emancipation, who openly condoned and vindicated prejudice against the Negro.'” (James Weldon Johnson, quoted on p. 389)

.Given that the entire country ended up committing itself, legally, to the values the Confederacy fought for, Lepore concludes, “the Confederacy had lost the war, but it had won the peace.” (p. 360)

LOOKING AT OUR COUNTRY TODAY, I CAN’T HELP BUT AGREE. 

But then we spent a day and a night in Alabama, at Oak Mountain State Park, near Birmingham.

Lake Tranquility, with blooming maple

Can’t get more Southern than that. We rented a cabin.

You can just barely make out our cabin & car in the trees.

It came with our very own ducks on the doorstep.

Got any bread you’re not using?

We went for a hike. The winter woods were starkly beautiful.

Steep ridges!

The rocks were craggy.

Me trying to show how steep the drop is

The crags were rocky.

You get the idea.

And my soul was full. Because, as my song goes,

It’s another song about the South, y’all–

trying to sort my feelings out, once and for all.

How can someone feel so in and out of place?
That sweet, sunny South where I first saw the light,

if she’s my ol’ Mama, I’m a teenager in flight:

do I want to hug her neck, or slap her face?

I am a Southerner, even if I’m not. I get it. People love their culture. That Confederate statue, above? When you zero in on it, you see the soldiers’ suffering. You understand.

Notice the dead man at lower right. Not too glorious.

I hate the white supremacy the South stood for, and I hate that a lot of the South still stands for that. But I also know that our WHOLE COUNTRY stands for exactly the same–de facto. So I guess it’s my whole country I want to hug and slap at the same time.

 

 

 

Reading Weeds, Part III: Roadside Roses I Don’t Deserve…But Thank You Anyway

Roadside roses are my own personal metaphor for life’s overflowing blessings.

Nature finds a way.

I’ve shared this song before, but it’s that time of year again.

Roadside Roses

 

As if the scenery weren’t already sweet

The air is alive with wild rose

As if my life weren’t already complete

This mountain of gratitude grows.

           

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

            Some blessings are impossible to grasp.

 

No need to analyze, no need to think

How these wild gardens came to be

No cause and effect, there is no link                                                                                 

But it feels like they’re blooming for me.

           

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

            Some blessings seem too delicate to last.

 

Bridge: Don’t take it personal, but make sure you take

            The portion that Nature has served                                                                                        

Joy’s universal, and so’s the heartache

            Of having more than you deserve.

 

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

             Some blessings are not meant for us to ask.

 

If I were to linger here and breathe this perfume

Sweeping my duties away

Would I feel entitled, would I start to assume

That I’ve earned the privilege to stay?

 

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

            Some blessings are not meant for us to ask.

             Some blessings are impossible to grasp.

G. Wing, June 2013

Now multiply this by an entire island

Do you have a favorite nature metaphor of your own? I collect them. Care to share?

Mmm…

 

Reading Weeds, Part II: The Thorns Beneath the Blooms

Spring, like new-fallen snow, makes photographers of us all. Whether or not we have a camera to hand, the freshness of new green and new blossoms sets our noticing muscles to full workout mode. Everything is worth capturing. 

And everything worth capturing is worth musing over. Spring beauty is full of metaphors. One that caught my eye a couple of years ago was the hawthorn, a blooming European tree that’s gone feral all over our island, spread by birds who enjoy the hawthorn’s deep-red berries in fall.

Wild hawthorn

So I wrote a song about lovely spring, and what its loveliness hides. Since it speaks for itself, I shall let it do just that:

Golden Day

Bless the spring, bless the earth,

bless the blossoms of rebirth.

Bless the hawthorn’s sweet perfume,

bless the thorns beneath the blooms.      

There’s no place for suffering on such a golden day,

but I know it’s hovering, not so far away.

Bless the one who struggles for a little grace;

to this tender sunlight let her lift her face.

—G. Wing, 2015

Bless the thorns beneath the blooms…

 

Gangstagrass: Building Bridges One Song At a Time

Hip-hop and Bluegrass: could there be two American musical genres further apart? (OK, maybe Hip-hop and Country. But I’m not holding my breath.) Chances are, if you love one, you loathe the other.

image from Gangstagrass.com

In this oh-so-polarized nation of ours, any sign of crossover strikes me as positive, like hearing about about interracial, inter-political, or interfaith marriages.

Gangstagrass , out of New York City, is almost exactly what it sounds like, except their style of rap is NOT what I would call “gangsta.” It’s progressive. Literally; just the fact of its existence moves us, as a country, forward. My friend Steve recently came across Gangstagrass at the Wintergrass Festival in Bellevue, WA this year. (Thanks, Steve, for sending the videos.)

Here’s what their website has to say:

Gangstagrass has toured internationally, blowing minds on main stages from SXSW to Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, with a live stage act taking full advantage of the improvisational aspects of both hip-hop and bluegrass. With two emcees R-Son and Dolio The Sleuth trading verses, Dan Whitener on Banjo, Landry McMeans on dobro, and Rench on guitar, and frequent 3 part harmonies, the Gangstagrass live show has garnered a reputation among fans for its dynamism and spontanaety. Currently touring across the US, Gangstagrass is using live performances to organically develop new material for an album that will further explode the boundaries between genres generally thought to be incompatible.

This is not a puff piece, so I’m not going to claim that Gangstagrass is top-level bluegrass OR rap. What they are, though, is a group worth listening to: for the music they make, and for the fact that they came together to make it at all. Whom else might they be bringing together?

Give them a listen, OK? And feel free to recommend other mixed-genre groups you might know about. Our country needs them right now.

O Come ALL Ye Faithful: A Non-Divisive Christmas Carol That Actually Celebrates Christmas

Have you ever noticed that the words of some of your favorite Christmas carols make you uncomfortable? Maybe they frame the holy spirit in a way you don’t. Maybe their picture of Jesus isn’t yours. Or maybe they go too far in the other direction, pretending naively–or with obnoxious commercialism–that the holiday is really about Santa Claus and gifts.

I love Christmas for its traditions–food, evergreens, decorations, family, gifts, and, yeah…food. (I love food.) Raised in a vaguely Judeo-Christian tradition, I don’t call myself a Christian, but I deeply admire Jesus, and singing to celebrate his birthday seems like a good idea to me. I just need the right kind of song to sing.

So I wrote one.

Come ALL Ye Faithful  by G. Wing, 2012

 

Chorus:           

O come all ye faithful and sing a Christmas song         That doesn’t make non-Christians feel as though they don’t belong

 Let’s sing about a birthday that brings so many joy

 A humble, patient mother and a tiny baby boy.

 

I know that we can’t all agree on what the season means

So let’s avoid divisive lines that highlight our extremes

For some Christ is the Savior, for some he is the King

But for many, Jesus’ teachings are the real gift he brings.

Chorus

A man of peace, a man of prayer, who turns the other cheek

And preaches that the earth belongs to the blessed meek

Now that’s a man whose birthday anyone could celebrate

Without regard to questions of his anointed state.

Chorus

So Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Jew, and yes, even atheists

Should all feel welcome in this song to join with Christian deists

And sing a joyful glo-o-ria about a starry night

Without the lyrics telling them their own beliefs aren’t right.

Chorus

If you find this song offensive to your sensibilities

Just look at all the Santas and the glowing Christmas trees

If they can all be blended with a Christian world view

Then surely you can harmonize this carol with them too.

Chorus

In honor of the season, here’s a classical Madonna and Child image:

Madonna with Child and Angels by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (courtesy OpenClipArtLibrary)

 And here’s one a little closer to my heart, Dorothea Lange’s 1936 Migrant Mother:

The least of these…

If you want to hear what my Christmas carol sounds like, send me your email and I’ll send you a recording. Meanwhile, whatever it means to you: Merry Christmas!

Igneous, Sedimentary & Metamorphic Rock: Why Grand Canyon Offers The Best Metaphor For Love & Marriage

I adore geology metaphors. Plate tectonics, uplift, magma–are you kidding me? In Grand Canyon last year, even before this trip, I was struck by the way the three types of rock symbolize the growth of a long-term relationship. So struck, in fact, that I wrote a song about it. I’ll let the lyrics explain themselves, ok? It’s called…

Rocks of Ages 

When I first met you, I couldn’t get you

Into my arms fast enough

You said you adored me, you melted down for me

Hot lava lava lava love                  

Two igneous kids, swimming in bliss,

That’s what we were at the start

Now that we’re older, the magma’s grown colder

But we’re still rock solid down deep in our hearts.

[igneous, ok? Plenty of that around Lava Falls in the lower half of the river]

Hot lava lava lava love

Hot lava lava lava love

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

Life is what happens while you make other plans

After so many changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

[That’s just the chorus. Now for the sedimentary, the layered stuff:]

Albums in piles, stretching for miles

Children and homes and careers

Stacking our cares and blessings in layers

Years upon years upon years

Life’s mighty stratified, but I’m nothing but satisfied

Let’s go ahead and grow old

Call us sedimentary, we must have been meant to be

‘Cause the age that we’re heading for is looking like gold.

Call us sedimentary...

Call us sedimentary…

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

Life is what happens while you make other plans

After so many changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

[here comes the bridge…] 

Who could have seen us, all that passion between us

Living those promises of sickness and health?

I’d like to say I knew, when we said “I do,”

But you know I’d really just be fooling myself.

[and now, finally–metamorphic. Rock whose chemical structure’s been changed by pressure, heat and time. That’s marriage for ya!]

After so long, feelings so strong

Generate forces so vast.

Family pressures, too strong to measure

Uplift a life that will last.

We didn’t plan it, but our love is granite—

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts.

Love in our souls like diamonds from coal

Gives us riches to live on till death do us part.

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts

[my beloved Vishnu Schist!]

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

We entered into with those golden bands

After all of our changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

We entered into with those golden bands

After all of our changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

Yeah, the earth still mooooves when you take my hand.                                 G. Wing, April 2015

See what I mean? 

Oh, want to hear what the song sounds like? Copy & paste the following URL into your browser (sorry, couldn’t get it to work as a link):

C:\Users\Gretchen\Documents\songs\RocksOfAges.MP3

Or maybe you want to share your favorite geology metaphor? Please, rock on!

 

Music as Short Story: Why Mark Knopfler is Still My Guitar Hero

Before you ask, “Mark who?” I’ll refresh your memory:  Dire Straits. You know–“Money for Nothin”? “Sultans of Swing”? That band. That guy. Those guitar riffs. He’s always been my favorite singer-songwriter–and not just because his weird last name is nearly identical to the one I was born with (Klopfer–but that connection helps).

I clearly remember the first time I heard Dire Straits. I was a junior in high school, back in 1978, cleaning up my room, when “Sultans of Swing” came on the radio. I stopped dead and asked aloud, “Who’s that?” Maybe it was the guitar licks, maybe the unusual lyrics: a song about under-appreciated jazz musicians in the time of rock ‘n’ roll? Whatever. I was hooked. I still am.

This weekend I got to see him live (for only the second time), and my admiration’s only grown. First of all, he’s superbly professional. He walks onstage with no fanfare and no warm-up band, and plays a straight 140-minute set with only one break to introduce his fellow musicians, most of whom have been playing with him for 20-35 years. Secondly, he’s a guitar master, someone who single-handedly converted me to the idea that an electric guitar could make music as complex, nuanced, and, well, classical as a violin.

And then there are his songs. MK tends to write from the point of view of working men, in an astounding array of roles. Off the top of my head, I can think of Knopfler songs in the POV of a trucker, a sailor, a boxer, a racecar driver, a farmer, a bricklayer, a ballad-writer from the 1800s, a pawnbroker/Holocaust survivor, a painter, and a sculptor. Some of his songs are from the mind of the bad guy: a snake-oil salesman, a mobster, a bank robber. He’s written songs about historical figures: Elvis Presley, Sonny Liston, even Mason & Dixon. One of my favorites, “Baloney Again,” presents the perspective of a Black, staunchly Christian musician on the road in the segregated South.

Ironically, Knopfler’s most popular mid-90s numbers, like “Money For Nothin,” are my least favorite, but even that one’s misunderstood. If all you hear is “money for nothin’ and your chicks for free,” you might think MK’s a chauvinist pig, when in fact that song’s written from the POV of a working stiff, who has to “install microwave ovens/custom kitchen delivery,” complaining about rich rock stars.

Songs as short stories, with a range of instruments like Irish pipes and accordion playing background to jaw-dropping guitar-picking? That’s why MK’s my guy.

I am not the type of audience member to take pictures, much less video, during a concert. I prefer to be fully in the moment. But if you want to hear for yourself, this shaky video captures MK’s finale song pretty well: “Piper to the End.”

Favorite Knopfler song you’d like to share? Or do you have your own guitar–or piano, or whatever–hero or heroine? Tell me why.

 

 

If The Big-Girl Panties Fit…

It’s concert time again.

A quick retrospective:

2011, Chicken Biscuit: “Which end of the mic do I sing into?”

2012, Gretchen Wing & Chicken Biscuit: “Oh, I get to sing a couple of my songs too? OK…but YOU introduce ’em, I don’t want to talk.”

2013, Gretchen Wing & Chicken Biscuit: “What do you mean, Bill’s going out of town? Who’s going to be emcee? I don’t know any jokes! Oh, s–t…”

2014, Gretchen Wing & Friends: “OK, everyone. At tonight’s rehearsal, I’d like the musicians to be there at 6 so they can get all their stuff ready. Singers, come whenever you need to in order to be ready to start right at 6:30…”

Ah, if only it were that simple. Yes, my “career” as local singer-songwriter-performer has evolved to the point where I think of this weekend’s show as “my” concert. Yes, I am in charge of the set list and the rehearsal schedule. Yes, my face is the only one on the poster.

GW

But oh my, do I have a long way to go before I can be said to be “putting on” a concert! Here’s my To Do list for 2015…just in case I do this again:

1. Start rehearsals in June instead of August.

2. On second thought, start rehearsals in July, but schedule the darn concert for November when there aren’t gazillion other things going on around here.

3. Find the “sound man” with the best reputation in the community, and secure his services several months in advance. Bribe him with pie.

4. Provide binders for all musicians so they can keep track of their music and notes.

5. Fill the freezer with treats for rehearsals, so I can grab ’em and go. (No, I will never let go of my need to feed people.)

I have other resolutions, but I won’t bore you with them. This is just my way of saying: Yes. OK. I get it. If you’re new at something, you can enjoy being helpless and having everyone do stuff for you…once. Once you get halfway good at something and want to run it yourself, be ready to RUN it. No whining.

(Courtesy someecards.com)

(Courtesy someecards.com)

Don’t get me wrong–I am totally looking forward to, and totally humbled by, this chance to share my music with my community. I will be one happy woman on concert night. But for now–I gotta go bake cookies. And I still need to find another joke. And does anyone have any extra binders?

I would love to hear your stories of transition from bystander to administrator of…anything. What lessons did YOU learn? Anything I can steal?

A Shout-out to Twenty-Somethings

When’s the last time you told someone you were proud of them?

When’s the last time you said that to an entire generation?

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. Back in April, having just spent time with my then-21 year-old son, I wrote a song expressing both my regret at leaving him a world with so many problems to deal with in his adulthood, and my pride in his ability to do just that.

Yes, I said April. And it’s now August. But hey, I finally got that song recorded. So today’s post is going to be the words of my song, “Launched.” I couldn’t say it any better in prose.

Here’s your chance to share your own pride in the 20-somethings in your life. Tell me about them! Then go tell them how proud you are.