An Old Carol for a New Year

When the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921, a song known as Shchedryk was particularly well-received. Already popular in other parts of the world, the song had been composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, a musician commissioned by another choir director, Oleksander Koshyts, to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies. To meet his obligation, Leontovych turned to the simple melody and lyrics of an ancient well-wishing song associated with celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, an American choral director named Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Wilhousky, who also enjoyed creating new arrangements of traditional works, was inspired by Shchedryk’s bell-like ostinato to attempt to capture the sound for his choir. After writing new lyrics, then copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing his work during the Christmas season, introducing it as the “Carol of the Bells.”

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky was familiar with an old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began spontaneously ringing in his honor. Wilhousky’s ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada.

Today, nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments of the “Carol of the Bells” exist, but neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from mention  bells or Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol with distinctly pagan roots.

Two primary groups of carols emerged in Ukraine: koliadky — festive, ritual songs sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — and a second group called shchedriky, or New Year’s carols. The shchedriky derive their name from the Ukrainian word shchedryi, meaning bountiful, or generous, and they’re traditionally sung in villages on New Year’s Eve.

Both koliadky and shchedrivky include imagery from nature. One tells of a landowner who is awakened by a swallow and urged to prepare for three guests coming to his house: the sun, the moon, and the rain. The shchedrivka known as Shchedryk tells of a swallow coming to a landowner’s house and inviting him to survey his bountiful flocks and fields.

The koliadky and shchedrivky depict scenes from farm life and express the desire for good harvests, prosperity, good fortune, and health. They are remarkable for their wealth of subject matter and motifs, which vary with the person who is addressed and praised in each carol.
There are carols dedicated to the master of the house, the mistress of the house, the young bachelor, the girl, the daughter-in-law, the son-in-law, and so on.
The carols dedicated to the master deal with farm work: they glorify prosperity, the happiness of a well-off farmer, and his well-being. The songs for the young bachelor depict his strength, courage, and good looks. The carols for girls praise their unmatched beauty, wisdom, deep love, diligence, and respect for parents.
The descriptions of prosperity, beauty, and wisdom are magical incantations intended to secure the described effects.

Leontovych’s Shchedryk perfectly captured the beauty of Ukrainian shchedrivky: the well-wishing tunes were a beloved tradition. Unfortunately, not everyone wished Leontovych well. He became a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian Church after being assassinated in his parents’ home in Markovka on January 25, 1921, by an agent of the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police).

прилeтiла ластiвочка ~ A little swallow flew  (Photo, Susan Scheid)

Victoria Frolova, a Ukrainian native now living in Brussels, recalls:

Visiting my grandparents in their small hamlet near Poltava, I loved walking around on January 13th and smelling the heady aromas in the crisp, wintery air–mlyntsi (crepes), varenyky (boiled dumplings), poppyseed bubliki (bagels), and garlicky holodets (pork in aspic).
As soon as evening falls, groups of boys and girls, with me, a curious city kid, in tow, would go around singing “Shchedryk” and other festive verses. And taking a goat for a walk.
The most intriguing of all Shchedriy Vechir customs is to make visiting rounds with a goat, and not just any goat: a female goat, or “koza.” In many cultures, goats are not considered noble animals, but in Ukrainian folk beliefs, the she-goat is a symbol of fertility, wealth and good fortune. Being visited by koza, a she-goat, on the New Year’s Eve is considered lucky.

Luck, magic, incantation, ritual: there are hints of all four in New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world. While ringing in the New Year with bells is a lovely tradition, singing in the New Year with power-filled incantations has its own appeal. Whether you ring or whether you sing, may the swallows wing their way to you, and may you be granted a happy and prosperous 2021.


Paintings in the video are those of the Russian-Ukrainian artist Vladimir Orlovsky (1842-1914).
Below, the first four lines of the song are written in the Cyrillic script used in Ukraine. A transliteration and full English lyrics follow.
Щедрик щедрик, щедрiвочка,
прилeтiла ластiвочка,
стала собi щебетати,
господаря викликати…

Transliteration:

Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
pryletila lastivochka,
stala sobi shchebetaty,
gospodarya vyklykaty:
“Vyydy, vyydy, gospodaryu,
podyvysya na kosharu,
tam ovechky pokotylys’,
a yagnychky narodylys’.
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy,
budesh’ maty mirku groshey,
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy,
budesh’ maty mirku groshey,
khoch ne groshey, to polova:
v tebe zhinka chornobrova.”
Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
pryletila lastivochka.

English Text:

Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A little swallow flew [into the house]
and started to twitter
to summon the master:
“Come out, come out, O master [of the household].
Look at the sheep pen;
there the ewes are nestling
and the lambkins have been born.
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money [by selling them];
if not money, then chaff [from grain you will harvest].
You have a dark-browed [beautiful] wife.”
Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A little swallow flew.

Comments always are welcome.

Livin’ the Blues

Mississippi Delta Morning

Cheating. Grudges. Abandonment. Shootings. Woman trouble. Man trouble. Too much whiskey. Not enough whiskey. Flophouses and fixin’-to-die. The blues has it all.

Blues can provide I’m-down-here-in-the-ditch-and-I-can’t-get-out resignation, if that’s your preference, but there’s more to the blues than blank despair. As much as anything, the blues tend toward travel; they overflow with highways and journeys, crossroads and railroads, picking up, leaving town, heading home, or wandering off to Chicago, Memphis or Helena.  If you’re ready to make a run to Anywhere-But-Here, the blues will be happy to ride shotgun.

Robert Johnson went down to the crossroad. Tab Benoit’s night train is rollin’. R.L. Burnside did some rollin’ and tumblin of his own while grandson Cedric, along with his buddy Malcolm, bought a lemon of a car and ended up having to hitchhike home. CeDell Davis, who liked to say he intended to “live as long as I can and die when I can’t help it,” finally couldn’t help it and moved on, but before he left he suggested we might want to heave ourselves up out of our own chairs and get packing, since sitting around isn’t going to get us anywhere.

James Lewis Carter Ford — T-Model to his friends, admirers, and detractors — did the last of his worldly traveling in 2013, dying of respiratory failure at the age of 88 — or 83, or 93, depending on who’s doing the calculating.  Davis outlived him by four years; he died at age 91 in 2017, thanks to complications after a heart attack. That either man lived so many decades may prove the old saying that the Lord protects drunkards and fools. On the other hand, it may have been sheer luck.

I met Davis and Ford in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the annual Juke Joint Festival. On Saturday afternoon, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside were scheduled to play in the alley behind the Rust Restaurant; most people had no idea T-Model and CeDell were planning to join them. When the men appeared, shivers of excitement and anticipation ran through the crowd.

While friends helped CeDell get settled in his wheelchair, T-Model worked the crowd, shaking hands and grinning. Slowly, the crowd began to transform itself into a house party. While family and friends made a little music, the gathered crowd would glimpse shared roots and shared lives in a way impossible at concerts.

Cedric Burnside

Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of drummer Calvin Jackson, has played for years with a variety of musicians including Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, and the North Mississippi Allstars. After teaming up with Steve “Lightnin'” Malcolm, another young Mississippi native who lived for a time with CeDell Davis, the pair began writing and composing.

I don’t just sing about the blues, but I live it, too,” they sang, with a straight-faced irony probably lost on the blues tourists surrounding them:

Some people say they read about the blues,
been readin’ about it for a while.
Well, I don’t have to read about the blues —
been livin’ it since I was a child.

CeDell Davis, a native of Helena, Arkansas, certainly began livin’ the blues as a child. After contracting polio at age nine while living with his brother near Tunica, Mississippi, he was forced by his disability to give up the harmonica and re-learn his guitar skills. He grew creative, telling an interviewer:

I was right- handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn the guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kinda swiped one of ’em.

Later, he told David Ramsey, in an interview for The Oxford American:

Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife. It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.

It was the perfect solution for someone unable to put a slide on a finger and use it conventionally. He wasn’t the first to use a knife, but he was in good company. In a famous autobiographical passage, W.C. Handy remembers his experience in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station around 1903:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages.
As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ to where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

“Weird” is an apt description, since a metal knife handle on metal strings produces a sound akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. Robert Palmer, the late New York Times music critic, called Davis’s guitar style “utterly unique, in or out of blues.” As Palmer put it:

Some people who hear CeDell’s playing for the first time think it’s out of tune, but it would be more accurate to say he plays in an alternative tuning, because the way he hears and plays intervals and chords is consistent and systematic.
The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic, gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.

Having mastered his own style of playing, Davis began showing up in various nightclubs across the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, he teamed up with Robert Nighthawk, considered to be the Delta’s finest slide guitarist by no less than the great Muddy Waters.

For ten years, from 1953-1963, Davis and Nighthawk worked the juke joints and clubs until, in 1957, Davis was trampled after a brandished gun led to a stampede at an East St. Louis bar. What polio hadn’t accomplished, the bar brawl did; multiple leg fractures put David into a wheelchair. Still, he continued to play, until a stroke in 2005 forced him into a nursing home.

Although the stroke left him unable to play the guitar, he still could sing, and sing he did: encouraged and assisted by a variety of musicians and supporters. After a return to live performance in 2009, he released two more albums: Last Man Standing (2015) and Even the Devil Gets the Blues (2016).

Debilitated by polio, confined to a wheelchair after a barroom stampede, unable to play the guitar and left with only his voice for music-making, he remained one of most positive people in the world.

As he rolled through the gathered festival crowd in his wheelchair, he was living large, with a word and a handshake for everyone in his path, including his old friend T-Model Ford.

Cedell Davis and T-Model Ford at the Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival

T-Model, a man with as much hard living and bad luck behind him as you could have and still be alive, was a bit of a wonder himself. Writing inThe Guardian, Richard Grant lays out the highlights:

T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat.
He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table. He woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.

He began playing guitar at age 58, on the night his fifth of six wives left him. She’d presented him with a guitar as a parting gift and Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues in Clarksdale recalls, “He stayed up all night drinking white whiskey and playing that guitar. He kind of went on from there.”

Indeed he did. Unbelievable as it seems, T-Model wasn’t especially eager to apply words like anguish, tribulation, or despair to his own life. As he said,

“I play the blues, but I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’. When they raped and killed that white lady [an 88-year-old white woman who was teaching him to read and write] I felt bad – she was a good old white lady – but I didn’t let it get me down. I don’t let nothin’ get me down.”

As Grant notes in his article, most people aren’t able to stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, regardless of circumstances. Still, it seemed to work for T-Model. “He plays the north Mississippi hill-country hypnotic boogie-groove like nobody else on earth,” commented Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, producer for Ford’s album Bad Man (2002). “His music is not a complaint of self-pity, but a celebration of life.You could see it in his smile.”

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys noticed the smile himself after driving to Greenville on a whim, just to see if he could find T-Model and play with him.

We jammed all afternoon and played a juke joint that night, then slept on his floor. He was nothing but nice – all smiles. There’s nothing like T-Model’s smile, and boy, he’ll use it! He’ll find the prettiest girl in the audience and just smile all night.
Left to right: Lightnin’ Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, T-Model Ford

Certainly he seemed happy enough in Clarksdale. Basking in the palpable affection surrounding him, firm and straightforward in his singing, he clearly enjoyed playing with Cedric. As the set finished, T-Model rose, steadied himself on his cane and bantered a bit with the musicians around him.

Then, a model of graciousness, he took his place in the crowd while CeDell and Malcolm, the old and the young, the black and the white, the root and the branch, began to edge through another song, just as they would have done when they shared the same house .

CeDell Davis and Lightnin’ Malcolm

As he watched and listened, T-Model casually reached down, picked up his cane, flipped it under his arm, and began ‘playing’ it in rhythm with Malcolm.

Look at that,” the fellow from Chicago sitting next to me said. “Just look at that.” Next to us, a photographer stopped in mid-focus to stare, before saying to no one in particular, “Can you believe that?”

We watched, transfixed, as the old reprobate, the ol’ tail-dragger, a man with a checkered past and the sweetest smile in the world, seemed to breathe in life and breathe out blues in a process as easy and natural as CeDell’s table knife slicing chords into a plateful of music. He just couldn’t help himself, and everyone saw it.

The Old Tail-dragger

When Lightnin’ saw what T-Model was up to, he caught Cedric’s eye and they grinned at one another across the crowd. Seeing Lightnin’s amusement, CeDell looked over at T-Model, who responded with a deep, elegant bow. As one song ended and another began, CeDell’s voice strengthened, the rhythms intensified, and the chattering, admiring crowd began to grow quiet.

It was then, in a small Delta town nearly hidden from the world, that travelers from Rotterdam, Rochester, and Rolling Fork leaned forward in anticipation, feeling the blues itself begin to travel. Pitted against the low mumurings of a threatening storm, the music rolled and tumbled from one guitar to the next, from one singer to another.

As clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the air, CeDell sang on, while Lightnin’s guitar flashed and the music poured down, running like an unbanked river across hearts flattened and scoured by life, flooding out into the streets, spreading and leveling as it flowed.

Washed clean of inattention, the fellow from Chicago stopped talking, leaned back and closed his eyes. Surprised by an unexpected surge of joy, the photographer from Jackson lowered his light meter and set his camera aside.

Smiling back at CeDell, T-Model winked, folded his hands over the crook of his cane, and lightly tapped a foot over the fine, raspy grit of the pavement. Off to the west, the rain rolled down and the great river tumbled on, sluicing and singing through the Delta, the source and the life of the blues.

 

To hear my favorite cut from T-Model’s “Jack Daniel Time”, click here for “Red’s House Party”
For a taste of CeDell Davis’s music, try “You Got to do the Boogie-Woogie”
.
Click here for a list of upcoming live blues events from Clarksdale.
Comments always are welcome.

 

 

 

The Carol of the Guardians

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis (Wikimedia)

Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but nearly everyone who celebrates cherishes at least one or two. Some have been passed down for centuries. Others are newer, but no less beloved: a certain Christmas Eve dish; a favorite cookie recipe; a must-see movie; candlelight services at midnight.

My own celebrations recall the traditions of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns and pickled herring; strings of cranberries on the tree; bayberry candles, and sweet, tinkling angel chimes.  Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves have their place, but I prefer my family’s older ways, and probably always will.

Still, something new occasionally emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of our commercialized season to attract my attention. Some years ago, a snippet of song stopped me as I shopped in a local grocery. Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with indecipherable words sung in an unfamiliar language.

Eventually, I found the source of the song and learned its extraordinary history.

Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of the Cancionero de Upsala [sic], also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden, either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904” or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending upon which source you consult. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of ‘Upsala’ is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to ‘Uppsala’ until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs, printed in Italy, should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of the more delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, although how the manuscript traveled to Prague isn’t clear.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI.

This translation not only clarifies the collection’s contents, it sugggests its broad appeal :

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli, contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instruments and voices. On the other hand, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos.

Over time, villancico has come to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan, and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere, the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Well acquainted with the kingfisher’s call, as well as its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m more than happy myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s Carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the history of the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Today, versions of the carol abound. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of overly-produced recordings, the simplicity of the version offered by the Capella de Ministrers, an early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain, brings life to a timeless song of the season.

Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo
Riu, riu, chiu
la guarda ribera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera.
El lobo rabioso
la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso
la supo defender
Quizo la hacer que
no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original
esta virgen no tuviera.
Riu, riu, chiu…
Este que es nascido
es El Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca
de carne vestido
Ha nos redimido
con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito
finito se hiciera.
Riu, riu, chiu …
Pues que ya tenemos
lo que deseamos
Todos juntos vamos
presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos
nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar
con nosotros viniera.

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank is protected
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God
Knew how to defend her
He willed to make her
Unable to sin
Even original sin
This virgin did not have
Riu, riu, chiu…
The one who is born
Is the Great Monarch
Christ the Patriarch
Clothed in flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Though he was infinite
He became finite
Riu, riu, chiu…
Now we have
What we desire
Let us go together
To present him gifts
Let us all give him
Our will
For he came
As our equal
Riu, riu, chiu…

Comments are welcome.

Turning Toward the Morning

“Hawkins on the Wentworth” ~ Bronze casting, Gordon Bok

Woodworker, carver, sailor, and musician Gordon Bok is an American treasure. When I find myself pondering the maelstrom of changes currently sweeping through our lives, I often return to his music as to a touchstone, grateful that, in an earlier time, the graciousness of a reader introduced me to his life and his seemingly unbounded creativity.

Al and I had been exchanging thoughts on music. In an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s “Turning Toward the Morning.Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday, for sure. And something by Stan Rogers, as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before, and will want to hear again.”

He was right. Having been introduced to Bok and his fellow musicians, Ed Trickett and Ann Mayo Muir, I couldn’t help wanting to hear more from their rich repertoire. Drawn from an historic sea-faring culture, redolent of seaweed and salt, their net-hauling songs and ballads of the Maine coast evoke a world whose broad outlines would be recognizable even to Gulf coast shrimpers.  It’s a world that informs Bok’s original compositions, as well as his retelling of folk tales rooted in cultures from around the world.

Listening to his music, I’ve wondered at Bok’s pathway through life, and been touched by his simplicity and kindness. I’ve even laughed at certain similarities between us. “I didn’t understand what my father did because he worked in an office,” Bok once said. “There was nothing that came out of it that I could feel – you couldn’t put a coat of varnish on it.”

After much reading and listening, I still agree with my friend. Good songs continue to be written, and the great songs endure, but there’s no better song than Turning Toward the Morning. Like a small-boat day on the water, it’s easy and rhythmic, perfectly designed to soothe away preoccupations and care.

But “Turning Toward the Morning” is more than easy listening for an easy afternoon. It’s a poet’s way of stating an inviolable truth: that in the face of all that life imposes in the way of difficulties, chaos, and fear, life itself goes on. As Bok tells it, the song was born of personal experience:

“One of the things that provoked this song was a letter last November from a friend who’d had a very difficult year and was looking for the courage to keep on plowing into it. Those times, you lift your eyes unto the hills, as they say, but the hills of Northern New England in November can be about as much comfort as a cold crowbar.
You have to look ahead a bit then, and realize that all the hills and trees and flowers will still be there come Spring, usually more permanent than your troubles. And if your courage occasionally fails, that’s okay, too. Nobody expects you to be as strong as the land.”

In this time when political wrangling, deep division, fearfulness, lack of trust, and generalized crass nastiness increasingly characterize our society, Bok’s song affirms what faith proclaims and what hearts dare hope: that despite appearances, despite the coming darkness of our winter-shortened days, the world continues to turn. And always, no matter the depth of darkness, it is turning toward the morning.

When the deer has bedded down
and the bear has gone to ground
and the Northern goose has wandered off
to warmer bay and sound,
it’s so easy in the cold
to feel the darkness of the year
and the heart is growing lonely for the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy as they did so long ago.
And if I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.
Now, October’s growin’ thin
and November’s comin’ home,
you’ll be thinkin’ of the season
and the sad things that you’ve seen.
And you hear that old wind walkin’,
hear him singin’ high and thin,
you could swear he’s out there singin’ of his sorrow.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
If I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.
When the darkness falls around you
and the north wind comes to blow
and you hear him call your name out
as he walks the brittle snow.
That old wind don’t mean you trouble,
he don’t care or even know,
he’s just walking down the darkness toward the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
If I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.
It’s a pity we don’t know
what the little flowers know
they can’t face the cold November,
they can’t take the wind and snow.
They put their glories all behind them,
bow their heads and let it go,
but you know they’ll be there shining in the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swinging slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
And if I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.
O, my Joanie don’t you know
that the day is rollin’ slow
and the winter’s walkin’ easy, as it did so long ago,
and if that wind should come and ask you
“Why’s my Joanie weepin’ so?”
won’t you tell him that you’re weeping for the morning.
Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
that the stars are swingin’ slow,
and the seas are rollin’ easy, as they did so long ago.
And if I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
that the world is always turning toward the morning.

 

Comments always are welcome.
“Turning Toward the Morning” lyrics are (c) 1975, Gordon Bok, BMI.
For more information on Gordon Bok’s work, please click here.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Geese

White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons)

Named for the distinctive white band that surrounds its bill, the white-fronted goose commonly is known as the specklebelly, thanks to dark brown or black patches and bars that mark its breast. Not readily apparent on the ground, the ‘speckled belly’ becomes obvious when the bird takes flight. Given its pinkish bill and orange legs and feet, it’s not a hard bird to identify, but this small flock flying above the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge was the first I’ve seen since coming to Texas.

Specklebellies nest in the high Arctic before following the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways to wintering grounds in California’s central valley, the Mississippi alluvial plain, or the marshes and wetlands of coastal Texas.The birds often mix with snow geese, or fly with assorted species of ducks; in other photos of this group, a few northern shovelers can be seen.

Decades before I experienced great flocks of geese of any sort, I became entranced by Frankie Laine’s “Wild Goose,” a song released in 1950. I drove my mother to distraction by playing their 78 rpm recording of it again and again, thrilled by the thought of flying with the geese.

“Wild Goose” ~ Frankie Laine

I suspect few remember Frankie Laine today, but his metaphorical goose remains a part of our culture, thanks to Mary Oliver. One of her best-known and best-loved poems, “Wild Geese,” celebrates that same harsh and exciting call: perhaps inviting new generations to follow where the wild goose goes.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Comments always are welcome.