We have been trying out a new format at church. I have mentioned it before, actually. We are calling it our "Second Sunday" series--it is always the second Sunday of the month--and it doesn't really have a sermon. I do talk for four minutes or so about the theme. Otherwise there are readings and music. The first service was a bit of a mess as we figured things out. The second was all readings from The Hobbit that address a theme of surprise journeys. Yesterday, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we read from a variety of texts that attempt to make sense of the season in more "modern" terms. While I was putting it together I asked myself what sorts of things have influenced how we celebrate today...
Now, Christmas itself is the way some traditions--and not even all Christian ones--have historically made sense of an even more ancient winter observance that lies beneath all the modern holidays. Maybe this is hard to grasp for some people but, of course, it is true. I think that sometimes we have trouble comprehending just how ancient this solstice holiday really is. It is so old, in fact, that we can't really remember its origins. That distance is hard to grasp. This is why we keep reinterpreting it.
Sticking just with Christmas, we see an effort over the years to wrap something very old in a relatively new holiday cloth. Jesus probably wasn't born on the 25th of December. We humans just needed him to be so that we had a reason to celebrate. The real show resides in the short days and the cold, inclement weather.
If anyone needs any evidence of the pagan roots of Christmas they don't need to look any further than one of the carols we sang at yesterday's service. The Sans Day Carol is a Cornish folk song and a tribute to the holly plant. The song calls it the “first tree in the greenwood." Yes, the lyrics find ways to include Christmas imagery but..one couldn't help but feel a bit like a druid singing it. Humanity has always ascribed magical properties to holly. In one of the books we read from--Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper--the heroes put it over the door to keep the evil spirits out. That is a modern book. However, in this case and in others, the author is alluding to ancient tradition. We can't escape the old holiday. All we can do is change its name and add new traditions that help us to understand.
This is the season of the apparent death of the Earth. No matter how we perceive winter--as a recreational bonanza, a dangerous annoyance, or somewhere in between--we need to understand how it would have looked before we could take a picture from outer space. We need to consider a time when people couldn't be quite sure that the spring--and with it life itself--would return. This is why we find those images of holly, ivy, and the long-lasting evergreens in the first place. They are proof that there is still life and abundance under the ice and snow.
Now it is easier to know that the season of famine is temporary. However, we have our own fears, don't we? We hope that maybe someday these fears will also seem quaint and unfounded. Until then we also--like the ancients--need that reassurance that comes from gathering together in the old ways. We need the holly and the ivy. We need to pray and sing. The mystery of life, the cycles of the seasons, and the motions of the heavens all reside deep inside us. So we create art--including worship--to explain the profound feeling we have as the world dies before being reborn once again
Here is a video of the band yesterday leading that carol...
I may be posting a bit more about music and other things for a while. It is hunting season here in New England, so my hiking has been limited to suburban trails. They are pretty of course. They may not really be post-worthy, however. I do stay away from many of the wilder places during this time, particularly during the week. Some hunter has taken time off from work on a weekday to head on out to do their thing. They shouldn't have to worry about me or I about them. The season will end soon enough, and the winter climbs can begin.
Also, I am swamped at work. The holidays are here. The church is down both an intern/assistant minister and a church administrator. It is just me right now. There is so very much to do. Among the things to do, though, is plan for holiday music. The Liturgical Folk Band has been busy playing for our experimental "Second Sunday" services. In fact, as we tweak the format in other ways, I would say the band has been a point of stability for us. That hasn't always been the case in the past, so it is nice.
I have written about folk music in the church before, so my plan here was to keep it brief and leave you with some links at the end. I failed.
I just want to comment for a moment on the folk element of the term. Folk Music is what folks do. In an often-professionalized world we have grown accustomed to leaving to professionals things that have for the vast majority of human existence been something that is done by amateurs. Music is only one example of this. Even in the genre we are discussing, a "folksinger" is more often than not somebody we pay. We go see them in cozy concert halls, or we buy their music. The performance is (hopefully) of a monetizable quality.
Interestingly enough, many professional musicians are trying to leave the term "folk" to the amateurs. Some performers of original works now lean toward "singer-songwriter" for what they do. Performers of actual folk tend toward the terms "Old Time" or "World Music" to describe what they do. That is nice of them. They at least recognize that part of their job is to popularize works that others can replicate at home. That is, they are empowering people to keep on doing folk-art.
I bring this up because being just OK at something doesn't mean we cannot enjoy doing it. It doesn't mean we cannot share it either. If we just relied on professional athletes, there wouldn't be pickup basketball. If we just relied on professional artists, then we wouldn't have the rich world of creativity that we need for our culture to thrive. When you see videos of us playing, I want you to understand that we know how good--or not good--we are. The point is that everyone has a place to create.
So...what do you do if you would like to take your place as one of the folk in folk music? All you have to do is find an instrument and make some noise.
If you want a little more direction, here are some thoughts....
Start with What You Used to Play! This should be obvious but somehow it isn't always. There are no rules for what an actual folk musician can play. Yes, the acoustic guitar is ubiquitous among the professionals. However, that has to do with what is marketable. You aren't shooting for a recording contract. You don't care what "the Man" thinks about your music! Did you play clarinet and you still have it? That works. The trick is just to find ways to be creative with it when you are playing with others. That takes time, but it should be fun time.
Start with What might be fun! What instrument did you always think sounded cool? That is a good place to start. Think about what sort of sound you think you could make. What sound would you like to make?
Pick Something You Will Stick To! For some people that will an instrument that is easy to get going on but hard to get good on, like the ukulele or the autoharp. For others it may be something that is hard to get started on but you get progressively better over time. You have to want to practice. However, remember that in amateur folk music practice isn't so much practice as "jamming-with-yourself". You should enjoy it. Remember to measure success not by how proficient you are but by how much fun you are having.
Pick Something Different! OK, say you want to play with people and this is your big goal. If this is the case then I want to say something that might be considered controversial in some quarters. Pick an instrument that other people don't play. Over the last half-century, the go-to instrument has been guitar. Whay has this been the case? Take a look at my previous suggestions. People frequently play guitar as a kid. Parents like the idea and pay for lessons. It replicates the sound of a ton of great music performed by professional musicians and released to a breathless public. Finally, with a few quick chords, you can play along to almost anything.
However, because of this, if you want to get your pals together to jam you will have no shortage of three-chord guitar warriors keeping the beat. Most of them will be thinking about how much cooler they would sound with a little variety.
This is where you come in. How about something that sounds different? I play guitar but when I get together to play with people nobody has ever asked me to play it. The reason is there are already plenty of guitars in the lineup. Instead, they ask if I could play some other instrument.
Here are the ones I play: Voice, Mandolin, Ukulele, Tenor Banjo, Bones.
Here are some I always wish somebody else would play: Bass, Autoharp, 5-String Banjo, Drums, Whistles, Fiddle
Anyway, knock yourself out. There is a learning curve to these instruments just like guitar. Also, as you learn, you will be noticeable. Still, you shouldn't worry about mistakes. My experience is that all the guitar players are just happy you are there.
OK, that is it. My music update plus some stuff. Enjoy the vids. Here is the link to the "Music and Arts" section which--as I mentioned--should be growing over the winter.
This was our very first live recording of the Ukestra for Advent in 2013. The pictures are of the various ukulele playing members and our music ministries.
I used to be really into the ukulele. For a time at church we had a youth-led "ukestra". Many adults played as well. I always found it to be a solid instrument for people who want to sing. It is uncomplicated. It does its job with little fuss. While learning to master an instrument takes a lifetime, it doesn't take long to get a genuine musical sound out the uke. Of course, for some reason many people see this as a weakness. The great Pete Seeger, a paragon of DIY music, lumped it in with the autoharp as "the easiest to get started on and the hardest to continue with past kindergarten". I suspect in both cases his year at Harvard was showing a bit. The fact is, people do play these--and other--apparently "simple" instruments their whole lives while continuing to gain satisfaction from them.
In another way, though, he is not wrong. It takes a lot of work to push past their initial limitations. That said, it is worth it. I also have found it to be a sustainable exercise, at least in part because of how good it sounds playing simple things. After getting frustrated trying to do some complicated maneuver on the uke, one can settle into some three-chord folk songs. Then we hear the ukulele say "you're not that bad, you sound lovely now..."
It is also worth remembering the importance and the history of the ukulele. A similar and smaller instrument--called variously a Cavaquinho or "machete"--was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors who settled there. the body was adapted to maximize the resonance of the native woods of the islands. The construction methods were also refined. Perhaps most important, "reentrant" tuning--in this case placing the second highest string where normally the lowest string would be--became the dominant style. This gave the instrument its intriguing brightness and "pop," not unlike the 5-string banjo. Over time it was adapted by the Hawaiian people to become their national--even royal--instrument. It still has a place of honor on the islands and the most gifted players live there.
Like the banjo, it was born out of adversity and oppression and became something beautiful.
I play the ukulele, mandolin, tenor banjo, and guitar. Each has its own strengths and function. I know I will never be all that good at any of them. That said, I find myself drawn to different ones at different times. For me--and I don't really know why--Advent and Christmas are prime ukulele seasons.
At our most intense we recorded Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies from the Nutcracker on three ukes. We played it live in Advent 2014.
Maybe it is the power of memory. The charm of the instrument--its very appearance is charismatic--makes it a good bet for hospitals, nursing homes, and worship. It is, as I have mentioned, good for both children and adults who are just learning. As such it forms part of the soundtrack of numerous public and private carol-sings. It is portable and easy to bring along to events. It is relatively durable (at least the cheaper ones) and can be played outside without too much fuss and bother.
Also, it doesn't push itself on anyone which--when we are thinking about the stress of this season--is really nice. When I play the banjo and the mandolin I have to be careful not to overwhelm all the "silent nights" and minor chords. The uke rests right where you want it. It points the way for the singers without racing on ahead.
During the late moments of the plague last year we opted for a Christmas Eve ukulele carol sing out in front of the church. We aren't doing that again this year. However, it will remain one of my favorite memories of the season ever. So many people came and so many songs were sung. My biggest regret was overburdening it with readings and such. If I ever get another crack at it we will do much more singing.
I say "if" but in a way we actually are doing it again, on the top of a local hill for the winter solstice. It will be fun...I hope.
It may be an odd thing for a bunch of New Englanders--accustomed to the frigid-though-globally-warming climate of our winter home--to reach to the warm climes of Hawaii for Christmas inspiration. Still, that is how it is. Somehow it works. That is the miracle of the holiday. It is also the miracle of music. Some things just speak to you, right?
Still, it is best for leading Carols. Here we are just this past Sunday on Advent 1!
Anyway, I hope you have a good Advent and I hope you play music. If you are unsure, maybe a uke would help. In the past I wrote a "buyers guide". This link gets you to an update of even older posts that can be accessed from it. The ukulele is a great way to get into music at any age. Get Caroling!
Sometimes you are never good at something but it still makes you happy. As we go through life there are many things that feel--or become--too difficult, even when we put in our time and effort to get good at them. As the years and days go by the results trickle in and we slowly turn toward the things that complement our skills and abilities. There is a toxic way to go about this--just look at the comments on the Celtic's fan page--and there is a non-toxic way. The non-toxic way requires maintaining interest and appreciating the skills and gifts of those who have succeeded. When we fail we also learn. We gain insight we wouldn't otherwise have and even though we drift away from the doing, we still find joy in experiencing the success of others.
Sometimes, too, we keep on doing the thing...even though we do not expect much growth or success. I mean this is a good way. Continued trying also brings joy. For me, one of those areas is music. I play (or try to play) a number of instruments pretty poorly. I do not seem to get better. There was a period, in fact, when I was a kid where my piano teacher kept giving me easier and easier method books. I was literally and measurably getting worse as I played! However, I enjoy it. It is part of my "walk" as much as walking, itself. Therefore, I am sharing with you a bit of that journey too...when it makes sense.
It kinda makes sense these days because I am getting ready for a gig. You see, I am in a loose band of sorts that mostly plays in church. There is a core of three or four people and then a broader cloud of participants when they are available. We play folk and gospel songs in church mostly as hymns and "special music". The group is an outgrowth of a youth ministry called the "Eliot Church Ukestra." Kids grow up of course. This leads us to the gig. Some of the former ukesters went on to form a much better band and now we amateur few get to play during their lunch break once a year at a party known as the Endwar Biathalon.
This year I am playing the banjo. The banjo deserves its own post, of course. It was born out of the African-American experience when enslaved people adapted the gourd instruments of Africa using the material around them on the plantations of the south. This is why a banjo looks so different when held up against a guitar, for example. There is a drum head and metal bits creating a sound that can be sublime or can be unpleasantly--and occasionally pleasantly--like witnessing a car engine throw a gear or two. However, that is part of its appeal. It is not "nice." It has resistance built right into it.
It is worth noting that if you didn't know that the banjo is an African American instrument there is a reason. Of course that reason is racism. The banjo was nearly taken over by white people in black-face during the "Minstrel" craze of the early 20th Century and then continued to be popularized in "country" music as defined by the traditionally racist recording industry in Nashville. As a white person who plays, I find this important to be aware of. Of course black banjo players didn't go away. Now the banjo is being taken up again by innovative performers like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Hubbie Jenkins, Layla McCalla, Trey Wellington and many others. It is good to see and to hear.
Banjo is actually a family of instruments. The most famous--and the one Americans refer to as "the" banjo--has five strings, is open-tuned (if you strum it without pressing any strings it makes a recognizable chord), and is featured in bluegrass, country, some rock-n-roll, and anywhere hipsters gather. It has a pretty sound with each note ringing (according to Pete Seeger) like pinpricks or tiny stars. I love it. There is something special about lying out in a field some summer night at a music festival listening to the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin (I also play mando) bouncing off the hills.
However, that is not the one I play. I play a four-string tenor banjo. To be precise (because it matters) I play a 19-fret, open-backed (no resonator), "Irish Tuned" tenor banjo. The tenor (in all its iterations) was adapted for jazz and was a go-to for filling out the rhythm section. They are ideal for choppy, staccato chords that can be heard over the horn section. If you ever go to Honk, you have seen them near the drums in the marching line. The tunings vary, so does the body. In any case it is loud and sometimes harsh sounding. Today it continues to have a place in New Orleans jazz, Irish music and folk-punk. To hear it played well you can look up Don Vappie, the Dubliners, The Pogues, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dropkick Murphys, and Devil Makes Three. Those last two bands have mosh pits. The tenor banjo has edges which I like, but, of course, that makes it hard to play and--as I mentioned before--I am not a very good musician. I have to practice a whole lot over the next few days.
Anyway, this is a long post to ask you to pray for me as I once again try to find joy in the midst of my inadequacy. If you have a similar hobby I urge you not to give up. Not because you are going to get better--though you might--but because it brings you joy and you bring joy to the world.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.