Memphis in Motion - A New Project, Part 2
I am a procrastinator and like to do some things off the cuff, so when it really counts - and more often as I get older - I plan and write notes to keep myself on track. I spent 17 years instructing and presenting on emergency preparedness, but had only spoken to a group once in almost five years. So once I agreed to host Grace-St. Luke’s Lenten Music Series (the official title, or non-title as I see it)I wanted to be sure to prepare. The role I stepped into is relatively simple. Stand up, say something intelligent about faith and music, introduce a musician, and ask a few relevant questions. We had three great musicians recruited by three people (including me) with various tastes and points of view. I knew two but not well enough not to prepare. Of course I have my own listening experience and the fact that I seek out music wherever I go (I sometimes wander around a market listening to an old favorite). I had a piece of an interview given by Son House (“Preaching the Blues”) in mind but after spending some hours finding it again, it didn’t fit. I came across an article about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s love of spiritual music - perfect.
Our first guest was Davis Coen. I met him at an event hosted by Mt Zion Memorial Fund and The Center for Southern Folklore - two organizations I later volunteered with - and loved his music. Davis is one of the first two musicians I met in Memphis. Blues, slide guitar, melodic voice - all favorites - led me to try to see him whenever he was in town. Last year he released a Gospel record, something he has wanted to do for years which made him a perfect choice to open the series. I was looking for a set list and a couple of things he wanted to highlight, but he was on his usual Southeast US loop, which puts thousands of miles on him each year and just returned to Memphis to play a benefit that Saturday. He told me he liked to size up an audience before deciding what to play anyway. Of course he nailed it. In my opening remarks, I talked about The Call and that “spark” I spoke of in Part 1, and quoted James Abbington (Professor of Music and Worship at Atlanta’s Emory University) with “Music becomes the platter or handmaiden of theology.” My introduction was simple - Edith Heller, who has known Davis and his family for years - did it so much better than I could have. We were off and running. Coincidentally he performed two of my favorites from the new record. “Saint Christopher” sums up his life on the road. He asks the patron of travelers to “ride with me” in a happy and grateful way, with an upbeat tune. It is said that St Christopher carried a child across a river once and felt the weight of the world. The child was Jesus. Davis Coen carries some weight in his own mission to spread a positive message with his music and in all those miles, the patient saint is surely riding, watching over him. “Diamonds in Your Back Yard” covers a common theme. In it Coen interprets a story he once heard about a man who gave up, sold his property and moved on - and someone else found the gems that were on the land. It reminds me of a Buddhist quote about staying put - “If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” Another person in the group brought up the point of realizing and using your talents. The great thing about a song like “Diamonds…” is it can be seen from different points of view and all positive. Coen displayed his respect for legendary musicians with “Prodigal Son” (originally by Rev. Robert Wilkins) with the caveat that he never feels that way and credits his good relationship with his family for his faith and success. He also lent his talent to “Bye and Bye, I’m/We’re Going to See the King”, an old African-American spiritual recorded by Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers (1926), Blind Willie Johnson (1929) and current performers like Ben Harper - and Davis Coen.
Whew, one down! I was able to plan a little more for the next one. Cecil Yancy is a great storyteller, lives and usually performs here, so I see him every now and then and we planned a program together - mostly from his life story. But the procrastinator and worn out office clerk stepped to the fore, and I didn’t write down my part until the last minute. Fortunately a downtown Memphis restaurant was busy that night before his program and I always carry a notebook. The month before, I wrote his intro for the program around two quotes he gave me: St. Augustine said “he who sings praise…loves…” and his own wisdom - “We aren’t really called to reach the masses per se. We just need to reach one person.” We must be on the same wavelength. Cecil likes to quote a line from ‘Andy Griffith Show’ character Briscoe Darling Jr. (Denver Pyle) who said If you have time to breathe, you have time to sing” and I opened with a quote from Psalm 104: “I will sing praise to my God while I have being (or breath).” The bluegrass of the show (The Dilliards were the musicians behind the fictional Darlings) and the Psalm give us heart to sing joyfully.
Of course, my handwriting is terrible, so I couldn’t really read my notes, then musician/videographer Tony Manard showed up with a camera, so the butterflies in my stomach were doing somersaults en masse. I got calm when Cecil opened with my favorite song of his. When I was recovering from surgery while working a temporary job in Nags Head North Carolina, I was blessed with the support of St. Andrew's By-The-Sea and their rector, Rev. Phil Glick. I remember one sermon in particular, about Jesus waking to the apostles’ pleas to save them from a storm. Of Course he took care of business, but rebuked them. The priest’s words will stay with me forever - Jesus doesn’t save us from the storm, he saves us in the storm. In “Listen Child” Cecil sings the praises of God working in the storm. Cecil’s smile and faith shine through every time I talk to him, but he has been through more than his share of challenges. He lost his wife Linda, whom I never met, to cancer. It frames his world, but he uses that tragedy to reach others and show his faithful resolution. He built a foundation for us with his stories about growing up singing - only gospel songs by his Mother’s direction - and harmonizing, which he still does so beautifully. He spoke of Pentecostal traditions of North Alabama, snake handling, and small “splinter” churches that became the song “Rock House” because disagreeing rivals threw rocks at them! He told the story of Thomas Edison losing everything in a fire - which was spurred by his and Linda’s own fire survival story - in “Let it Burn.” Never until that day did I think of the loss of things in fire as cleansing but “mistakes are in the ashes” which we can carry as a metaphor for moving on in faith from any situation. Having never felt a loss so close myself, I could only listen as he recounted the story of performing with Linda - at the cancer center where she was being treated during her last days - for another patient, who was nearly gone. In that story alone, but backed by the others, Cecil shows us the power of faith and music. He left us with a song he wrote just for the occasion. I wish I had recorded the whole thing, but when you see him performing for Backbeat Tours or at Graceland, go ahead and request it. I know I will. His performance showed that heart of faith I spoke of in my introduction still beating strongly, though it has been altered forever.
The last forum was the most difficult but least stressful for me. I had never met or heard our guest perform. Eliot Morris is a man on a mission. He was one of a multitude of promising young artists who wrote great music, were signed, toured - and dropped. I opened this session with a prayer I wrote for fellow Episcopalian and uber-talented sound man Crafton Barnes, who the prior week was attacked by a mentally ill man after trying to help him. Crafton is another of those people that make the music scene and the city an inspiring and beautiful place - despite its harshness exemplified by the assault. I opened again with a reference to The Call. Front man Michael Been died of a heart attack while on tour with his son’s band (as a sound man). He once gave an interview where he talked of “the power of the arts to awaken people’s personal experiences…” Instead of lamenting his lack of success, this is what Eliot Morris does. He was raised Catholic in Mobile, Alabama but secular music was always there too. He counts Motown and Memphis music as early memories, but also a deep supportive faith as exemplified by his parents. He carries on their example of living faith with his own family. It is immediately evident this is not something he does, but something he is. He dealt with commercial failure by writing music. “Up From the Bottom” speaks of God working in darkness (when we need it) if we can “step out in faith” and trust in Him. He introduces “Colorful World” as a story of a fetus wondering if there is life after birth. He puts a message out there for us to see a discussion of life and death - and life before birth and after death - from a totally different point of view. What we usually talk about is the life in between.
Of course I prepared some questions, which along with my prayer and introduction were carefully printed in my notebook this time, but unlike me Eliot is a practicing presenter and checked off those points one by one in setting up his songs. I wish I had more time to talk about his Jesuit-informed background, as the order figure into history as exploring missionaries, which fascinates me, but he covered that briefly. One fascinating point in his interviews is about the confession, which of course he covered with a song he wrote using the Catholic Act of Contrition. Its part of a project he’s working on for teaching children preparing for First Communion (after First Penance) and his artistry gives somber words real beauty. His work with Dynamic Catholic, which I also wished for more time to discuss, is his mission blending faith and music. Eliot Morris uses that “power of the arts” to support Dynamic Catholic’s goal to “engage the disengaged and encourage the engaged.” It is something any group or church needs from time to time.
We think of Lent as a time for sacrifice, of penance, of prayer. When I sat through this series last year and while I was preparing for it this year, I asked first silently, then to my current priest, Rev. Amy George - why do we do this during Lent? Raised a Catholic, a priest’s message from my past sticks with me. Lent should not only be about sacrifice, but about doing something positive. Amy was teaching us about prayer in what seemed some unconventional ways which were effective on me. I have written two with her inspiration. Like that workshop, this series is about looking “again,” doing something positive, maybe encouraging a few more hearts to faith. Starting with Davis Coen’s bluesy gospel music, with Cecil Yancy’s trial-by-fire positivity, and Eliot Morris’ living example of deep abiding faith, I hope other music lovers out there can sing a little louder - with or without musical ability - “I Still Believe”!