Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Only Bridge

Any restless ghost wandering in the vicinity of Evergreen Cemetery on a gray and chill November Saturday a few weeks back might well have been mildly intrigued by the sight of ten rather mature people gathered over an unremarkable head stone - unremarkable at least until a closer inspection revealed the unusual length and literary source of its inscription - from Thornton Wilder:

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Perhaps it would have been as bemused by the books held so reverently by the celebrants as it likely would have been startled by the presence of a guitar in their midst. Or maybe, if Wilder's symbolic Third Act in Our Town is in any way prescient, it simply joined its waiting and ever-present fellows on that ground, brought back into contact with Us the Living by a three hundred year old folk song about a boy, a ship, a girl, and mean and duplicitous father. Odd choice for a memorial, those spirits might have thought. How little would they - could they - have understood what was so exactly right about it.

In the eleven years since Glen Lake Songs was recorded, I have often reflected on just how central to our childhood experience as a family that songs like The Golden Vanity were, and how accidental it was that this should have been so. After all, our parents grew up in and had an enduring love for the music of the Big Band Era, and one of the delights of their own middle age was regular visits to Orchestra Hall for the Chicago Symphony. Folk music both traditional and popularized came in by the back door, really by way of a single recording that Daddy had heard somewhere and that Mother had loved about a Boston commuter trapped eternally on a train for lack of a nickel.

Belafonte had already made his debut in the parental record collection, but the albums of first the Kingston Trio and then the Vanguard collection Folks Songs and Minstrelsy, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Weavers and many others followed rapidly and regularly, this because in addition to their own enjoyment of the music one of the primary tenets of their parenting was to find and feed whatever intellectual and creative interests their many children were developing - as the presence of an out-of-tune black upright piano and a nearly complete collection of Chip Hilton books in the study in the Barrington Hills house gave silent witness to for decades.

The next step, one by no means inevitable, was Daddy's gift of a Silvertone guitar to me for my thirteenth birthday. Both parents were hesitant to do this because they didn't want me to give up the piano. But when that did in fact happen, there were no recriminations; instead - a better guitar some ten months later for Peggy and me singing Greenland Whale Fisheries and Cane on the Brazos for the 1964 St. Viator Variety Show and a long neck banjo shortly after that. Music at Glen Lake and family assemblings over the years, The Richland Trio, Guernsey and Moran, a booking as the warm-up act for John Denver, decades playing for friends and students - all of this grew from that single act of open-mindedness and generosity.

So when I first read in 2000 of the fantasy camp premiering that year in Arizona sponsored by John Stewart and Nick Reynolds of the old Kingston Trio - the climax of which was an appearance on stage with them for a single song as the third member of the band - I realized simultaneously what a silly idea it was and how completely irresistible it would be for me. What tipped me in favor of going in 2003 were the fact that Reynolds had just turned 70 (leading me to face how upset I would be were I to miss this chance, however silly) and that a video of the "fantasy trio" performance was part of the deal. Both considerations validated themselves in my actual participation in the Camp in 2003 and 2004.

There was something about stepping onto that stage with two visibly tired older men that closed a circle for me, or that represented as much of a climax in a major element of my life as wading in the Beaufort Sea did for another. It was as far as I could go, and farther than I had ever dreamed possible.

The notes and words of The Golden Vanity and The Parting Glass, wafting as they did with the appropriate gusto and melancholy over that chilly and still cemetery, may well have provided some comfort to the unperturbed spirits of our parents, who hovered over and with us there as they had in life. I had always hoped as a boy that they enjoyed our singing. That November day, I'm sure they did.

1 comment:

Rick Moran said...

Parents should read this just to be reminded of the profound influence they have on their child's cultural life.

I'm sure parents think a lot about influencing their children's intellectual development. But one shouldn't neglect the soul when feeding the mind.