Two Observations

Friends and Family
            I responded strongly to a recent conversation that happened in my presence. It was all about friendship, family and love: love seeping out, love flowing in; love falling on us all from God above. It only made me realize how hard it is to define such terms as love, friendship, and for that matter, family.
            A week ago I received a surprising and welcome call from a friend I have known since we were kids in third grade. And we talked as if no time had passed. We talked easily like pals; even like brothers.
            A couple of nights ago, I spoke to my older brother, noting to myself how we have stayed close over time. He bolstered me up when I was hapless and adrift, searching for a future. He offered friendly counsel and advice. Like him, I remember how my other brother, whom I speak to less often, served as a solid moral compass for me when I was in a less sensitive youth.
            I have another friend, of long standing – we played music together for twenty years, and we continue to share an undimmed and abiding interest in music and fine art – once told me that he regarded me as the brother he never had.
            And, after some devastating circumstances, I had occasion to sit with my little sister for three hours one night, and we talked in such intimacy as neither of us had shared before; for the first time as two adults. As Longfellow said of Hiawatha, we “spake with naked hearts together.” It established our friendship, and I have never forgotten it. We have been close as friends ever since.
            As for trying to define a term as loaded and personal as ‘love’, my definition, inadequate and obscure to other people, would be Gerri and I together for these thirty eight years.
            What it comes down to is this: at the present moment in my life – I am 67 this month – when one speaks of friends and family, I find it exceedingly difficult to make clear distinctions between the two.

Here is an additional essay to ponder:

            My wife and I went to a symposium last weekend concerning composer Antonin Dvorak, one of my favorite composers, and the affect on his music from a visit he made to the United States at the end of the 19th Century. This symposium was accompanied by a performance of spirituals as part of a month-long festival celebrating Dvorak’s birthday. Since we missed most of the symposium, but still had an opportunity to look at the documents presented in an adjoining room at the Library of Congress, our experience was mostly of the performance that followed. It was an overwhelming experience, because of the variety of thoughts it brought to mind.
            The performance was by tenor Reginald Bouknight, a local opera singer, and his accompanist Lynee Grey, and they joyfully played in friendly collaboration. He sang a collection of very familiar spirituals like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, and ‘Deep River’, and Joshua going in to fit that battle again. He had a good, well-controlled voice, and her accompaniment was note-perfect. And these are the thoughts that came into my head.
            First of all, the night presented me with a clear and direct vision of a cultural lineage; a cultural river that flows all down to me, carrying me with it. Spirituals have been around, in published form, for more than a hundred years. And they are concentrated, formalized versions of songs from an isolated black community for untold years before that, as slaves sang religious metaphors for freedom some day – across deep river into camp ground. Such insular self-expression of religious feeling, in such poor and primitive conditions, is a reality we will never truly know. All we have is the evidence of the music itself.
            But once the music was published, and spread out of the black community by groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, its beauty is recognized, and it becomes part of American culture. It’s this music that Antonin Dvorak heard when he visited the USA. It’s this music that worked its way into his music. Somewhere I first heard “New World Symphony” and was taken away by its strength and beauty. In it was one of the spirituals that Bouknight sang, “Goin’ Home”.
            I grew up singing spirituals. They were part of our education; part of the Red and Blue American Songbook we used in class, right alongside ‘Loch Lommand’ and ‘Erie Canal.’ Churches both white and black sang them. At the time, I was also listening to Harry Belafonte, and he sang them. One of my jazz favorites, Herbie Mann, did a favorite piece of mine, the definitive version of ‘Swing Low.’ There is hardly an American citizen who does not know the words. Most of us can sing harmony. These songs are deep inside, part of us.
            In my music collection, spirituals are well represented by the Robert Shaw Chorale, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, Navy choirs, and others. Think of Toshi Reagan singing ‘Bye and Bye’. I could give you a long list of how much influence black music – spirituals, jazz and blues – has had on America’s music. It’s no wonder that Dvorak was carried away. You will hear it in the flow of our music.
            What a connection the night was! Out of poverty and enforced separation from mainstream culture comes a music of longing, hope and survival, a feeling anyone can understand. Filtering it through popular imitations like Stephen Foster, it leaves the Civil War behind. Dvorak hears its beauty and validates it in classical terms. The music helps shape a world culture’s experience of the horrors of World War I and the Jazz Age, and the Depression that follows. It ends up as a regular part of the songs from which I learn about America, in my formative years.
            Finally, here I am, an old man sitting in this majestic, official chamber theater, listening to a distinguished, classically-trained black opera singer, asking me ‘Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?’ Principally, though, I should probably ask why I am amazed by it all. I’ve been in this river all my life, and rise to the music every time I feel the spirit.