Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Everybody Needs a Little Vacation

This past Sunday was one of the most relaxing days I’ve spent in quite a while. After a morning spent moving very slowly, a friend and I had lunch and took in the sites at Lawnfield, a National Historic Site featuring the Mentor home of President James A. Garfield. Technically I could say I was on a work-related mission, but the truth is, the pace of the day and the company I kept gave me the distinct sensation of being on vacation. I held no expectations, looked for no answers (with the exception of where the restrooms were on a couple of occasions), drew few conclusions.

I had spent the previous afternoon very differently, catching up on some reading about the evolution of Southern song and the origins of traditional song and how some of the secular and sacred traditions within mountain songs and later bluegrass can be traced all the way back to the medieval modal system, the earliest expression of what we now know as theory. (Yeah, it was a bit more didactic than I planned for an afternoon of reading about bluegrass between laps in the pool.) In essence, this style of singing which to the pop-oriented ear might sound like a “messed up scale” has changed very little from the psalmody – the most well known of which is Gregorian chant – of the middle ages.

More plainly put, the kinds of tonal resolution in many a mountain and bluegrass song – the kind of melodic progression that is kind of, but not entirely, bluesy – really originated in the church language of music some 1500 years ago.

The breakdown of the song goes a little further. Minstrel songs kept to the basic lines that were more predictable, making the delivery light and easy. Gospel songs, on the other hand, spanned a greater range; rather than staying within close range of the main chord progressions of I, IV, V, Gospel tunes had “highs and lows” – dipping below the tonic (I) and working their way back up to the tonic (or first note in the key in which the song is set).

Called out in this discussion was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group that was founded at Fisk University, an “HBC” or historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. The Jubilee Singers stood well apart from their minstrel counterparts mimicking various negro traditions in blackface. The group was formed in 1871, and introduced “slave songs” to the world. It was the first time audiences would hear black music not performed in the minstrel style. They forced audiences at home and abroad to think differently about black music, to "take a vacation" from the world view that kept the integrity and beauty of the Negro spiritual somewhere hidden away while minstrel songs were viewed as the primary black musical culture.

Placed amid President Garfield's effects was a panel describing a visit the Fisk Jubilee Singers made to Lawnfield in Mentor, Ohio, during Garfield's presidential campaign. Prior to being placed on the Republican Presidential ticket, Garfield spent 17 years in the U.S. Senate. But Lawnfield was where his heart resided, a place where he could get away and surround himself with his family. Following their performance, Garfield addressed the group, whose concert left a roomful of about 100 neighbors and supporters stunned beyond measure. Said Garfield, “And I tell you now, in the closing days of this campaign, that I would rather be with you and defeated than against you and victorious.”

A few days later, Garfield was elected the 2oth President of the United States. In July of the following year, in 1881, Garfield was shot twice in the back at a train station, on his way to meet his family--for vacation. He lingered for 80 days before succumbing to infection brought on by the relentless unsanitary probing of doctors in search of the bullets. Before he died, his family did manage to get him to the shore one last time.

Sunday was not a day I took for granted like so many others. No day should be taken for granted, what with the world as wild as it is. Finding this little piece of my musical life buried among the Garfield story in the middle of this unusual day gave me a sense of peace and rightness. Those moments probably occur more often than any of us realize or recognize.

Honor every one.



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