When was the last time you heard a voice singing–in person, not a reproduction or something amplified, but a human voice? When was the last time you sang?

A few weeks ago, two heroes of mine passed away, Jean Ritchie and Ronnie Gilbert.

Ronnie Gilbert was one of the founding members of The Weavers, a folk group that was influential and then black-listed in the early 50s. Along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman, and with the help of Alan Lomax and input from Woodie Guthrie, they sang both American and international folk music, as well as Union and labour songs. They were some of the people who influenced the Folk Revival of the 60s, which influenced me.

Jean Ritchie was an authentic Kentucky-born folk singer. She brought American folk music back to Appalachian roots music with her traditional performances of many of the old ballads that had travelled across from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the rest of Britain.

There is a great deal I love about folk music, but today I would like to focus on what is perhaps the most important quality it has: It is the everyday person’s music. It can belong to any of us. I dearly love Yo Yo Ma playing Bach, or Jessye Norman singing Wagner, but these are the tasks of demi-gods few of us can hope to follow. The melody of a folk tune is one which almost anybody can sing, and then can learn a little more challenging harmonies. They are words which anybody can learn, even if the complex lyrics like Finnegan’s Wake can be a little harder.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was a love for music. They are each amazingly talented, but most of all they loved music. Since dad was a preacher, we all learned to sing in church in 4-part harmony. We also sang grace at every meal. But they also sang around the house or around the piano. Most of all, when we would be driving home from a long trip at night–and my dad loved to drive–they would sing together in harmony, and that’s how we kids learned to sing as well. I was the smallest, and usually in the back, or even in the hatch, and some of my fondest and safest memories were listening to them sing in the front of the car.

We learned a lot of folk songs from them. Where have all the Flowers Gone?, Puff the Magic Dragon, Turn, Turn, Turn, as well as show tunes and standards. I continue to hum or whistle of even sing out loud whenever I can. I had a job a while back which involved an early stocking shift before the store opened, and my friend Rachel and I would sing Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and what-ever else suited our fancy. One of my great prides in parenting is how many songs I taught my daughter, who says that I have a voice that makes anybody feel like they can sing.

And anyone can!!!!!

Sing to say what you cannot say! Singing for joy or to express our sadness, or just to pass the time away is a rare gift. The blues, the agony, the ecstasy, the longing, the loneliness, the peace—all of these are bubbling down deep within you and waiting to be expressed.

Sing to remember who you are and what you love! Singing opens up something inside of us that makes us more like who we really are than anything else. No other human being, no nightingale or lark, no violin or glockenspiel has your unique voice. It might not be the prettiest, but it is yours, and it can be your fun.

Sing because it’s beautiful! The world is full of beauty, but singing–even if you do it really poorly–allows you to touch and to be part of that beauty, that joy, that infinite and immediate wonder which is music. It is so rooted in the earth, so material, such a matter of vibrations and modulations, but it is also so sublime. Music immerses us in our senses and sensations, but moves us out of subjective feeling. It is the world and it is transcendence.

So when was the last time you sang?

You’re alone now, wasting time reading a blog, just you and your electronic device….why don’t you sing now?






MackawsRachel, a friend of mine and one of the mostbok wonderful people I know, took me to a zoo–Brights Zoo in Limestone Tennessee, in fact. We walked around and saw all sorts of animals–mostly animals from Savannahs, since the climates are similar  in summer, as is the grazing. It is still a bit chilly in the mornings here, so it wasn’t until the second time around the park, when the sun came out, that many of the animals came outside.

Going around the corner, I couldn’t speak; there, standing in a paddock, were 3 giraffes!

Everybody has that special thing–a blanket or stuffed animal–that wasStuffed Giraffe (4) their special little security thing when they are little. Mine was Giraffe. He was a medium sized stuffed giraffe (that’s how he got the name). When I was 7, we moved 3979 miles, across the Atlantic. I had my pillow and Giraffe. He was a good listener and a reassuring friend, and he could be flipped over and used as a machine gun when flying over France trying to shoot down Eddie Rickenbacker. I don’t think I have ever lived anywhere without him.

Giraffe 2I have seen giraffes at zoos before, but generally from a distance. I was able to stand up on a platform eye to eye. They are graceful and very tall. They are a little mischievous, and have a purple tongue that is almost 2 feet long. They are quiet, mostly because breathing all that way can be rough, but can make moaning orGiraffe tounge bleating noises. I have a friend who once followed a herd (a tower? who comes up with these things?!?) on a motorcycle to see what noise they made, but apparently they have non-verbal ways of saying “what’s with the creeper on the motorcycle?” because they stayed quiet. And they have huge beautiful eyes with long eyelashes.Giraffe me - Copy

I think I just stood there with my mouth open for 5 minutes, unable to speak (really unusual for me). Honestly, I felt like dancing around and squealing, but at my age that is difficult to pull off. Rachel bought a carrot for me to feed to him. All the rest of the day I was saying “I saw a giraffe!!!” to flamingoanyone who would listen.

Life has had its ups and downs lately, but for just one moment, I couldn’t ask for more. The sun was shining, and I was hanging out with a good friend and with giraffes. What more could you want?

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Twelfth Night

I have been musing lately upon Umbra Mai Fu, the larghetto short aria which begins George Frideric Handel’s opera Serse.

I actually do things like that.
Only Dr Bear.

It is a beautiful piece, although the opera is rather goofy, and was not particularly successful. It premiered on the 15th of April, 1738, in London, with the castrati Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano) singing the title role. Today, it might be performed by a counter-tenor (Andreas Scholl’s performance is quite good); however, since there are only two dozen or so good counter-tenors out there, it is often performed by a mezzo-soprano.

Papyrus_topsy_turvy_worldThe twelfth and last night of Christmas is celebrated as epiphany, or as the Feast of the Magi in many countries, but in England, it retains one of the characteristics of the Roman festival Saturnalia, that of turning the social order on its head. Twelfth Night is often marked by amateur theatrics, as well as professional ones, which are “Topsy-Turvy;” traditional roles of master and servant, and of man and woman, are reversed.

This is a beautiful song. It is a song of longing for home and peace.
It is a love song to a tree, written for a castrated man, sung by a woman pretending to be a man, who is a Persian king, although the words are in Italian, and the music is composed by a German composer, who lived in London.

Times and places fade away; gender roles and national identities will always be in flux, but beauty–beauty remains.

Never was a shade
of any plant
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.