Unitarian Hymnal Sing-along

In which Kathryn attempts to sing a different song everyday from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, 'Singing the Living Tradition'. Earlier posts are based on songs from the Reader's Digest songbooks she found at yard sales as a child, including: 'Reader's Digest Treasury of Best Loved Songs', 'Reader's Digest Family Songbook', and 'Reader's Digest Family Songbook of Faith and Joy'. Bonus Folk song material from: 'Folk Song USA', by John and Alan Lomax.

27 September 2007

"Just as Long as I Have Breath"

Text by Alicia S. Carpenter:

Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, 'Yes' to life;
though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, 'Yes', to life

Just as long as vision lasts, I must answer, 'Yes' to truth;
in my dream and in my dark, always: that elusive spark.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, 'Yes' to truth.

Just as long as my heart beats, I must answer, 'Yes' to love;
disappointment pierced me through, still I kept on loving you.
If they ask what I did best, tell them I said, 'Yes' to love.

Typing this text out makes me like it more than singing it did. The tune to this piece is a little too hymn-like for my liking, in a predictable hymn way. But reading these lines, I wonder what the writer's life is like, what was happening when she wrote these lines, what has happened to her since she wrote them.

I think about the courage that it takes to continue to strive for what one believes is right, as one grows older; as I grow older. There is a reason that activists are mostly young, that angry energy of youth can be well suited to tilting at windmills. My radical acts are very few and far between these days: if it's not a habit, like recycling, I don't have the time to devote to it. My energy goes into my family, or my personal, selfish pursuits: music, handwork, reading, sewing. I don't like to think a lot about what drove me at 23, I'm not sure that the me from then would recognize me now, if it weren't for the same basic physical shape. Heck, even that is morphing in ways I'm not so fond of.

An embarassing truth: I recently got the last Peter, Paul and Mary album, and I don't like it much. It's not just that the songs don't have attractive hooks, it's that I'm uncomfortable thinking about these people in their sixties being activists. There's a rigid part of me that believes that the old folks should sit back and pray, or read to their grandkids, or write memoirs. What are these people doing talking about the environment and human rights? I really hate that I'm thinking like this. I want to weed it out.

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26 September 2007

"It Is Something to Have Wept"

Text by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

It is something to have wept as we have wept, and something to have done as we have done;
it is something to have watched when all have slept, and seen the stars which never see the sun.

It is something to have smelt the mystic rose, although it break and leave the thorny rods;
it is something to have hungered once as those must hunger who have ate the bread of gods.

To have known the things that from the weak are furled, the fearful ancient passions, strange and high;
it is something to be wiser than the world, and something to be older than the sky.

Lo, and blessed are our ears for they have heard: yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
let the thunder break on human, beast and bird, and lightning. It is something to have been.

I really like this text, it has a mystery to it, and the song backs it up--though the text lays mighty strangely over that very last line. It is good to be singing more.

Tonight I did something slightly cool. I've started to sing with a local church choir, a Unitarian Church choir, and it was my second rehearsal tonight. This choir has been, astondingly, short of sopranos. Usually in a choir you can shoot half the sopranos and not miss them at all: not so here. While there were fifteen people at the first rehearsal that I attended, there were only seven there this evening, no basses (the low men's part), only two sopranos (the high women's part, including me). The other soprano is the woman who recruited me most enthusiatically.

We were singing a piece called 'Everybody Rejoice', and because this is what I do when I can, I was singing the second soprano part, harmony just a little lower, when it existed. Harmony is always more fun than melody, in my estimation. At the very end, in tiny script, the sopranos can hit an optional high 'A'. This is fairly standard for a first soprano, I've seen many parts that go up to a high 'C', still within expected bounds. My fellow soprano turned to me and said "I'm not really a first soprano. Can you hit that 'A'?" I said yes, and the director said, "Then do it." So I did.

Many things about singing are a challenge to me, but singing high notes is not one of them. I am a very good choral singer, and singing with this group makes me want to do the happy dance over and over, I'm that excited about singing in a choir again, practicing the skills of sight reading, blending, harmonies, new songs, difficult rhythms: it's all food for the happiness.

So I hit the 'A', knowing that I hit the 'D' above it in my lesson the other day, knowing that I can sing this straight and clear and on pitch like a little choirboy, and they said: "Huh. That'll break glass."

Again, it's not the most difficult thing that I do. It feels like cheating to be praised for it. But it's still nice to be able to do something just a little cool.


21 September 2007

"I Brought My Spirit to the Sea"

This text is by Max Kapp:

I brought my spirit to the sea; I stood upon the shore.
I gazed upon infinity, I heard the waters roar.
And then there came a sense of peace, that whisper calmed my soul.
Some ancient ministry of stars had made my spirit whole.

I brought my spirit to the trees that loomed against the sky.
I touched each wand'ring careless breeze to know if God was nigh.
And then I felt an inner flame that fiercely burned my tears.
Upright, I rose from bended knee to meet the asking years.

The song has stuck in my head for the last few days that I've been attempting to blog it. It does feature two of the things in nature that I find particularly sacred: the ocean, and trees. Trees: always a mystery and a magnificence--how do they manage to grow so big, survive so many storms? I do love the trees. The ocean calms me, grounds me with its watery charm. I don't live near the ocean, have never lived close enough to live with it year round, but I'm a better person when I can spend time with the ocean at least yearly. Another plus for this song: I'm quite fond of the image that the last line brings to my head: Meeting the asking years, body in motion, something brave and beautiful moving forward in time to meet the mystery.

This morning I got to sing with a choir that I wasn't leading. I got to sing soprano, and sometimes a harmony line (the absolute best of both worlds). I got to sing things that I didn't choose, didn't have to lead or teach. And they were great! New stuff that I was happy to learn, familiar songs in powerful arrangements, sung by people who could sing, and men, and everything. It felt like Christmas. Sometimes, it truly doesn't take a lot to make me very very happy.

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20 September 2007

"The World Stands Out on Either Side"

This is a strange little text to set a song in a hymnal--I'd expect this of Ned Rorem, my very favorite song composer from my college singing days, but not of the Unitarians. Darn them, always surprising me with their depths! The text is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the song itself is also less than typical. I'm not sure if I like it, but it does stick in my head somehow.

The world stands out on either side
no wider than the heart is wide;
above the world is stretched the sky
no higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push the sea and land
so far away on either hand;
the soul can split the sky in two
and let the face of God shine through.

On of my over-arcing themes of the last six months or so has been Giving Up. One of my friends tonight attempted to reframe this as 'Letting Go', and although the idea is similar, and the results may be identical, that's not the phrase that comes to mind. I've Given Up pretending that I'm not a mom and a housewife. So sterotypical! I am a caregiver where ever I go! Working outside the home? Sure! I love my job--as a massage therapist: let me ease your pain, my friend. I've crocheted a couple dozen full size afghans and countless baby afghans, admittedly my best and most lasting legacy at this point, besides my daughter, and the afghans will probably outlast her as well. Still on that same 'take care of you' theme, though.

This is not what I planned to Be when I grew up. I was thinking a doctorate in Computer Science, actually, or Math. And here I am, cooking dinner, doing laundry, saying 'no' to my daughter, picking up my husband from work when his bike gets a flat. It is good and important work, I know this, but it is not what I planned, and it has taken me a long time to even begin to just Give Up.

I'm still working on it, working on not being bitter or impatient, working on accepting my legacy and the value of what I do, and I think I've begun to really do it, really Give Up. Beginnings can feel very good sometimes. I'm taking a deep breath, and Giving Up all the time, now.

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18 September 2007

"Down the Ages We Have Trod"

A very traditional sounding title, there, but the text to this one reads a little differently, touching on the different views of God that Unitarians hold, acknowledging that the primary search is for what we hold sacred. The melody is less inspirational than the last one, but it is still good practice to sing it, especially coming off a cold, working through the gunk, as I am.

I am a cynic in many ways. I am pessimistic in my views of men and women interacting in society, the future of our planet and environment, and I am a worrier on a personal level relating to all my beloved friends and family. This may not qualify me for membership in the Cynic Society of America, but it does pain me to have this knee jerk negative reaction to some things. I was 'raised' to believe that this is, if not a cardinal sin, certainly a Very Bad Thing To Do. One's responses in any given situation should be based on that present moment, given thought or intuitive impetus. I think that the sorry of my ageing is that I am so often overwhelmed with my life that I find myself unable to think in the present. I suspect that I still do so a little more often than the average Jane, given the gift of my coming of age years, but it still grieves me to not be fully present in all my decisions. The solution to this might be to practice my mindfulness, to meditate on some regular basis. I would love to have this be part of my daily routine, along with running, and doing the incredibly boring abdominal strengthening exercises, and taking care of my daughter and my home, and working, and the music that feeds me.

I'll work on fitting that meditation thing right in, right before or after I do my nails. Uh huh.

17 September 2007

"That Old Time Religion/May Nothing Evil Pass This Door"

All of my four regular readers have noticed that it's been a mighty long time since I've written daily, or at all. I'm still singing, and still needing to write and to organize my thoughts, but nothing has happened here. While this is partially due to the waves of my life carrying me out to sea on a regular basis, I think I've mostly been avoiding my blog because I couldn't stand the music, and that songbook was just never going to end. It's appropriate that the last song, the song that had me stuck through multiple days, is 'That Old Time Religion'. I am all about the old time religion, or more accurately, that new religion that we like to think harkens to the way old, to the polytheistic, unafraid of sex, woman-friendly, earth-friendly religion going on previous to the current monotheistic trend. (We can argue this as a term, and as a trend, and as history, but in my personal Judeo-Christian inspired world, it's how I'm going to frame things.)

It's so hard not to love the music of my Catholic upbringing, especially when the church's very existence is what let music as we know it in the west first be recorded on parchment, and what initially inspired so much gorgeous harmony, polyphony, virtuosity and orchestral splendor. All that so that I can now sing folk songs and play my mandolin, reading little dots on paper and making sense of it. Ah! And that doesn't even touch the fact that I still know all the words to the Catholic hymns of my childhood (frankly horrifying the friends who don't), or that I still cry and cry when I hear 'Be Not Afraid'.

To inspire my forever-music hungry brain, while still keeping to a sacred genre, I will now be singing from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, 'Singing the Living Tradition'. I'm going to include the words to these songs sometimes, since they may in general be less familiar. This first song's words are by Louis Untermeyer:

May nothing evil cross this door,
and may ill fortune never pry
about these windows; may the roar
and rain go by.

By faith made strong, the rafters will
withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
will keep you warm.

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms
into a shrine.

With laughter drown the raucous shout,
and, though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.

I love this. These words, the peace they bring my heart. This is a perfect prayer to me: poetry set to music, poetry that speaks clearly of what is important and dear, set to music that gently holds the text.

Today in my voice lesson we talked about my own connection to physicality, and how that relates to singing. The more I understand the sensuality of anything, the more I feel it, the more I understand it. Years ago I did a movement workshop in which the presenter spoke of letting each cell in the body be like a garden, with the dancer as the gardener: what does this do to my movement, to my experience? What does it do to my singing, to my music, if I let it inhabit my body fully? If I let the vibrations affect every cell?

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