abba's way

Music. It had come slowly, in spurts.

Music. It had come slowly, in spurts. A little boy singing “Careless Love” in a 1940s-era  recording booth in the Empire State Building. In self-audition. Yes near a movie theater on 86th Street, dreaming of going on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Rehearsing “She’s My Sunflower from The Sunflower State”.   In obedient participation in the Brick Church children’s choir. In seemingly endless efforts to write notes, while picking away at “A Bicycle Built for Two” in Mr. Horvath’s dark apartment a few blocks from mine. In constant listening to AM radio under the covers, into the night. Lux Radio Theater. Talent Scouts. The Hit Parade. In listening with Bardolph to 78″ records on a huge wind-up Victrola. “Why Do They All Pick on Freshie?” In absorbing Josh White, Danny Kaye, Burl Ives, Spike Jones, Marais & Miranda at home. At Exeter, I heard my first Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie, along with the magic sounds within Harry Smith’s incredible collection of American folk music. These were early long-playing records. There was a transparent Stinson ten-inch with more than 20 songs – “Devlish Mary”, “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet”, “We Shall Walk Through The Valley”. Seraphic. Performing “Bring A Little Water, Silvy” at an Exeter dance. Elvis Presley singing “Mystery Train” at a little diner in Wiliamstown. Hearing close harmonies at Camp Rabbit Hollow.  “Ready, indeed I’m ready. Tell the good Lord I’ll be ready when the great day comes.” Transported to a new freedom to the strains of  “Spirit of God Descend upon My Heart” at a camp in Maine. Singing with Al Carmines at Union Theological Seminary. “Tell Her No.” “Don’t make me go to bed and I’ll be good.”   Freedom songs in 1961 at Kelly Miller Smith’s First Baptist Church in Nashville. Singing with Ganya in the basement of St. James United Church of Christ in Chicago’s Old Town. “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at.” “Wildwood Flower.”  Performing an acerbic self-composed talking song in the chapel at the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1966. Driving around Chicago in my beautiful old VW, saturated by the encouraging words of “Hey Jude” as politics imploded in August, 1968. Music. Always there. But never as it would become.

Music was all that was left when I hung up the phone, after Dean Peerman, then managing editor of The Christian Century, completed an apology for the Century’s not having told me that my efforts to salvage a career had come to naught. What did it mean to have burned almost every bridge to what remained my ultimate concern?  It meant you need to find a perfect pebble. There was nothing conscious in my movement. I did not find a perfect pebble on a dirt road or at the bottom of a brook.  My perfect pebble was the smooth and magic reality of Scripture. It was the Word. It was words made into song. The servants of King James committed words to paper, turning old Near Eastern texts into English during the years past Shakespeare’s time.  I became a novice theologian, taking words found now in every Gideon Bible.  Singing them. Turning them into songs. Turning myself into a writer of songs. And thus began my real life.


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