“A spark of life on a wire from heaven”
I was not going to mention this. Really I wasn’t…but I am convinced that failure to mention it will be met with stern looks and raised eyebrows in my direction. I do not think any discussion of the four seasons within a context of music could go by without at least a passing reference to Antonio Vivaldi’s magnificent ‘The Four Seasons.” It is perhaps one of the most approachable pieces of classical music for people who may not normally profess to like that type of music. I think that is because people recognize what he was trying to do with the piece in making a musical portrait of the seasons of the year. You can feel the buzzing insects and impending storm in ‘summer’, the icy rain of ‘winter’, but mostly you can feel the invigoration of spring within the first few glorious notes of the composition.
It is the perfect example of music that makes you feel glad to be alive, much like that first day of spring when you can shed the winter coat, head outside to smell nature all around you and take in the vibrant colors after the dullness of a long winter. Because of all of that nature springing to life seemingly overnight-tree buds waking up, tulip, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs popping out from the ground, birds returning and singing their own songs it feels like a beginning all over again. In a way I think of it much like birth itself.
I suppose that is because it seems to bring so much happiness back into our lives when spring begins. Which is what the birth of a child brings to people similarly. Not having children I have to rely on friends and family who have had them to understand that incredible moment. Often I hear words or phrases like miracle, transforming, inspirational, and connection to describe that special time after a child is born, but most importantly of all what I hear is love. Time seems to freeze, and whatever pressures and concerns existed the day before seem to vanish once a new life enters the world. That is what the idea behind Runrig’s song News From Heaven is all about-
“Ideologies come, ideologies go,
A waste of words, and endless flow,
But now you’re here I feel no fear,
I can’t believe the news from heaven”
When I began assembling this series of blogs together, this song from their 1989 album Searchlight was one of the first I thought of. One reason was because I had long wanted to do a blog about Runrig, who have been one of my favorite bands for years now. The other reason is that the song is simply quite touching and beautifully written. Then again, that is something Runrig has been doing well for years. They have been together now since 1973, having formed on the Isle Of Skye in Scotland. Brothers Rory and Calum MacDonald have written the bulk of their material, filled with images of the Scottish landscape and its people. Since the beginning they have also included a few songs on each album written in the Scottish-Gaelic dialect, something precious few people ( be they musicians or writers) were doing around the time of their formation. Runrig can certainly claim a big part in the resurgence of that language. Together with the beautiful and expressive singing of Donnie Munro (and since 1997 his replacement Bruce Guthro) on most of the songs, Runrig over time developed a large fan base, especially in Scotland, where they continue to play in front of very large crowds to this day. You can read their official history right here- http://www.runrig.co.uk/?page_id=56, and of course there are hundreds of videos of them through the years on YouTube.
There are many things to admire about Runrig. The lyrics are always engaging and thought provoking and the music conveys the emotion and feel of the landscape around them in Scotland. There is a deep sense of connection to their culture and their language which I feel are critical to our identity. Some people may eschew these things, but I have always felt it to be important. News From Heaven however comes from a different place. It comes from a place of maturity and sensitivity. It reminds me of those first days of spring that arrive after a long cold winter. Of tender new shoots on trees and plants forming. Of innocence and the promise of the growth to follow in the coming years. Of happiness and a life where there was none only the day before. Of living and breathing joy.
GROWTH & LEARNING
“Keep your eyes wide open”
Gradually those newborn days go by and we begin moving through our childhood. Though I can remember bits and pieces from my young childhood, I find as I get older and more time passes that it becomes harder to accurately remember specific times or events. For example, I can remember vividly the day Richard Nixon resigned as President. It was August 1974 and I was six years old and though I did not understand what was happening, I watched the farewell ceremonies and that one final wave from him standing on the steps of the helicopter. The reason I remember it though is because my parents came in the house and told me it was too nice a day to be inside watching TV. However, despite being only a few scant weeks later I cannot remember my first day of school in September of 1974. Though my parents have hanging in their house a photo to immortalize that moment of me with long bright orange-red hair, carrying a book bag that looked more like a bowling bag, and decked out in my Catholic school uniform of checkered pants, yellow shirt, and checkered clip on tie, I have no actual recollections of the day.
The era of education had begun, even if my lasting memories of childhood are some sort of amalgamation of various times, little snippets that appear in my head usually involving family or school events. Often the memories are aided by photos (though that clearly wasn’t the case with my first day of school). Another way some of those memories will be released from the storage vault inside my brain is through books, music and television. On TV there were shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company to supplement what we were being taught in school. For books we had stacks of them around the house which had previously been read by my sisters. Every so often I will wander into the children’s section of a book store and look through some of the classic stories that were part of my childhood and smile at the memory of them. Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Giving Tree’ and Virginia Lee Burton’s ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’ were particular favorites at the time. Others are suddenly remembered by way of a title or cover and I am instantly transported back in time as a little boy reading them.
Similarly, though I do not recall what my first encounters with popular music were I remember at some point in the early years a vinyl record by country singer Tom T Hall appeared in our house. It was a children’s album called Songs Of Fox Hollow. It was a charming collection of self-penned songs about the animals that lived on Hall’s farm. In the inner sleeve of the record was a booklet with lyrics and drawings of characters like Ole Lonesome George The Basset, The Mysterious Fox, and my own favorite, Sneaky Snake. This video clip of the song is comprised of stills from that inner sleeve, and I remember following along with it when I was young.
In thinking about this song now, I would probably consider it to be the first song I truly loved. Though I went through a period where I would have never admitted it, in truth I never forgot this song, and the chorus of “I don’t like old Sneaky Snake, he laughs too much at me” has never gone away. I think part of the reason the album was so memorable and charming is because Hall wrote the songs thinking about what kids would like, instead of what they should like. Thinking about it now it reminds me of what the great Woody Guthrie said about his own children’s album-
“Don’t just buy these records and take them home so your kids can play around with them while you go off and do something else. I want to see you join right in, do what your kids do. Let your kids teach you how to play and act these songs out…Watch the kids. Do like they do. Act like they act. Yell like they yell. Dance the way you see them dance. Sing like they sing. Work and rest the way the kids do….I don’t want the kids to be grownup. I want to see the grown folks be kids.”
“And know they love you”
That I don’t recall other memories more clearly is not something I really lament or worry about. It was a long time ago, and my childhood was amazingly ordinary, guided by the two best parents one could ever ask for, not to mention two loving older sisters. Well now I suppose I should amend that statement. I know it was not always so easy, especially for my parents, and truthfully my sisters did annoy me sometimes, as I surely did them. Courtesy of my sisters I was even provided with a clever acronym for the first three letters of my name- RED OBSTINATE BOY to prove my stubborn streak. Actually my wife will tell you that is still a fitting acronym in many ways to this day.
But having great and loving parents and sisters that looked out for me, I think part of the reason I do not remember a lot from my young days is because I did not have to. There were no particularly traumatic moments. Sure there were the usual schoolyard scraps, bad test scores, and other typical problems. I remember a lot of teasing in those days because of my hair color. At the time being called ‘Red’ or ‘Carrot Top’ bothered me but when I was older the tables were turned when people told me how much they wished they could have my red hair! I was also the shortest boy in my grade for 8 consecutive years, which did me no favors either. Though I did not handle these situations in the best ways quite often, my life was blissfully normal otherwise.
Fleeting though those memories may be, I think the reason that time has such happy memories is that we were allowed to grow on our own in many ways. We knew our boundaries and what we could NOT do, but what we could do was ride our bikes around the neighborhood by ourselves, circling the surrounding blocks like Olympic cyclists at the velodrome and attempting to pop wheelies or ride with no hands on the handlebars. What we could do was be out for several hours as long as we came back at the stated time by our parents, instinctively knowing the precise moment that defined mild admonishment or stern punishment. What we could do was climb trees without supervision, though jumping off them or garage roofs was disapproved of (I don’t know why this was such a thing, but there was always someone once a year or so who broke an arm or leg jumping off a garage for some peculiar reason). What we could do was play stick-ball after school, with the painted yellow lines on the schoolyard parking lot delineating the base path and the church hall serving as our imaginary home run fence. We would play with a blue Spalding hand ball and a broom handle for the bat, with electrical tape stuck on in various patterns for a grip, and our ties tied around our foreheads bandanna style with shirtsleeves rolled up. Major props would be given to any kid who hit it clear over the roof while the unenviable task of running clear round the building to retrieve said ball was assigned randomly and with great protestation, and usually when located was accompanied by shouts of, “throw it over Joe so we can keep playing.”
Obviously we did push boundaries sometimes. I recall one such incident that I believe we got away with. Several new homes were being built near our house when I was around 7 or 8 years old. They actually had to build a new street to put these homes in. A few of us sneaked into the basements of one of these houses through an open window and walked around the half built house, dodging stacks of lumber and drywall. Think of the legal and insurance ramifications of that happening in today’s society! We walked on the railroad tracks, daring to cross a small trestle bridge over the pond before a train came, and I remember a time when someone chose a jump in the mucky pond rather than risk an encounter with the oncoming train. The difference through all of this was we knew our parameters and we were allowed to figure things out as we went along. We were not force fed rules that made us want to rebel and break them when we were younger (our teenage years being vastly different sets of rules). We accepted the rules which made us grow wiser in many ways. We also learned a lesson when we did things wrong.
Whenever I look back and think of those lessons and rules (whether we deemed them to be just or unjust at the time) I think of the words to ‘Teach Your Children’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There has been much analysis of this song over the years. Some say Graham Nash wrote it about his relationship with his own father. Wherever the inspiration for it lies, and cutting through the analysis, it is a song that grabs you within the first few notes. Those glorious harmonies, and that wonderful pedal steel guitar played by Jerry Garcia (supposedly as a trade off for learning how to sing harmony from CSN&Y) pull you in from the first few notes. I think the beautiful thing about it is that it speaks both to parents and children. It reminds me of those simple truths and lessons that my parents instilled my sisters and I with. I can recall them chastising me for throwing something as small as a gum wrapper on the ground rather than placing it in the trash. Or yelling “YOU SUCK” at the top of your lungs to an under performing baseball player in the hopes he might actually hear you for the simple reason that it was disrespectful. Obviously I was learning in school as well, but I feel the best lessons, and the ones that really mattered the most came from my parents.
That is the beauty of a good song. It can simultaneously inspire you and make you remember moments from your past. Something about those harmonies and that pedal steel goes deep for me, and yet I know that I am not alone. Years ago I remember watching a show on PBS about young teachers in training for jobs in challenging schools. It showed them throughout the process as they prepared for imminent challenges ahead. On what was to be their first morning teaching, they all got in a van together. Their instructors told them they had one final lesson. A CD was placed in the stereo and the song that came out was Teach Your Children. I remember it got quiet because they all knew the song, and they all knew it was their time to inspire. Spring begins with birth and ends with growth, with a whole lot of learning in between. Though I may not remember a lot of specific details from my ‘spring’ what I do remember shaped me in to who I am today and inspires me to remember those lessons. Music helps keep that feeling in my heart.
Next up tomorrow is summer, all about maturing, strength, and real life. Be sure to read it right here.
The Four Seasons-Composed by Antonio Vivaldi
News From Heaven-Written by Calum & Rory MacDonald
Sneaky Snake-Written by Tom T Hall
Teach Your Children-Written by Graham Nash
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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