From Lyle Lofgren's journals, 1992 - 2010

[This is mainly musical miscellany.
For specific comments on traditional music, see our Remembering the Old Songs page,
as well as the articles linked in the Brandy Snifters Home Page.
And, yes, the title is misleading: there's only one entry between 1999 and 2010.]




Sept. 29, 1992:
When we travelled to the Lake Superior North Shore earlier this month, we stopped at Banning State Park, and, while strolling, came upon a family from Chicago. The adult male, named Gary, was playing a beautiful tune on his hammered dulcimer. He said it was named Blind Mary, and was composed by O'Carolan, a blind Irish harpist who lived at the turn of the 17th-18th century. We exchanged addresses, and he promptly sent me the sheet music to the tune. I spent quite a bit of time trying to play the tune on the fiddle (the Every Good Boy Does Fine method of finding notes on a staff is pretty tedious). My theory was that, if I learned to play the tune while looking at the notes, I could then listen to it while I was playing, and thus memorize it by my usual ear method. Surprisingly, I encountered interference, even though I have no trouble reading and understanding ordinary writing while listening to music. I worked hard on it Saturday AM, but found I could not remember the piece unless the sheet music was in front of me. Finally, when I could play it without looking, I found myself visualizing the notes on the staff, anyway. That's not the sort of thing I want to be visualizing while playing music. Finally, I was able to transfer the tune to my ear, and can now remember it without looking at the music, but it was a much more difficult process than I had imagined it would be. Liz was able to pick up the tune very quickly in her usual way, by playing it along with me, once I had learned it. When I recall a memorized poem, I don't visualize the poem as if it were on a page; it sort of speaks itself, where the utterance of one line prompts my memory for the next line. My normal ear playing of an instrument is similar: not that different from singing. I wonder what, if anything, is the difference between that sort of memorization and the kind I was having trouble with. Similarly, I find that, although I have somewhat of an understanding of spoken Swedish, I flounder around with written Swedish. I have to pronounce it out and listen to the word before I can understand it. I now have a feeling how a person from an illiterate culture might want to resist learning to read: you lose something in the translation.

[Addendum, June 8, 1994: I recently talked to an American woman who is a classical musician, and adept at sight-reading, but who also plays keyboard with some Cambodians who play traditional music at Cambodian weddings, funerals, etc. I told her of my experiences with Blind Mary, and she says she has the opposite problem with Cambodian music, which is of course aurally transmitted. When she learns a piece with the Cambodians, she first has to learn it by ear, which for her is a tedious process. She then transcribes it onto sheet music, and as long as she doesn't lose the sheet music, can play along with that specific piece anytime. But once she has transcribed it, she is dependent on the sheet music, and can no longer just play along without it: sight reading is her natural mode. I once read the allegation that one of the things we lose when we become literate is the ability to memorize long pieces of information. In other words, bards like Homer or oral historians like the ones in Melanesia (or is it Micronesia, or maybe Polynesia?) who know everyone's family tree back for 20 generations can only exist if they are illiterate. Once they learn to read and write, they can no longer make use of the full capabilities of the oral mode. After my experiences with sheet music, I'm inclined to agree.]


April 23, 1993:
There was an article about a fiddle bow maker in Wednesday's Minneapolis Strib. The photo showed him measuring bow thickness with a vernier caliper, while the caption identified it as a "veneer caliper." Another case of spelling by eer. Well, after all, he was measuring wood with it.

My favorite poetry of the week comes from the cassette I'm reviewing for Old Time Herald magazine: Native Virginia Ballads, Blue Ridge Institute Series BRI-004. Titled Highway 52, it was composed and sung by Little Doc Raymond & the Coleman Pardners in 1968. I imagine they had dreams of making as much money from a truck wreck song as you used to be able to do with a train wreck song. The really poetic part is a recitative:

One day I saw a driver
Carried from an awful wreck
Now they say his hip and back was broke,
But you know, it could have been his neck.



November 11,1993:
This A.M., the Minnesota Public Radio Morning Show played a song by Gordon Bok titled This Old Mandolin -- strangely, the only accompaniment was an autoharp. A recurring verse of the song went something like this (from memory, but fairly accurately):

This old mandolin, playing so fine,
Was given to me by a bum down the line.
He gave it to me with these last words,
"Before I cross over, I'll show you some chords."

Now there's poetry! My only complaint is that Bok didn't carry it far enough. I thought of some variants he could use:
...he said, "although I'm feeling terribly shitty,
I'll teach you the strum for bump-diddy bump-diddy."

... "Before I go up with the angels to sing,
I'll try to get rid of the buzz in that string."

... "Although you can see I am mortally sick,
I'll show you a slick Bill Monroe-ish lick."

This guitar, with sunburst on red,
Once belonged to a hobo, who said,
"Before I go and kick the bucket,
I'll teach you to pick like Riley Puckett."



January 10, 1994:
The Weem's String Band version of Davy has a blatantly racially offensive verse, so I composed one that's sizeist instead of racist:

A nought is a nought, and a one is a digit,
Why can't a tall man dance like a midget?
He can't cut a clean step, he tends for to fidget,
That's why he can't dance like a midget.

And, as a special bonus, a second verse came to me:

B is a consonant, A is a vowel,
How do you make Alan Ginsburg howl?
Soak some turpentine in his towel,
That will make Alan Ginsburg howl.



June 8, 1994:
A friend forwarded some e-mail messages from a guitar newsgroup bouncing around the ideas of learning how to convert notes on music paper to sounds, specifically to be produced on a classical guitar. One guy wanted a computer program that would flash the notes of a chord on a staff; he could sit in front of the screen trying to figure out where his fingers should go to produce that chord; he could then push a button to see if he had done it right. Someone else answered that he had used a computer graphics program to draw real (versus electronic) flash cards. The idea was that an accomplice would flash them at him, and he would learn the chords that way. What he learned, though, was that the very act of making the flash cards taught him the chords, so once he had made them, he didn't need them. It seems to me that, following this idea, it would be even better for the student to copy the sheet music over onto another piece of music paper, and further to do the copying by hand -- it's low tech, but the learning experience would be more direct.

I read somewhere (I think it was in Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Brain) that the cerebrum requires somewhat more than a second to process information, while the cerebellum reacts very quickly. Therefore, if a task requires any amount of dexterity (driving, typing, playing music), the task must be controlled by the cerebellum, and the learning process consists of moving the cognitive/motive skill from the cerebrum ("let's see now: Every Good Boy Deserves Favor") to the cerebellum, where you "don't have to think about it." The only reason for practicing scales is because the notes in a specific scale appear in a musical piece more often than those that are not in the scale (Schoenberg music excepted, of course). However, since the cerebellum is also where the ability to produce expressive music originates, it seems to me that it's better to learn the musical pieces directly rather than wasting time practicing scales.



Sept. 23, 1994:
Carleen Hutchins is now 83, and has been studying and building violins for 45 years. She claims to be scientific. She wrote an article about violins for Scientific American a long time ago, and the PBS Nova TV program had a show about her a few years ago. It was from these sources that I picked up everything I know about violin acoustics so I can bore people at parties with learned discussions about plate vibrational modes, and how they change with frequency to produce uniform volume across the acoustic spectrum in a well-made violin.

She's made about 400 viol-family instruments in her career. There's a short article about her in the 9/3/94 issue of Science News.

She collects old wood wherever she can find it: a spruce beam (1756) from a demolished Swiss chalet, and some planks from a Connecticut hospital built in 1830. She says:

A wood's age is very important. Violin makers' lore says that it takes 50 years for optimum seasoning. I respect that lore. Most of the time it turns out to be right.

No one is quite sure why aged wood sounds better, but once a tree is cut, crystals begin to form in its cell walls. The older the wood, the greater its crystallinity and the less susceptible it is to airborne moisture. Hutchins believes that those crystals alter the wood's resonant frequencies by augmenting its vibrations.

[Martin used to put non-adjustable neck trusses in their guitars, on the theory that no one would ever need to re-straighten the neck of a superb guitar. I suspect they only put the truss in at all as a marketing tool, to keep up with the Gibsons of this world. If they were using 50-year-old wood for their necks, they probably didn't need trusses.]

Craftsmen believe that a top violin needs 80 years of good playing to get broken in properly. Players often report that an unused instrument "goes to sleep" and requires regular playing to bring back its luscious sound. Hutchins thinks the explanation lies in how the harmonic vibrations of bowing affect the polymer chains of violin wood. Over time, the polymers tend to suffer microscopic breaks, which then reform into subtly different patterns. To test her theory, she ties some instruments to speaker cones and subjects them to 1500 hours of classical music. "They do sound better afterwards," she says.

[I still remember the disappointingly thin sound we heard when, in Columbia, MD, we went to hear a string quartet play Stradivarius instruments that had been safely locked up in the Smithsonian for many years. Notice that classical music is required, and quite a bit of it. I have heard there's a CD player on the market that holds 100 CD's, and will shuffle through them repeatedly. This idea is the only one I can think of that would justify buying such a player. There's no telling what would happen to an instrument if you exposed it to 1500 hours of Fiddlin' John Carson.]

[Note added 2010: Carleen Hutchins died in 2009, at age 98.]

Speaking of such things, I finally convinced someone to work on my new computer to get it running properly. The first time it was set up, it was sort of goofed up, and I don't understand anything about autoexec.bat or something.sys or whatever the troubles were. Anyway, it turns out this one came with a CD player, ostensibly for loading programs and accessing data (CD-ROM, harrumph). Actually, though, you can plug in inconspicuous headphones and play regular CD's while doing other things on the computer. It works great, at least until someone without an ear for music or a sense of humor finds out about it. So far, I've only had time to listen to the Burns Sisters, the Rounder Leadbelly Titanic, and Laurie Lewis' new CD, True Stories. The player buttons, which appear as a windows icon looking like a real CD player, has an extra feature, a rewind/Fast Forward control that moves through about 15 seconds of music at a time. Terrific for trying to get the words right. Of course, I'd never dream of using company time for entering the words on my word-processing program while listening to them on the CD. That would be dishonest, like stealing pens or computer paper.


Nov. 15, 1994:
The first flat pick was discovered by the inventor of the guitar, Johannes Lute, who was also a carpenter. One day while pounding nails, he hit his finger with a hammer, and, as often happens, the fingernail fell off. It was painful to play the guitar this way, so he picked up the dead fingernail off the ground and began to use it to strum the strings (that's why it's called a pick). He found he could play 10 times as many notes in the same period of time as with his fingers. Tradition has since dictated that flat picks be shaped not like teardrops (you can't play a sad tune with a flat pick), but like dead fingernails. Experiments with other shapes, such as spherical flat picks, didn't work out because they just simply weren't flat. Round flat picks were popular for awhile, because they offer equal facility in all orientations, but they had the disadvantage that you could just as easily use a nickel, and flat picks sell for more than 5 cents. Rectangular flat picks have the disadvantage that, as they wear down, they assume the shape that the dead fingernail already has. Rock Star experiments with outlandishly sized dildo-shaped flatpicks had to be abandoned when the Plaster-Casters (remember them?) demonstrated that, with the possible exception of Jimmy Hendrix, the stars were exaggerating.


December 1, 1994:
My new composition, the Generic Blues:

I got the generic blues, although I'm not to blame, Lawd, Lawd,
I got the generic blues, although I'm not to blame;
Well, I start out with specifics, but it all ends up the same.



March 2, 1995:
A friend forwarded this message to me, posted by a professor on a USENET group about traditional music:

Dear Friends: I'm doing a study of special "meanings" in traditional American folk song, that is, of the sense or manner in which these old songs touch our lives and experience. In a related sense, I'd like to know if there might be a special reason you would choose to sing an old-time song, that is, do these old songs "say" anything in general (or particular) that you think is important (or ought to be important) in a social, cultural, spiritual, or even political sense--small "p" of course. Your reflections would be very valuable to me, and, should I cite what you say, I'll credit you with the idea in an end note. Hoping to hear from you.

I'm sorry, Professor, but I need more than being "credited with an idea in an end note" in order to explain the gustatory importance of I Heard The Voice af A Porkchop, and I imagine that another member of our band would feel the same way about the spiritual significance of Orphan Songs. And as to social importance, the human race would undoubtedly die out without songs like The Cuckoo's Nest, because otherwise where would we get our sex education? Not in the schools, that's for sure. Besides, I think such people as Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell have already written a little on the subject, although they might not have commented directly on the educational import of, say, Lightning Hopkins' Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl, which, as I recall, goes something like this:

Good morning, little schoolgirl,
Can I go home with, can I go home with you?
Go tell your papa and your mama
That I'm a little schoolboy, too.

I wanna be your chauffer, I wanna drive,
I say I wanna drive your limousine;
And if you let me rub it,
Baby, I'll keep your engine clean.

Come to think of it, in this age of rampant alleged child abuse, maybe this one will become a political protest song. Sing this one outside a school yard, and you'll be singing it on your way to jail.


March 22, 1995:
A friend forwarded this message, from a USENET folk music newsgroup:

Subject: Re: REQ: Song lyrics about Greenwich Village

In article (Andria L. Fiegel) writes: Hi -- this is a personal project of mine. I'm trying to compile a list of songs which mention NYC's Greenwich Village or streets/landmarks therein. (Bleecker Street, West 4th, etc.)

One example: Elizabeth Cotton's well-known 'Freight Train' has 'When I die please bury me deep, down at the end of Bleecker Street.' It was, I believe, written while she was Pete Seeger's parents' house-keeper. Greg

It's a well-known fact, of course, that Pete's parents lived on the end of Bleeker Street, which is why Pete had such a short walk to Washington Square, where he could hang out with Woody & Cisco & Bob Dylan, and learn songs from them. Libba only went down there to play chess for money, though, because she didn't want anyone to know that she was sneaking John Jacob Niles' dulcimer out from under the bed and practicing with it when she was supposed to be Hoovering the carpet.

Here are some other famous Greenwich Village musical references for these internetters who are so hungry for knowledge:

The Houston Rag was named after Houston Street.

Leadbelly wrote a song about the Village:

My Mama tol' me, My Papa too,
Goin' down on Perry Street, Son,
gonna be the death of you.

Ernest Stoneman's song about the subway:

A message arrived at the Fourteenth Street Station,
And this is what it read:
Those two brave men that pulled old 97
Are lyin' in Danville, dead.

Actually, his name wasn't Stoneman, but he was hanging around Christopher Street, and his eyes were red, and he was watching entertainment that no one else could see, when someone came up to him and asked, "How ya doin', Pop?" to which he answered, "I'm stoned, man." And the name stuck with him.

The Little Sandy Review fan magazine was named because one of the old-time denizens of Greenwich Village, Paul Pankake, went across town one day to Sloppy Louie's by the Fulton Fish Market, and ate an order of clams, which were a little sandy. Some years later, he was taking a bath when an electric heater fell in his bathtub, which caused the water to heat up, so he turned all red, thus inspiring him to compose his famous song:

Water-burned and I can't get home (3)
Way down in Greenwich Village.

And who could forget this old chestnut -- er, bleeker:

Wake up, wake up, Darlin' Gerde,
And dress yourself in beige;
We're goin' down to Folk City
To appear on the Open Stage.

And this one:

It was down at the White Horse barroom,
Not far from Abingdon Square,
The drinks were served as usual,
And Dylan Thomas, of course, was there.

He said, "I went down to Saint Vincent Hospital,
To look in my baby's face,
Lyin' out there in the hallway,
Just another welfare case."

Finally, there are all those folk singers who took their names from Greenwich Village coffeehouses, like Leadbelly's and Blind Lemon's, and other 1960's nightclubs too numerous to remember.

I'm really glad they're bringing up this historical folk music stuff, because I had forgotten it all.


March 31, 1995:
We went to the Cedar Cultural Center to see the Swedish band Garmarna last night. They're described as a band that plays traditional music while electrified, and, sure enough, they were all plugged in. Garmar is the dog who guards hell, similar to the Greeks' Cerberus, and -na is plural, so the name translates as Dogs From Hell.


The band consists of 5 members, all in their 20's. The drummer , though energetic, reminded me physically of Arvid, the dimwit in The Emigrants movies -- the one who drank the poisoned water. They had two rhythm guitarists (no lead guitar). Actually, one of them was a lute, but played like a rhythm guitar. The lutenist had a woodchopper look to him, and stomped around the stage in time to the music, sometimes lurching perilously close to the edge (we were in the front row). The other guitarist, as well as the fiddler, were of that sparrow-like, fine-boned Scandanavian somatype that must be descended from nobility, because none of my relatives look remotely like that. The fiddler played a standard fiddle (although in some tunes he tuned the G string way low, perhaps down to the D of I Ride An Old Paint or Midnight on The Water). He sometimes played a Hardanger fiddle (actually, that's a Norwegian word; I found out when I was in Sweden that the Swedish word for it is charleks viol --CHAIR licks fee UHL, or love fiddle, which is a literal translation of the Italian Viola d'Amore. My source on this, who is a classical violinist, said that both the Swedish and Norwegian versions originally came from Italy). The fiddler's tour-de-force instrument, though, was an electrified hurdy-gurdy that had some wonderful low notes to it. The fifth member occasionally played the Hardanger, but mainly functioned as a chick singer. That is, she dressed like one, with a 1970's Grace Slick pageboy haircut, lumberjack boots, unmatched ear-rings, and a silver decoration of some sort stuck through one nostril. Her singing, though, was a wonderful clear (non-bel canto) soprano that I've heard on tape from other scandanavian female singers. She also performed with a rigid sort of physical reserve that I associate with Scandanavians: I wonder where the myth of easy Scandanavian sexuality came from? We're either like that girl, rigid and unmoving, or we're stomping around like the guitarist. No wonder the Vikings headed south every chance they got.

Her songs, though, were in some wild scales that at the same time sounded traditionally Scandanavian, or rather like some pre-Christian version of Scandanavia, and many of the songs were old ballads. They had written some of the others themselves, but they still sounded traditional to me. They did not play any chestnuts, either of the Swedish or Swedish-American genre. The singer also gave an entertaining demonstration of Swedish cow-calling.

They ended their last number with what used to be called in Rock & Roll a "Rave-Up", with volume to the max, and the sound of the Hurdy-Gurdy being modified by a wah-wah pedal, and all the band stomping around on the stage, except for the chick singer, who sat primly on a chair at the edge of the stage, because her singing was over. No, I'm not making any of this up. Everyone cheered and yelled "bravo" (I thought people only did that for symphony orchestras and operas), but we didn't hang around for the encore. The 400 Club bar had a sign saying that Sleepy LaBeef was there last night, but I looked in the window when we walked by, and there was no sign of any performer. Maybe he was dozing.


April 16, 1996:
There was a newspaper story about young kid flying a plane with her father, and they crashed and both died. That should have caused someone to write a Tragic-Plane-Crash-Piloted-by-Underage-Child song. If this were the good old days, we'd be in the studio right now, recording it (maybe we could turn her into an orphan child -- at least, she would have been half-an-orphan if she hadn't died). In trying to think of what should go on the other side of the record, I was struck by how many of the tragedy songs involved moving vehicles, and almost none of them were about buildings being blown up, as in Oklahoma City -- there aren't even that many big fire songs (other than Baltimore). After Rye Cove and the Santa Barbara earthquake, you've just about covered it when it comes to destruction of property. Even trains loaded with Deadly Chlorine (evidently no-one ships non-deadly chlorine) don't have much musical history. But ships, trains, planes loaded with people -- they get the creative juices flowing. I had to go back a year, to the Amtrak derailment incident in Arizona, to come up with (to the tune of Wreck on the Somerset Road):

Neo-Luddites had loosened the railings,
And robbed them of their load.
'Twas the worst old wreck we ever did have
On that old, old Amtrak road.

And Unabomers: well, there's no tradition at all to draw on there, either from the bomb or mail aspect. With all these news happenings that have no previous songs to cannibalize, I guess it must mean that the millenium's coming, ready or not. After all, the last batch of check blanks we ordered came without the "19__ " imprinted in the dateline.

Incidentally, I saw in the paper this morning that they sang I'll Fly Away at the little girl's funeral. It's hard to top that, at least in the Wish Fulfillment Category.

I can't help, though, but thinking that the Clinton's are somehow to blame. Maybe Chelsea, in a fit of jealousy, shot down the plane with her .22? We should appoint an independent counsel to investigate.


January 29 1997:
I see by this morning's Minneapolis Strib that the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering declaring Carry Me Back To Old Virginny to be State Song Emeritus (nice irony there -- I've always said that Emeritus is Latin for in the way), to be replaced with another, more appropriate song. This action is being taken after they gave careful consideration to the proposal to change darkey to dreamer, and Old Massa to Old Mama. I suppose the line
Dar's whar ah labored so hard fo' Ol' Mama
sounds a bit too much like intra-familial abuse. But maybe they're onto something after all. The following alternate words to Kingdom Coming seem strangely poetic to me:

Ol' Mama's run away,
An' de dreamers stay at home,
An' it mus' be de time ob de Kingdom a-comin'
In de Year Ob Jubilo!



May 14, 1997:
(This was inspired by an article about discovery of a Neandertal flute, described in the article as "the oldest musical instrument"):

This just in from the Associated Press:


A German musico-archaeologist today announced a musical find that he claims clearly predates the recently discovered Neandertal flute. Professor Helmut Schitz, of Gotterdammerung Universitaat, announced the discovery of a well-preserved banjo buried with a body in a peat bog in Denmark. Both were darkened, but otherwise in excellent condition. The anoxic peat environment had evidently entirely prevented decay of the instrument.

"Dis ting's gotta be ein hundert thousand jahrs old," said the professor. "It's got that flute beat by a lot, that's for sure."

Professor Schitz theorized that the banjo might have been used to accompany the crudely stomping dances that he believes were popular among the Neandertals.

When asked if he might have mistaken a previously-unknown percussion instrument with sympathetic resonant strings for a genuine banjo, he responded, "Not a chance. Ve're sure it's a banjo, because ve tried to tune it up, und ve vere unsuccessful."


September 11, 1998:
This morning's Minneapolis Strib listed a Joe Blow (not his real name, but since I've never heard of him, it didn't stay with me real long) who's coming to the Cedar Cultural Center. He claims that, when he was young, he accompanied such blues greats as Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt. I'd never before realized that they needed accompaniment, until I figured out that he meant he hung around and watched them.

SO -- I'm going to revise my c.v. to say:
once accompanied blind musician Rev. Gary Davis,
without adding that I accompanied him to show him the way to the Walker Art Center toilet.


December 27, 1999:
A literary puzzle solved concerning Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

Mr. Kurtz was Jewish, and, on his deathbed was actually calling for an Israeli dance:
The Hora! The Hora!


June 18, 2001

[Note:I wrote this in response to a thread in the USENET group discussing the use of the bass in old-time music. Someone mentioned the helicon, so I of course remarked that the major area for developing the instrument was Helicon Valley. Someone asked where Helicon Valley is.]

Don't feel bad. A lot of people don't know the history of Helicon Valley. It was the site of an investment boom and bust not unlike that experienced by modern-day dot-com companies.

In the 19th century, every little town had a marching band, so there was a great demand for helicons to provide the bass beat for marching. That need was met by Californian entrepreneurs, who built numerous helicon factories in an area that was subsequently called Helicon Valley. The site, located at the foot of the Oompah Mountains, had previously been famous for its bass fishing opportunities. Success was due to the nearby brass mines, as well as labor from a supply of unemployed pretzel makers. Housing costs were outasight.

Unfortunately, when the Sousaphone was invented, everyone wanted to buy them to replace their helicons. Asousa, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, had a monopoly on Sousaphone manufacture, so Helicon Valley was deserted. All that's left now is the ghost town of its capitol, Tuba City.


December 12, 2010:
This time of year, you can't help but being painfully aware that Christmas is a commercial holiday, a paean to profits. The religious-mercantile hybrid nature of the holiday is most obvious in the junk flyers that come bundled with the daily newspaper, but over the years, the art community has found a way to turn a profit from Christmas, too. If the Friday after Thanksgiving is the day when the merchant's red ink turns black, the month of December is Black Month for the theater. Every theater in town is presenting programs that everyone's already seen: poor little Tiny Tim has to limp through another version of A Christmas Carol, just so Ebenezer Scrooge can find it in his heart to reject the Capitalist system for one day -- he'll be back to counting his coins tomorrow. Try to imagine a ballet company deciding not to present The Nutcracker this Christmas, on the grounds that they've done the same program every Christmas for the last 50 years, and the toy soldier uniforms are getting shopworn. The Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater made up a play around the Italian legend of La Befana, and they've been presenting it to returning audiences for several years.

I've managed to miss most of these, and of the ones I've seen (such as La Befana), I don't feel the need to see again. And I've managed to miss all the annual presentations of Handel's The Messiah oratorio. That is, until this year, when it was part of a series of Minnesota Orchestra concerts for which we bought tickets. I suppose that managing to miss The Messiah for 74 years is something of a miracle. I certainly haven't missed The Hallelujah Chorus -- no one could miss that. And when, as a teenager, I was a member of the Harris, Minnesota, Lutheran Church choir, we sang And The Glory of the Lord one Sunday morning. That was a foolhardy attempt on the part of the director: the choir consisted of 6 sopranos, 4 altos, 3 basses, and 2 tenors. I was one of the tenors, and the choir director was the other. Unfortunately, I couldn't read music and sang only by ear, so, most Sundays, I just sang the soprano part one octave lower. But Handel had a different idea -- he thought tenors were supposed to be singing their own part, and not in unison with the others, either. Maybe the mess we made of that performance had something to do with my avoidance of it.

Nonetheless, I decided that, despite the prospect of a two-hour (plus intermission) performance, I could sit through it. Osmo Vänska is one of my favorite conductors, and the tunes to Hallelujah and Glory of the Lord are very nice. What I didn't realize is that the reason those choruses are played a lot is because none of the rest of the vocal music has any tune whatever.

The orchestra had been pared down to chamber music size, about 30 or so musicians, and the rest were replaced by the Minnesota Chorale, which has about 50 members. The soloists were a soprano, counter-tenor, tenor, and a baritone. For some reason I couldn't understand, Handel decided against having any of them sing together. I think a vocal duet or trio might have helped.

By the time he wrote The Messiah, Handel had been composing for 40 years, and maybe he was getting a little tired (I noticed that, for one of the arias, he threw in an accompaniment from his earlier Water Music.). Or maybe there's a long tradition of not allowing soloists to sing tunes. I admit to a strange prejudice: I'm not bothered by orchestral music that has no discernable tune, and my ears can stand quite a bit of instrumental dissonance without objecting. But there's something about the singing human voice that seems to me to require melody to sound complete. Most genres of sung music meet this criteria. Even if the tune is in an unfamiliar scale or mode, I can tell when there's a tune and when there isn't. Although operas may have recitatives, the arias are almost always tuneful. Only classical music seems to have a tradition of making even the arias sound like recitatives -- recitatives performed by singers who stammer, and try to overcome the problem by starting each verse over again.

Fortunately, the words were printed in the program, because it's impossible to even tell what language a classical vocalist is using, much less what the words are. Unfortunately, the printed text made me realize how much repetition is used. I believe the record for economy of words is held by the counter-tenor aria at the beginning of Part II, He was despised ..., where Handel manages to make 16 words last for 16 minutes.

Eventually, we got to the Hallelujah Chorus, and I was astounded, because everyone stood up at once, just as if it were some sort of national anthem. Was I the only one in the sellout crowd who was caught off guard by this?

Finally, the oratorio was over, and I was left to reflect on one more mystery of Christmas: that there are lots of people who evidently come back every year to hear the skillful performance of unintelligible words sung to tuneless melodies.

I suppose I wouldn't object so much if this were a piece of secular classical music, or if my sole experience with sacred music were the bloodless Lutheran hymns we sang in the church of my youth. But I experienced a musical conversion years ago on a cold morning in rural southern Virginia. We were staying for a few days with an African-American family (a whole other, much longer, story, not relevant to music), and went with them to their Baptist church, located at a crossroads far out in the country. Because of the severe cold (-15º F in Virginia!), the church was almost empty, and the choir was about the same size as my old one in Harris. But they produced a sound that, for a couple of hours, turned me into a believer. The gospel songs they sang were not just about a living God -- it seemed as if that God were actually present, almost visible, and certainly palpable. Later, I ran across a quote from the Gandhara Tantras in Joseph Campbell's introduction to Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren:

One should worship a divinity by becoming oneself a divinity. One who has not become a divinity should not worship a divinity. Anyone worshipping a divinity without becoming a divinity will not reap the fruits of that worship.

That was the miracle wrought by that small choir at the Second New Buffalo Baptist church in Virginia. I now believe that you can't properly worship God without joy. No wonder The Messiah leaves me as cold as the winter weather outside here in Minnesota.