Home Grown Tomatoes

I wish we had more lighthearted songs in our repertoire, but there are only a few. One is “Home Grown Tomatoes”, a song by Guy Clark. Here’s his version, and a well-known one by John Denver. Ours is taken from a particularly slinky version done by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.

Think, then speak

Our first Christian church was All Saints Episcopal in Austin, TX. Episcopalians these days elect their ruling board, called a vestry, and only being familiar with civic organizations, I thought after a couple of years attending I’d volunteer for a job that folks usually did their best to avoid. Well, that’s not how churches work at all, but somehow I was elected anyway to a three-year term.

Even though it was prestigious to be on the vestry, there were various administrative jobs that nobody wanted, in particular the job of clerk (secretary). Usually it could only be filled for a year at a time, and with a major amount of cajoling for some unfortunate. But I thought it would be a fine way to contribute, and so I volunteered.

I kept the job all three years. One friend joked I wasn’t keeping minutes but seconds, since I recorded and wrote up the meetings in such detail. Another said she didn’t worry anymore about missing a meeting, because the minutes I produced were better in some ways than the meeting that produced them.

I liked the discipline of it. I’m not the world’s greatest note taker, so I had to improve at that. And since even then my notes weren’t great, I had to sit down not long after the meeting to reconstruct it in my mind before it faded away. And I had to learn to identify and isolate the significant threads that ran through lots and lots of not always relevant talk (the monthly meetings began at 7pm and often ran past 1am when contentious issues were on the table).

I got to be friends with the treasurer, a businessman whose level-headedness I admired. When I agreed to be the clerk for a third year, he asked me privately why I was willing to continue on. I thought about it, then said: because it helps me to keep my mouth shut.

Which it did. In a room with fifteen other professionals of differing opinions, there is no end of desire to be heard. Early on in my term I would want to chime in myself at some point, but found myself too busy taking notes—and then when breathing room opened up, I realized that my own point had already been well covered.

I decided to go with that, and never chimed in until very late in the discussion if at all. Usually my point was covered by someone else. Often when I wanted to say something that didn’t eventually get said, it became clear as the discussion continued that any number of reasons it wasn’t a good idea to say it.

And very occasionally the discussion got to a point where I was able to make a contribution that moved it forward. Because I had been listening rather than participating, i.e. arguing, I was not only able to refine what I said but also watch how the discussion evolved and sides develped. And I had time to craft a suggestion that defused tensions, took different points of view into account, lightened the mood. People often listened simply because it was the first time I said anything during a long night.

There were other times when even though I had an opinion I wasn’t able to work it lovingly into the discussion. But I can’t think of a single one where the situation became worse because I hadn’t said anything.

Jimmie Brown the Newsboy

Last week I mentioned our plan to make our music available for free. I haven’t made much progress on the new website yet, but I did get recordings of yesterday’s performance at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café (Walt always records), and they sound great. So I think the Coffeetree will be our “studio,” and I’ll take songs as we manage to record decent versions and post them to the site. But while the site continues not to exist, I’ll post them here.

Today’s song is “Jimmie Brown the Newsboy”, an old Carter Family song which Flatt & Scruggs made popular. This version is notable for two reasons: (1) Chris sings lead, part of our effort to turn over lead singing responsibilities to him; and (2) he is pretty pleased that he’s managed to recreate Earl Scruggs’s fine playing on the same song.

Satisfied mind, ctd.

In general, people aren’t much interested in any answer you offer if they aren’t asking the question it answers. I spent a summer working with Mormon missionaries, and it was useless to argue scripture with them. But when we talked about how difficult it is to be perfectly good—something their religion requires, which worries them quite a bit—they were quite open to hearing that traditional Christianity has no such standard. In fact, the idea unnerved them.

Yesterday’s post about “Satisfied Mind” implied something that I’d like to make explicit. Everyone, believer and unbeliever, has wrestled with discontentment. Everyone knows that contentment is the goal. Many at least suspect that desire can’t be quenched by feeding it—just the opposite—but they know it can be quenched somehow, and that quenching it is key to a happy life.

The words of “Satisfied Mind” as originally written proclaim a truth many would agree with—true earthly wealth lies in contentment—but they say nothing about how to achieve it. The song leaves the listener with a question: where do you get this satisfied mind?

A believer knows, of course. And so I like it that in the first three minutes we explore ground common to all men, raising a question that concerns us all, then we end with a very brief statement (four words) of our answer. It isn’t designed to persuade. It is designed to get the listener to entertain a thought, namely that the singers have found contentment in Jesus. The ground is prepared, and then a seed is planted.

Satisfied mind

Although Chris and I preform a lot of gospel songs, we don’t consider ourselves gospel performers. More generally, we don’t think of ourselves as Christian musicians, but only musicians who happen to be Christians. We leave our Christianity to manifest itself as the situation merits.

A couple of months ago we added the song "Satisfied Mind" to our repertoire. We’re very pleased with it, because even though we were inspired to do it by Darrell Scott’s version, it doesn’t sound like his or anyone else’s. It mostly fell into place as our own song when we started singing it, and we added some touches that we think are fine.

Here’s our version, as performed at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café this afternoon.

Here are the original lyrics.

How many times have you heard someone say
If I had his money I’d do things my way
But little they know that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind

Once I was winning in fortune and fame
Had all that I needed for a start in life’s game
Then suddenly it happened, I lost every dime
But I’m richer by far with a satisfied mind

Money can’t buy back your youth when you’re old
Or a friend when you’re lonesome, or a love that’s grown cold
And the wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind

When this life is ended, my time has run out
My friends and my loved ones I’ll leave, there’s no doubt
But one thing for certain, when it comes my time
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind

But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind

Now to me that is a pure gospel song. And I wanted to do on WLJC-TV this past spring, the Christian station where we play occasionally. But I was a little edgy about it, because the song was missing an evangelical touchstone, namely the word "Jesus" somewhere.

I thought about on the three-hour drive to the TV station, and then it came to me. I asked Chris if he could handle this impromptu wording change in the last two lines:

But one thing’s for certain, since Jesus is mine
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind

That’s how we did it then, and how we’ve done it since. And we like our arrangement so much that it is just about the only song we will repeat during an evening’s performance.
But now in theory we have the opposite problem, having added a mention of Jesus to a song that didn’t originally contain one. Should we sing it one way in Christian settings and the other in secular settings?

Well, we don’t. In fact, we sing lots of straight-ahead gospel songs in secular settings, because they are among some of the best we do.

We don’t tailor our message to our audience, or our audience to our message. We do take some care not to give unnecessary offense. We avoid rowdy songs when the audience is strait-laced. But we’ve also played the rowdier songs in a church setting, when we knew the audience would accept them. And we don’t stay away from gospel songs in a secular setting—but we don’t give a testimony in the middle, either.

Getting back to "Satisfied Mind," it gives me great pleasure to think that many unbelievers hear us sing that song, are drawn in by a message that any human being can relate to, and in those last two lines hear us give our reason for the hope that lies in us. They only hear it because we are singers who happen to be Christians, not because we are Christian singers.

Writing is not warfare

We should distinguish between the qualities which differentiate men from women, and the need for both men and women to shape those qualities into virtues. Perhaps men are born strong-willed, but that shouldn’t be celebrated for its own sake; some men form it into courage, others into foolhardiness. A woman’s natural caution can develop into either prudence or timidity.

I think on balance men tend to be born less soft-hearted than women. It could be that the path to godliness will require men to actively cultivate certain kinds of soft-heartedness, while women will need to toughen up in certain ways.

I have both the skills and the natural inclination to destroy my rhetorical opponents, and at one time I used them freely. But at some point I understood that vanquishing someone who disagreed with me is hardly the same as persuading them, and in fact works against it.  What does it profit you to win your point while losing your brother?

It took awhile before I learned to prefer edifying my brother to exhibiting my superior knowledge. It took even longer before I was able to act on that. I had to learn to shut up, listen, think more highly of my brother than myself, figure out the one thing I could say that might move his thinking forward, say it as kindly and irenically as possible, and leave him to think it over. A lot of natural inclinations needed to be choked back before I could do that!

This made my manner in discussions much softer, but still not nearly as soft as it could be. In fact, I read what women have to say online but I rarely chime in, because even though I’ve smoothed many of the rough edges off my writing, what’s left is still what a man has to say, written in a non-womanly manner, and it often breaks the flow of discussion among women because it is jarring. I’ve joked with Cindy Rollins  that whenever I comment on her blog I feel like a "thread killer", because mine is often the last comment in the thread. But I think the real reason is that my comments by their nature just break the mood.

It probably wouldn’t hurt me to learn to write even more gently. I’ve seen writers get away with roughness—many readers will tolerate it for the sake of the message, some will take a naughty delight in it—but I’ve never seen it make writing more effective. More often it is there to cover up weaknesses in what the writer is saying. When difficult truths need to be spoken, they don’t need rhetorical assistance to penetrate more deeply. They will reach as far into the heart as they need to, provided the writer stays out of their way.

Connecting with your audience

Bluegrass music has a tiny—devoted, but still tiny—following, and sometimes bluegrass musicians will look upon country, pop, and rock music, and moan with envy over the huge audiences those genres attract. Many of them are honestly baffled that their clearly superior brand of music goes unnoticed by the public.

I’m sympathetic to their bafflement, since I think bluegrass (and mountain music in general) does certain things far better than the rest—harmony singing, melodic soloing, creating drive without resorting to percussion. But I’m also baffled by their bafflement, because the big difference between bluegrass and other audiences stares me in the face every time I watch a live performance: bluegrass listeners don’t dance, while country, pop, and rock listeners do. Bluegrass is some of the fastest, most rhythmic music around, proudly so, and yet the most movement you’ll get from an audience is some subdued toe-tapping.

This is not to disparage bluegrass listeners. If that is the sort of experience you want, a bluegrass festival is the place to find it. But since the existence of bluegrass music is not some sort of well-kept secret, the small audiences tell us more or less how many folks want that kind of experience, as opposed to the kind a country or rock or pop concert offers them.

I don’t think the dancing is key, though. There are performers who draw big audiences who play music that isn’t danceable. I think most people look to music to transport them, to provide an absorbing experience outside the norm. And the performers who draw big audiences are the ones who can connect with listeners, and then take them somewhere else. Alison Krauss used to play bluegrass—and then she figured this out. Neither Gillian Welch nor Darrell Scott play dance music, but they can mesmerize their listeners in other ways.

The cruel irony is that bluegrass music used to be able to do this, in its own way. When people said it had a “high lonesome” sound, they meant that it triggered the same deep yearnings that good blues or good gospel can sometimes access, yet with a distinctive touch that captured the sensibilities of mountain people. The words of early bluegrass and early country songs were usually mournful and homesick, pining for dead relatives and simple childhoods and lost loves. But back then the words connected with the audience, spoke to them, transported them.

I don’t know that modern audiences relate to those words in the same way, or if it is even possible. Often the folks who are touched when we sing those old songs are the ones who grew up with them, long, long ago. But occasionally we stumble across one that transcends age and background. Those are gold for us.