Touching My Soul


rhiannon-giddens-spotlight

When I was a self conscious college student, I spent way too much time discussing questions like, “What is art?”

I never really understood. I read classic literature, but I was the kid in the back of the class on “Anna Karenina” who couldn’t get past the mother walking out on her kid. I remember an hour long discussion of how Tolstoi used the symbol of the rowan tree in his work. I squirmed. I wiggled. I finally blurted out, “Oh, my God! It’s just a tree! He just put it in there because they were in a forest!”

I was not the best student at interpreting artistic metaphor.

I have tried to look at contemporary and abstract art. Honestly, most of it just looks to me as if a bunch of kids walked through spilled paint and did the happy dance on a canvas.

Art?

I dunno.

But last night I think I finally figure out what “art” is to me.

Last night Paul and I and some of old friends went to see a performance by Rhiannon Giddens. I have been listening to this woman’s music for the past nine or ten months. But seeing her live?

Oh. Dear Lord.

I finally know what art is.

Art reaches way way inside of you. It pokes you, not so gently, and it makes you look at yourself. Hard.

Ms. Giddens is, as far as I am concerned, the embodiment of the Goddess.

As I listened to the sound of indescribably gorgeous, rich voice, and as I watched her move with grace around the stage, I imagined myself describing her to my granddaughter, Ellie.

I have to tell you that Ellie already loves Rhiannon’s music. She comes into my house and chooses her music every day. It is usually either  “Melanie” of Upstate Rubdown, “Allie” of Birds of Chicago, or “Annon” of “Rhiannon Giddens.”

The child knows good music when she hears it.

But last night, seeing Rhiannon Giddens on stage, moving, smiling, playing, singing, I kept trying to capture the words to describe the experience to Ellie.

“Rhiannon is….” I don’t want to say ‘beautiful’, although she surely is. I don’t want to reduce her to another lovely face.  I don’t want Ellie to think that beauty is the standard to be most admired.

No. There are so many more substantial words to describe her, and to describe the meaning of “art”.

Art hits you hard. It rocks you.

Art doesn’t apologize.

It makes you look at your real self. It makes you want to be better than you were just a moment before.

Now I think that art makes you question yourself in the best ways. It challenges you to grow.

Rhiannon Giddens is an artist. Last night her music made me cry. It made me question my role in the life of my country and of the world.

This is what I will tell Ellie.

I admire Rhiannon Giddens and love her music because of the woman that she is.

She is powerful. She is strong. She doesn’t apologize for her views or her reactions. She is tall, and dark and loud and glorious. She sings like a sweet angel. She sings like an avenging angel.

She is my understanding of art. She’s my challenge going forward.

Wow.

What a concert.

If by chance you do not know the music of this woman, you owe it to yourself to listen to her.

Rhiannon Giddons/TED

 

Hope


In a world filled with war and anger and violence, hope is becoming so hard to find.

People yell and argue and struggle and sneer. You start to wonder where it will end. You start to wonder if there’s any hope.

Then you go away fro a couple of days. You go to a struggling little working class city where the old red brick mills are being turned into art galleries. You go to hear music.

At first you think the ticket price is too much, but you grudgingly give in. After all, the real reason for your trip is that your sons live in that small city. They love music. They make music of their own. You think its sweet to hear them sing, but you don’t think of them as “real” musicians. You just want to go for the weekend to be near them.

They are just your “boys.”

You buy the tickets. You make the drive out to the Berkshires in Western Mass. You listen to the radio on the way, even though you know that hearing Donald Trump lie and lie and argue and lie again will only make you lose that last tiny thread of hope.

You get to the festival. You walk into the sprawling brick building that once housed a textile mill, but which is now home to the famous Mass Museum of Contemporary Art. You hear fiddle music. People are streaming in, smiling, humming. So many of them carry instruments.

You walk through the lobby, out into the courtyard of the museum. You are surrounded by families, laughing and talking. There are three stages, in three sizes, and from each one you hear the sounds of fiddles and mandolins and guitars. You hear voices harmonizing and feet stomping.

This is the “Fresh Grass” Music festival that happens in the small city of North Adams, Mass, every September.

The air is full of the delicious smells of food, beer, herbal smokes.

Every part of the Fresh Grass Festival is wonderful. Inspiring, encouraging, rejuvenating.

Children dance, parents laugh, there is music around every corner.

And there are particular moments that bring hope back into your heart.

One of those moments happened on Saturday morning. Our sons, our baby boys, were playing music with some friends at one of the “pop up” stages at the festival. Now, let’s be clear. “Pop up” means “You aren’t on one of the big stages and people will either wander by and hear you, or they won’t.” It is strictly for Newbies in the business, but even that is pretty damn special. Some of the headliners at this festival are major talents. Music is their career and they are starts.

Our boys make music for the joy of it.

The space where they performed was a long, rectangular room with lofty ceilings. The acoustics were amazing. Almost like being in a church. The boys and their three friends had acoustic instruments and they started to play to a basically empty gallery. Little by little, though, the soaring harmonies and ringing strings brought people in.

It was the strangest thing for me. People who didn’t know any of us were simply entering the room, having paid good money to hear live music. They stood, they listened, they smiled, clapped, danced. Some asked “Who are you guys?” They talked to each other about how much they were enjoying the sound.

And I was standing there, thinking. “Wait. Those are my baby boys! How did they learn to sing like that?” I can’t describe it.

It wasn’t only pride that I was feeling.It was also a kind of loss.  It was a sense of just how far my children have come, and how they little they need us now. I was as amazed by their talent as the rest of the room was, and that feeling brought me to tears.

And the setting made it special, too.

My beautiful sons and their talented young friends were creating a gorgeous harmony in the big gallery. A gallery that was dedicated to images of atomic bomb tests and explosions.

At one point, a family came in to listen. Two little sisters, aged about 5 and 7, sat on a bench in front of the band. They had flaxen braids, bright blue eyes, and pink and cream skin. They wore matching pink dresses. They were incredibly beautiful. They sat on the bench, each with her mouth slightly open as they nodded along to the music. They were watching the boys. I was watching them.

Beyond them, on the gallery wall, the brightly colored images of death and destruction had been reduced to simple art.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, I had hope again.

Two beautiful children were ignoring the images of war as they took in the sounds of blended voices and instruments.

Maybe they were making some dreams of their own. Maybe they’d want to grow up to make music. They were thinking of those dreams, and not of the mushroom clouds in framed glass beyond where they sat.

That is hope.