I’m excited to share this week’s column and podcast that hones in on the music and the stories and what makes them so significant and important in our lives. And so of course I sit down with my dad on the podcast and we hash out some of our favorite folk songs and the stories behind decades of making music together. You get to hear my dad in his element, reciting lyrics and talking about his favorite musicians and all his time spent performing in his 50+ career as a musician.
Enjoy and thank you for believing as much as I do in the power of the story of the every day characters, the fabric of our communities.
There’s a Harry Chapin song I grew up listening to on my dad’s tape player. Harry Chapin was a Grammy award winning musician in the 70s and one of the greatest folk songwriters of his time. He created characters in his three to five minute songs that took you along to fall in love or break a heart or, in the case of “Mr. Tanner,“ the owner of a dry cleaning store in a small town in Ohio who sang while he worked long hours in his shop, to follow the encouragement of his friends and neighbors and use all his savings to “try music out full time.”
In the performance and recording of the song, in the backdrop of the chorus among the instruments a deep and pure baritone voice emerges as Mr. Tanner himself, singing the chorus to “Oh Holy Night.”
It’s beautiful, the whole thing, and the song takes you to his performance at a concert hall in New York. And if you’re listening for the first time, you hope for the outcome of fame and accolades for Mr. Tanner and his beautiful voice because “they said that he should use his gift instead of cleaning coats.”
But Harry Chapin doesn’t deliver that fairy tale. That’s what makes him one of the best. Mr. Tanner’s debut performance was met with cold reviews, “Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order…” And so Mr. Tanner went back to Dayton, Ohio, and the song ends with him singing to himself late at night while sorting his clothes, against the haunting lines of the chorus …
But music was his life, it was not his livelihood
And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul
He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole
This song came back to me recently after a particularly challenging week where I was working to bring a renowned concert pianist to our small community and the logistics just weren’t falling into place the way I had hoped. I was anxious about his arrival and worried about getting the arrangements just right for him. The man has played for every president since Ronald Reagan and I wanted his time here in our little community to be up to a particular standard and I felt I was falling short. I was feeling flustered and tired and considering what it would take to retire early when the last song was played and the crowd emerged wowed and thankful for the opportunity. I watched as the pianist to the presidents signed autographs and chatted with the community and breathed the kind of sigh of relief you breathe when something challenging comes together in the end.
After the last guest headed for home and the pianist made his way to his hotel room, I stuck around the venue to gather our things and wrap up, always the last to leave. Then from the empty hallways of the big school I heard the trumpets, violins and high-pitched guitars of a mariachi band echo from small speakers and bounce off the concrete walls. Unexpectedly, a big, beautiful baritone voice joined in with the recorded singer, filling the dark school with life again and reminding me, in the best way, that at 10 p.m., the next shift had begun.
I stopped on my tired feet to listen from behind the wall for a moment, not wanting to disturb or embarrass that voice, not wanting him to stop. This man wasn’t singing for the crowd that had just dispersed. Or on a big stage, or for the president or on YouTube to be available for the masses. He was singing for himself, because “It made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.”
And what I heard was filled with so much joy and exultation it turned my mood and immediately reminded me that at the core of it all, what really matters here. These gifts we’re given and how we use them, it’s up to us and us only.
I turned the corner and the man realized, like me, he wasn’t alone. He smiled and turned the music down. I told him he made my night and please, please ignore me now, and keep singing. And then I made my way home in the dark, with the music turned up, singing along.