Speed the Plough: Saturday Night Tradition – A Moveable Musical Feast
(Impressions of a Non-Musician Impressionist)
by Daniel Paul
1 Fiddlin Around– Walking along a nondescript sidewalk in an improbable part of town you hear alluring noises from a basement gathering place, pouring outward and upward. At once, you’re taken into its thrall. You find a narrow stairway. With each step down the sound pulls you in more. On entry, you find not the vestibule or a concert hall but a crowded travel agency that feels like a party. You’re handed not a program or a libretto, but an itinerary of the places you’ll go for the next three quarters of an hour, telling little of the auras and horrors, sights and delights that will inhabit and haunt you. We begin with variations on this simple tune, approaching it from twenty shades of cheer: gradations with enough distinction to turn this round into a short tour of a scenic landscape.
]2 Henry My Son– We visit a cabin on at the edge of the woods. A young man returns from forest depths afflicted by a secret syndrome he diagnoses as lethal indigestion. We overhear father and son: harsh questions met by annoyed deflection; condemnation obstructing the quest for a place to recover from wild assignation. In search of a comfortable deathbed, poor Henry must survive a cross-examination which without pity measures his son’s life by the sum its bequests. In haste and with growing bitterness he desperately throws out answers as illusory and evasive as what malady ails him. But “my beloved son”? Fathers and sons, said Marilynn Robinson, regard each other with love, loyalty, and utter, mutual incomprehension. An ancient tale made contemporary.
3 The Empty Bucket– is a fine craft carrying us downstream at twilight, swiftly and smoothly without turbulence or monotony. We look into villages on either bank. Uncertain shapes—benign and animated—emerge with a wave of the hand or a nod goodnight at day’s end. The river widens and deepens. In our wake, a mandolin nimbly walks on water. We dock with tender, sudden closure.
4 Sounds Like a Party– This perfect farce playfully compares the levels of scrutiny and license administered by an officious state which constrains innocent pursuits while enjoying its own levels of lawlessness and turning us loose on the deadlier vices. We’re finally on the beach in the last scene of Lord of the Flies looking at boys rescued by a civilization itself in need of rescue. It culminates with the concluding chord of Mother Nature’s Son.
5 Dr. Tom Walker- gave his brush to Michelangelo who in return painted a thank you note that eclipses the gift. This message of vast contentment carries the most sublime sounds ever created, performed, and recorded: music that eloped from heaven with its composer. The protagonist (call him Enoch) is indeed a walker through the highlands at start of day. He goes, we know not where, toward a destination of optimistic consequence with a tune to hold his thoughts aloft. The alchemy of morning sun strikes and colors stones along an upward terrain, making each rare and precious. The reason for his fine mood is this joyous motif, a companion walking apace. And he was not, for God took him.
6 Gilmanton– squares off like Lennon mumbling “sugarplum fairies, sugarplum fairies” catechizing all to keep faith with the tempo but not hinting at the impending bliss: a tune that calls upon virtually every note in the scale. Rivaling Robert Schumann’s Happy Farmer, I hum along before the first listening is through and keep it handy, adding to my limited repertoire of tunes to rehearse while mowing my lawn or engaged in mindless repetitive tasks. Here is an alternative cure to jam the endless, looping broadcasts of tenacious virus jingles, ruminations on slights recently sustained, and the retrial of grudges half a century old which I cannot cease to prosecute when alone with my poison habits of thought.
7 Waltz of the Little Girls– proves the sweetest notes can be sad. It’s as much about waltzing girls as Casper David Fredrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Clouds is about fog, or As Tears Go By is about children at play. This ruckenfigur makes self-aware the onlooker of innocent motion with soft contours. Apart from the waltz itself, we share the viewer’s gladness for their youth, free of despair, taking pleasure in their graceful steps. A pleading, somber undertone of nostalgia remembers what it was to be their age and what they don’t yet know of life. We would hold it at bay for them. We are in fact surrounded, as the dancers themselves grow aware of us and have some hint that they express joy and convey a mysterious happiness for their grownup audience. They disappear with a fleeting bow.
8 Barcelona– gently argues and persuades without rancor or dogma. A different path to a familiar terminus by way of an old forgotten road with less traffic, less speed, and stories to tell. It lingers with intermissions of wistful languor. It looks not for the shortest and lobotomized distance between two points. It makes the line between them a mindful experience, sad only for its two-and-a-half-minute brevity. There’s no where you can be that you weren’t meant to be.
9 Drunken Sailor Rap– plants us on the dock to watch an aborted trip to sea. Like Rolf Harris or Rex Harrison, the singer mingles spoken narration with song. This rendition answers anew the Irish Rovers’ assertion of what to do with a drunken sailor. In this case too much drink stretches the ambitions of our ersatz Ishmael who confuses his thirst for whiskey with a thirst for adventure, supposing a canoe ride qualifies him for a seafaring voyage. Apparently making it past the job interview, he nevertheless is not sober enough to fall into the ship’s bunk bed. The captain helps him make the wiser career choice. As Dean Martin once said, “You’re not too drunk if you can lie down without holding on.”
10 French Canadian Medley– is redolent of Le Bottine Souriante. Like an old airshow, biplanes spiral in tandem, dipping, looping, flying low, encircling the crowd of fair goers.
11. The Greenwood Sideo- interrupts our celebratory journey to pause at a burial scene and ponder a human atrocity, filling out the album’s breadth. The vocalist gently divulges this unspeakable crime as though for the first time. A ragged choir of mourners joins the lament over a parent who would kill their own offspring. Twice an interlude gives but a moment to take in the enormity and seek some consolation: “Yeah, it’s true,” as Bobby Kennedy said in Indianapolis the night MLK was shot. With blood still on her hands the murderess wishes two more babes were hers. With self-dilution she resolves to pursue proper parenting. But the sentence is soon pronounced, first for the children to be set free in heaven, and then by the children, “Oh mother, oh mother, it’s hell for you.”
12 We Gather Together– is a well-placed cleanser, so pure, it rescues from perdition the soul of a cruel mother and brings her infants whole from their graves. A more peaceable rendering has never been heard. It raises the dead, washes away a scarlet stain, and sanctifies this listener.
13 Morgan Megan– As much a hymn as the previous cut, this gladdens the mind by carefully reasoned, ineluctable right-brain logic. This song—which could cheerily go on three times the length—will never grow tedious. It convinces the soul that life is worthwhile. The inarticulable secret lies within the weave and fabric of this melody.
14. The Star of Munster– begins as a reverse overture, looking back like the final movement in Beethoven’s 9th. It’s getting very near the end. But this affectionate farewell soon leaves off its subdued reflection of all we’ve been through together, and becomes a benediction recalling the lighter moments too, with a look to the road ahead. There will be adversity, but we will rise above it, airborne by this tune, fortified by the emotional beauty we’ve internalized. Go in peace.