Tag Archives: music

Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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Filed under celebration, community, continiuty, Grateful Dead, liminal moments, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.

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The Titanic Sails at Dawn

Those of you who are Bob Dylan fans will recognize the line from his song ‘Desolation Row,’ one of my personal favorites.  Written in 1965 the song appeared on Dylan’s 6th album, Highway 61 Revisited.  Reading through the lyrics today the great poet/songwriter seems eerily prescient.  The first stanza alone captures perfectly the zeitgeist of today’s America:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

A blind commissioner.  A riot squad.  The circus coming to town.  And where do you find yourself?  In Desolation Row.  At its core the song asks one central question:  where has the value of integrity gone?  The bleak answer Dylan seems to offer is this:  nobody knows.

We might say the same thing today, 51 years after Dylan first recorded ‘Desolation Row.’  Can you imagine – Bernie Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg!  This morning in the NY Times an article appeared describing yet another five star hedge fund that promised double digit returns called Platinum Partners.  Working mostly in the Jewish community, it turns out the managing partners were colluding to run a Madoff like ponzi scheme, taking out high risk loans and money from other investors to pay those who wanted to cash out.  Seven members of the firm have been arrested and face serious charges.

But why not?  What the heck?  It is everywhere, happening all the time, folks ignoring reality and just moving ahead to get their little piece of the action.  Look at Wells Fargo and their fraudulent accounts.  They have so much dishonesty to deal with they actually have a ‘how to report fraud’ tab on their website (if you like you can visit it at this link:  https://www.wellsfargo.com/privacy-security/fraud/report/).  Or what about VW, the ‘wagon of the people,’ company, knowingly and intentionally deceiving customers and governments about diesel emissions.  This wasn’t just a sin of omission, it was a sin of commission.  They had to plan it, create the software that would bypass the testing procedures, test that software, make sure it properly and effectively lied about the car’s status.  But faulty airbags, who cares?  To use a technical term, the chutzpah of it all.   When you can’t trust the people who brought you the VW bug, when you can’t trust the people who run your bank, manage your investment money, who can you trust?

So maybe it is more important than ever to fight to maintain a sense of personal integrity. What does it say in Ethics of the Fathers?  In a place where there are few people, strive to be a mensch (Avot 2:5).  It is precisely when values like integrity are under siege that you have to step forward and reaffirm traditional ideals.  Integrity matters.  Truth matters.  Right and wrong matter, and we can discern one from the other.  Doing the right thing makes a difference.  Doing the wrong thing is – well, actually wrong.  Even on Desolation Row.  It may be the case the Madoff was just the tip of the iceberg, and the Titanic is sailing at dawn.  But you don’t have to board the ship.  The shame of it is you can’t even make the journey in your old and trusted VW van.

You can read the rest of the Desolation Row lyrics on Dylan’s website.  Here is the link:  http://bobdylan.com/songs/desolation-row/

 

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Dylan and the Nobel

This a text version of my remarks about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award from Shabbat morning 10/15

Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from a small town in Minnesota, gifted with an artistic vision and a powerful spirit of rebellion, who made his way from the hinterlands of America to New York City’s Greenwich Village.  The folk scene there was bursting at the seems, a writhing and living organism of creativity and cross pollination.  The Kingston Trio, clean cut and ready for a high school year book photo, was singing Tom Dooley.  Pete Seeger popularized If I had a Hammer.   Joan Baez reached the top of the charts in 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were playing the coffee houses and cafes.  Robert Zimmerman arrived on the scene like stranger coming to town in a western, trailed by a mysterious past, and ultimately leaving behind his given name to become Bob Dylan.

In a few short years he was the biggest musical star in the world, almost a prophet to the young people in the mid 60s who looked to music for guidance and spiritual sustenance.  The hit records came one after another, too many to name, and the songs he wrote became a generational soundtrack.  He had various periods – a folk period followed by an electric period when he began to use amplified instruments.  There was Christian period when for a time he seemed to embrace Christianity, or at least many of its ideals on his record Slow Train Coming.  There was a return to Judaism, Dylan davening with tallit and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  After a motorcycle accident he withdrew from the public eye and regrouped.

But he always came back, he always reappeared.  There were always new songs to sing and play.  He was restless, his mind jumping from idea to idea, his gaze soaking up the American scene, and somehow spitting it back out with song lyrics that sometimes seemed to be divinely inspired, some kind of uber-muse working through Dylan’s inscrutable eyes.  There were songs of social conscience like ‘the Times They Are a Changing,’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind.’  There were protest songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and there were powerful personal portraits of love and longing, of loss and the sheer determination to survive against all odds.

To know that he came from Jewish roots is to recognize the prophetic pull of the tradition in his themes and music.  He sang about justice and truth, the power of the human spirit, and freedom.  All Jewish ideals, all concepts that distinguished ancient Israel from its neighbors.  And Dylan was a seeker, somehow discovering the way to drill down to the very core of an idea or issue or emotion, to uncover the truth, and then to lay it bare before our eyes, without flinching or turning away, and daring us to look at what he had uncovered.  In this search for truth he was reflecting the biblical prophets of old, their fiery spirit and unforgettable words, still read and chanted 2000 years or more after they were spoken.

Bob Dylan has been no saint.  He was always mercurial, often obscure, he was iconoclastic, complicated, and sometimes downright ornery and cantankerous.  But his talent was undeniable, and I would argue it was primarily expressed through his words.  The music was mostly made up of simple chords, songs with traditional musical progressions, classic folk and blues riffs and even melodies that had been played and replayed for decades.  But his language was unique and entirely original, and this was his genius.  The often dense and symbolic lyrics that he composed to express in timeless language the very moments, emotions, and ideas that define our lives.

It is because of that unique gift with words, words that changed music, words that defined a generation, that Bob Dylan was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature this week.  There has been some controversy about the choice – after all, he is a musician and not a writer, some have argued.  Others have said that rock and roll should never been considered on the same cultural level as the great novel or beautiful poetry.  But if the prize at its core is about how the words of an artist can both shape and change the world, then it seems to me hard to argue, for few artists in modern times have shaped and changed the world through words the way Bob Dylan has.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Nobel was awarded to Dylan the very week that we are reading two of the greatest biblical songs ever composed.  In the Torah portion we read Moses’ last message to the Israelites, a song of warning and a powerful charge to the people to stay true to the task at hand as they enter the promised land. And in this morning’s haftara text we read King David’s great hymn of victory and thanksgiving, with its soaring language, its metaphors of darkness and light, and its imagery of the great hand of God drawing David from the rushing mighty waters.  In both cases the biblical poetry is a testament to the lasting power of song, and an example of how language, in the hands of the greatest artists, can create work of enduring, and sometimes even eternal value.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bob Dylan’s work should be considered on the same level as that of the Hebrew Bible or Shakespeare or Milton.  Those authors were some of the greatest geniuses of literature in all of human history, artists who changed not only their own time but all the time to come, and who helped us to see ourselves in a new light, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.  And maybe 100 years from now people will look back at Dylan’s body of work and see him as a simple traveling minstrel with an electric guitar.

But the Nobel Prize is not of the past or the future.  It is of our time.  And as we Jews qvell when a Jewish scientist or novelist or economist wins the Nobel Prize, so too we should be qvelling this week.  Fifty six years ago a young Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota walked onto the world’s biggest stage.  He is still standing there, and he has never looked back.

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish life, Jewish thought, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Uncategorized

Record Revival, Digital Divide

You may not even realize it, but vinyl is making a comeback.  Records, the ‘old fashioned’ kind, pressed vinyl, flat discs played on turntables, spun at a precise 33 and 1/3 rpms.  They faded so suddenly in the late 80s, giving way to the onslaught of CDs and the crisp, clean sound of digital music.  CDs were smaller, they didn’t scratch or wear out, they could even be played in a car, for crying out loud!  (Try doing that with a record!) Before you knew it, almost overnight, CDs were ubiquitous and records were assigned to the dust bin of musical history.

But now they are back.  You’ll find them in funky new record shops with names like The Sound Garden or the True Vine, Human Head Records or the Turntable Lab.  Online as well.  You’ll find them on college campuses and in the rooms of high school students.  The young leading the way, the record a new counter cultural expression in the classic counter culture milieu.  If you haven’t held a recored in your hand  for a while the sheer size of it, the colors of the album cover, the printed lyrics and liner notes, will virtually take your breath away.

Of course the debate has been quietly raging for some time, mostly in audiophile circles.  Digital versus analog.  The pristine sound of the CD, pop and crackle free, clean to a fault, its 0s and 1s somehow forming the melodies that make up the music that we love.  Compare that with the old records, their scratchy quirks, the hiccup at precisely that lyric, the sound of the needle touching down on the grooves.  Some argue that there is a warmth and resonance, an ambience, a physicality and presence that digital sound can never reproduce.

I would say it is not just music.  There is a fundamental coldness to digital life.  A loneliness.  You can see it in subway cars and restaurants and libraries, where groups of people gather but spend all of their time staring at their phones.  You sense it in the workplace, walking by office after office only to see yet another worker typing on a keyboard, staring at a screen.  You can feel the coldness in social media, the Facebook posts and Instagram photos, digital snapshots of our lives that are one dimensional, that lack feeling and vibrancy and messiness and unpredictability – the true substance of human life.  No wonder young people are embracing vinyl again.

And so it was that I found myself poking around in the back corner of our basement storage area.  My old record albums were in there somewhere.  I hadn’t seen them in years, but I knew I would never have thrown them away.  Buried in the bottom of a shelf, inside a box, inside another box, wrapped in plastic, dusty and neglected.  It was a charge to lug them out, bringing them back into daylight, flippingIMG_3736 through the covers, remembering old images that will always be ingrained in my mind, and the memories of moments and people and even a time, a feeling, that match the images and songs, the melodies and lyrics, the soundtrack of my life.

Anyone have an old turntable lying around?

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The First Rock Concert (Literally)

The cave paintings of France immediately capture the imagination. Images of fish and bison, of birds and woolly mammoths, they were put on the walls of caves some thirty thousand years ago by long forgotten artists. To look at them today is to look into the distant past, to wonder about the people who made them, their community, their lives, their thoughts and concerns. Archeologists have long speculated that the drawings and paintings were located in areas of the caves that were communal, gathering spaces where our distant ancestors came together, possibly to worship, opening themselves to the deep mystery they sensed all around them in the world. The images were representations of that world and its vastness and variety, icons that symbolized man’s role and that spoke of the shared narrative of an ancient people.

New evidence indicates that these early humans may have gathered at the paintings for another reason, namely to sing together. In the mid 90s a music ethnographer from the University of Paris studied the caves acoustically, carefully listening for the brightest echoes and most resonant spots in various parts of the cave complex. What he found surprised everyone. The cave paintings were aways clustered in an area that was sonically rich, where the cave’s natural formation created the most intense reverberation of sound. The paintings were placed in the caves precisely where the human voice could be amplified and echoed, and where a group of human voices – joined in song, for example – would create sounds that had never before been heard in the world.

Imagine for a moment. A flickering fire, illuminating the paintings on the walls. The still silence of the cave, its vastness reaching far beyond the fire’s light, a group sitting on the cave’s floor, in wonder and perhaps fear. And then one voice breaks the quiet, a plaintive melody? A chant, a hum, maybe in a long forgotten language telling the primordial tale of the hunt? Slowly other voices join in, rising together, the sound rising and falling, the cave’s walls making it into something new, a striking expression of the human spirit, of yearning and gratitude and mystery. When the chanting reached its peak did they rise together, bodies moving to a beat older than time itself?

That beat goes on, never ending, winding its way from thirty thousand years ago, from deep caves, all the way to the present day. When people gather together in prayer, when voices rise in unison, when music moves us in the concert hall or the arena, we are answering the same call that those early humans answered so long ago. An opening of the spirit, an expression of what is deepest inside of us, and at the very same time what is furthest away from us. We live in their world, we walk to their beat, we continue their journey, we are called by their song. And we sing it anew. For a new time, a new age. But the song remains the same.

These lyrics from the Grateful Dead song Sunrise capture that ancient cave and its ‘dwellers on the threshold:’

Gazing at the fire
Burning by the water
Before he speaks, the world around us quiets

With eyes as sharp as arrows
And turning to the fire
He clears the air and cuts it with a feather

Many in a circle
Slowly round the fire
When he is gone, I want to know him better

No one is forsaken
No one is a liar
He plants the tree of life on our foreheads with water

He hums
There are drums
Four winds
Rising suns
We are singing and playing
I hear what he’s saying

I remember breezes
From winds inside your body
Keep me high
Like I told you
I’ll sing to them this story
And know why

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