Sunday, October 10, 2010

Side Two

I suppose that there was a certain amount of symbolism, about this prophet business; I mean, in the simple fact that when Shawn and I arrived at the stage set up in the middle of the north side of the gym-auditorium in Maryhall, that even though Eva Blondell had been singing for the students many months before we had - as we in fact had not yet sung for them at all -  she insisted that I had to take up the responsibilities of master of ceremonies, simply because I was the oldest of the performers. Then she must have handed me a list, because I wound up knowing the names of all the other guests, even though I had never met any of them before, although by the time the evening was over, I certainly knew we had landed in the midst of a formidable array of ability, and no small lesson in how much I still needed to learn about music, yet without any hint whatsoever of how long it would be, and how far past the clean up of the clerical abuser problem, before I could get on with the conclusions of the research. (How sweet it is, now, finally, to know what the sum and what the parts thereof, and especially to see these as originally designed by the Father of numbers. And fingers.)
So there I stood behind the microphone, a little surprised, but having been a teacher, singer, and actor on and off over the previous half-dozen years, not uncomfortable. I probably thought it would have been nice to have had some warning, so I could better prepare, but in the retrospect of the decades since that night, and given that if there is any role which works its best in inverse proportion for the amount of time granted for a scripted rehearsal of the human variety, it is the prophet's. Artlessness in the ordinary sense is of the essence, for it is really the prophet's Muse's input that will get the job done, not some mere human exercise, no matter how crafty. We had prepared our set list with care, of course, pondering our first college audience, and taping it to the shoulder of my guitar, my dear old Harmony Jumbo, in they event of the mind being numbed in the face of a such a full house.
Our set was probably four or five numbers, but I can now only recall two. I was going to swank out on a number learned only within the past year, Ewan McColl's epic Shoals of Herring, which he had written for a BBC documentary on the herring fleet, and which I had been mightily inspired to learn from the Clancy Brothers equally epic recording. And I must confess that with such a well resonating guitar, Shawn's backup, and a full-court press on my lungs and diaphragm from the Muse, I did indeed swank. I really could see the North Sea and the gleaming nets, and I had no intention of letting down the fleet. There are times when I think that work songs are completely in a class by themselves, and those four or five minutes were one of those times. (That song has a lot of verses.)
The astute reader can easily see why Shoals had made the list. But how come Silver Dagger? And where had we learned it? Google research tells me that Joan Baez had cut it by 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary by 1963, and yet my personal recollections suggest a genuine Appalachian voice as our instructor. Jean Ritchie? John Jacob Niles? But at any rate we both found the words and the music irresistible and Shawn had the song in the palm of her hand. I loved the poetry and the dark drama appealed to the actor in me. Shawn, meanwhile, had a certain personal relationship with the story, in that her mother, although not for the same reasons, and never actually taking up a knife, had not initially been pleased with her daughter's choice of a husband. (Violet had nicely relented by the time she was a grandmother of one, and I had plainly fallen in love with any classroom in a Catholic school.)
It was, of course, Shawn's song to lead, as the lyrics come from the mouth of a female. I don't think I made any mistakes on the chords, and she probably had most, if not all, the words to herself. She didn't really need any help to put the song across, and I was by no means the instinctive genius on bass harmonies with her that she was with alto on my presentations.
In retrospect, this was one of the most significant moments in the history of Nelson, and possibly, if you believe in the power of prayer, in the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church. There she was, the local girl, who had honed so many of her talents in Nelson, come back to start dealing, even if unwittingly, with the modern scourge of the Church. She was, after all, a mother, and years later it was she the police would call when they were looking for information on Father Monaghan's assaults on young girls, and it would be her husband who, initially designated as a spiritual director for John Paul II, went on to rain relevant information on priestly abuse on the roof of Saint Peter's. Moreover, there was already a subtle confrontation happening between our house and the diseased will of the Reverend Aquinas Thomas, S.A. Once we were both cast in the university production of Othello, we had invited an older student to move into our little spare bedroom and nanny the rug rats when we were away at the numerous rehearsals. It was university procedure that Clarice had to explain her reasons for moving off campus to the president. He gave her permission but also took it upon himself to advise here that there was "something wrong" with our marriage. This may have been because the first time Shawn ever laid eyes on him, in our very first weeks on the hill, at some minor function or another, she got the feeling, as she told me, that she couldn't trust him, and he probably got the message. He was by no means stupid, in the natural sense.
Neither of us had at the moment any consciousness of the weight of it all, of course. Like any detective starting out  on a case, we were woefully empty of the pertinent information, just as ignorant, according to a recent statement of the current Pope, as the Vatican. But this does not interfere in any way with the omniscient view of the Almighty and his angels, and they were having a field day of note taking, which now, with no little show of extraordinary activity, they share with your humble scribe.
As I had been designated MC, I suspect our set was fairly well along in the programme, if not the end bit. Certainly if one was setting up a film script, that is how it would be scheduled, because the next striking image was not an aural one, but a visual, that of the face of the college president, the priest, standing with  a group of his teachers. The hootenanny was over, and there was an intermission while the band set up to play for the dance. The professors were talking, he was looking profoundly thoughtful as I walked by, and I could only think that I had been the cause, although I could not then connect the dots. The contemplative life, even when it involves quite radical activity, so often takes decades to explain how all the incidents fit together. And how different our thoughts! I was thinking about all the wonderful folk singers I was meeting in spite of such a disappointing faculty, while he had been made to recollect his sins against chastity, no light burden for anyone, but especially for a priest, a man of particularly solemn vows.
In hindsight, it is easy enough to see, which is why God made novelists and historians, so on rainy Sunday afternoons, like this one, we read to acquire the wisdom for the next nasty patch that the universe serves up as it unfolds.
"The play's the thing, wherein we catch the conscience of the king."
Likewise a good folk song.

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