Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday Music: Orange Blossom Special (Shades Mountain Air)

It was a joy to hear Shades Mountain Air perform at Moonlight on the Mountain last Saturday night. They did a variety of music from Bach to Bluegrass with Gershwin, Gospel, and some original songs thrown in along the way. They closed the show with an "Orange Blossom Special" medley.  Here is a recording of that same number from the 2013 Alabama Bluegrass Music Association Showcase of Bands held at the Bessemer Civic Center on March 16, 2013.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saturday Haiku: After the Blossoms

after the blossoms
there is no fading away
new life arises

Photo by Charles Kinnaird
Viburnum plicatum, commonly called Japanese snowball bush


Friday, June 26, 2015

Last Sunday at Mother Emanuel AME Church

My thanks to a friend who shared this from The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina. It looks as though Charleston may be showing us how to move forward to a better place in the wake of the terrible tragedy they have suffered and which the nation has felt. It was a beautiful demonstration of unity and support during a time of grieving.

Funeral services are set to be held today for South Carolina representative, Rev. Clementa Pinckney at which President Obama will deliver the eulogy. (PBS NewsHour will live stream the funeral service which begins at 11:00 a.m. EDT)
[Addendum: to read the full text of President Obama's eulogy, go here.]

It was an emotional first service since the #CharlestonShooting today at Mother Emanuel AME Church – full of sorrow, abiding faith and most of all, love. Read the full story:
Posted by The Post and Courier on Sunday, June 21, 2015

At least more people are realizing the the need to remove the Confederate battle flag which has become a painful symbol of racism and white supremacy. Even my home state of Alabama has taken down the Confederate flags from its Civil War memorial, and that is an important step. It is something that must be done, though taking down the flag is the easy part. Addressing racism and hate in our society will be a longer and more difficult task.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Masterworks Series: Zapatistas

Hope and Death

How strong the pull
And how vibrant the song
That calls us, men and women alike,
To come forth
From our fields of labor.
We must claim our rights
As people from the earth
To share in earth’s bounty.

We celebrate the power
Proven in our bodies
That gardens
Towns and villages
All come from the work of our own hands.

How long must our lives be drained?
How long will we weary ourselves
For some distant landlord?
Today we rise
To lay claim to ourselves.

Some lives are taken
In the struggle for freedom –
Better so than to have our lives slowly extinguished
Without hope of
Dancing in our own square
Reaping from our own field
Drinking from our own cup
And resting in our own bed.

They can take our lives to fill their coffers
Or we can show them that
Our lives are worth more than that.
We give our lives
For our freedom
So they will not take our lives
For their own small vanity.

                                                    ~ CK


Image: "Zapatistas,"from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City
Artist: José Clemente Orozco (Mexican, 1883–1949)
Medium:Oil on canvas

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A White Southerner Takes Another Look at Racism

My latest commentary on AmericaBlog...

We’ve been reeling lately from blatant issues of racism in our country that illustrate how much work there is yet to do in matters of racial equality. We thought we were making some headway, at least that’s what we kept telling ourselves, yet we continue to be hit with evidence to the contrary. This year is was Freddie Gray in Baltimore dying in police custody from a spinal cord injury. Last year it was Eric Garner dying in New York City after a choke hold by the arresting policemen. There was also the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; before that it was Trayvon Martin in Florida. We have seen numerous local ordinances passed throughout the country that made it harder for African Americans to vote.

Our racial bias is evident, and it’s not just in the South. Just this summer, The New York Times released its summer reading list with nothing but white authors – and The New York Times is supposed to know better... (continue reading here)


Monday, June 22, 2015

Monday Music: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

The Hollies recorded "Heavy Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" in 1969. Kelly Gordon had recorded it earlier that same year, and Neil Diamond recorded it in 1970. According to a Wikipedia article,  "In 2012, a version of the song was recorded, and was released on December 17, 2012, by musicians and celebrities going under the name The Justice Collective, including Melanie C, Robbie Williams, Paul Heaton, Paloma Faith, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Rebecca Ferguson,Beverley Knight, and two original members of The Hollies, Bobby Elliott and Tony Hicks, for various charities associated with the Hillsborough disaster." The Justice Collective did a fine job with it, obviously recording with the Hollies version in mind. The Hollies 1975 performance of the song follows below.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Saturday Haiku: Garden Reflection

upon reflection
sometimes a fire can be seen
in the lily’s bloom


Photo: Canna lilies reflected in birdbath, by Charles Kinnaird


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Masterworks Series: Manchester Valley

Manchester Valley

My grandfather saw them laying that track back in 1891
When the railroad came to New Hope.
He said he’d seen folks settle the valley
Coming in by ox and wagon.
He marveled at the wonders
Of American progress.
“That’s what this country’s all about,” he said.
We're a nation on the move.”

As a young boy
I used to watch the train
Wind its way through the town.
For a few minutes,
It was all whistle, clatter, and motion;
Massive machinery
Plowing through 
The stillness of the valley.
In each car I could glimpse passengers
On their way to other places,
And the town would pause
For the mighty locomotive.

Mostly it was quiet, though,
Across the valley.
I would look out at the ridge beyond the town –
Trees marking the hills like sentinels.
“How like a bowl,”
I sometimes thought,
“This valley where I live,”
Wondering how a boy would climb out
To see the world beyond.
In every direction
I beheld the tree-lined rim
In the distance.

Then that train whistle would blow,
Engine proudly moving through.
It became ingrained in my being
That one day I would ride those rails
Out of the bowl of my childhood valley.
I would see America.

                                                               ~ CK

Image: Manchester Valley, from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City
Artist: Joseph Pickett (1848 - 1918)
Medium: Oil with sand on canvas
Date: circa 1914

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sacred Harp and the Sound of Eternal Essence

Note: What follows is another installment in anticipation of The Thirty-sixth Annual National Sacred Harp Convention which will convene this week in Birmingham, Alabama at the First Christian Church (at 4954 Valleydale Road) June 18, 19, and 20. This is a re-post of my essay that appeared in 2013.

In Martin Scorsese’s documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Ravi Shankar is heard to say that sound is God. Today I made a connection with that concept as I attended the opening sessions of the National Sacred Harp Convention.  Sacred Harp is an old acapella style of singing that came to this country by way of the English settlers. It was taught to people by using shaped notes to designate  and a "fa-sol-la" method for vocalizing each note. It was kept alive in this country primarily by the Primitive Baptists in Appalachia. Back in 2011, I wrote an essay about my first experience with sacred harp singing. 

When I described that initial encounter, I wrote, “I was captivated, stirred on the inside, tears threatening to well up – and no words had been sung yet. It was that bracing harmony of pure notes filling the sunlit space. The sound reminded me of the Bulgarian women’s folk singing that has attracted many listeners  since the 1990 recording, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. There was a similar directness and exuberance, a hearty primitive and uplifting – even startling – vocal effect.”

Not Your Ordinary Words

As I attended the Sacred Harp Convention this year, I was fascinated by the turn of phrase used in many of the lyrics and song titles. For example, Hymn 112 is titled, “The Last Words of Copernicus.” It speaks of the day when this life is over and the light from the heavenly orbs, the sun and moon, will no longer be needed.

In Hymn 450 (Elder) the lyrics include:

Life’s an ever varied flood,
Always rolling to its sea:
Slow or quick, or mild or rude,
Tending to eternity.

Hymn 504 (Woodstreet) is an account of Psalm 137 in which the psalmist mourns the Babylonian captivity saying, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”  Poems and songs have been written about “The waters of Babylon,” but this hymn phrases it:

When we our wearied limbs to rest
Sat down by proud Euphrates’ stream
We wept with doleful thoughts oppressed,
And Zion was our mournful theme.”

I don’t think I have seen references to the Euphrates or to Copernicus in other Christian hymnals.  The lyrics to Hymn 450, in spite of the typically conservative orientation of sacred harp, are beautifully reminiscent of the Buddhist or Hindu concept of all of life returning to its source.

Experiencing the Sound

Yet in spite of the fascinating words in the text of those sacred harp hymns, it is the sound that is the most impressive thing.  The singers are arranged in a square with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses each seated on the sides of the square. The one leading the song stands in the open space in the middle of that square. Sacred harp singers call this space “The holy of holies” because they say it is the absolute best spot to be in to get the full effect of the music.  At this point, I can only imagine what the sound must be like in that holy of holies, because simply sitting in the congregation hearing the music is enough to lift me into a divine presence. The effect of that powerful sound brings me back to the words of Ravi Shankar, that sound is God.

I found a fuller quote from Ravi Shankar that elaborates upon the concept of sound and God:

“Our tradition teaches us that sound is God- Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realisation of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. We are taught that one of the fundamental goals a Hindu works towards in his lifetime is a knowledge of the true meaning of the universe - its unchanging, eternal essence….The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended.”
                         [From David Murphy Conducts at ]

Of the hymns I heard today, there were many glorious moments. One of those hymns whose lyrics and musical sound converged quite beautifully was Hymn 178 (tune: Africa)

Now shall my inward joys arise,
And burst into a Song;
Almighty Love inspires my Heart,
And Pleasure tunes my Tongue.

God on his thirsty Zion-Hill
Some Mercy-Drops has thrown,
And solemn Oaths have bound his Love
To shower Salvation down.

Why do we then indulge our Fears,
Suspicions and Complaints?
Is he a God, and shall his Grace
Grow weary of his saints?

The words are by the English hymnist Isaac Watts. The tune is by the American choral composer, William Billings. To hear sacred harp singers render this beautiful hymn, go here.

[To hear 504 (Woodstreet) about mourning by the proud Euphrates, go here]

For our sacred harp finale, here is a recording of “The Last Words of Copernicus.” The recording was made my Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist who recorded and preserved so much of American folk music.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Monday Music: Bluegrass Rocketman

Iron Horse offers a lively bluegrass version of Elton John's "Rocketman."
BTW, Iron Horse says Elton John has seen their video, and yes, he loves it!


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Saturday Haiku: Taking Flight

floral abundance
bidding sweet welcome to all
and the bee takes flight

                                               ~ CK


Photo: Floribunda rose by Charles Kinnaird


Friday, June 12, 2015

The National Sacred Harp Singing Convention

Note: The Thirty-sixth Annual National Sacred Harp Convention will convene in Birmingham, Alabama at the First Christian Church (at 4954 Valleydale Road) June 18, 19, and 20. In anticipation of that event, I am reposting this account of my first encounter with Sacred Harp in 2011

I have heard of Sacred Harp, or “fasola” singing for most of my life. I knew something about the shaped-note tradition of musical training used in days gone by, and I once saw a documentary on Sacred Harp on PBS. I had never experienced sacred harp in person until today. The 32nd annual National Sacred Harp Singing Convention opened in Birmingham today, convening at the First Christian Church. It is a three-day event with all day singing and “dinner on the grounds.”

Growing up in Tallapoosa County, I had been to a few Gospel Singings where Stamps-Baxter and Southern Gospel quartets reigned. But those were nothing to compare to what I heard today. The sound that filled that space was full-throttled and soul-awakening. As the opening session began, a man stood up in front of the crowd and announced the page number for the opening song. A “fa-sol-la” interval was intoned. The entire gathering then burst forth with “fasolas” sounding out the music of the hymn.

I was captivated, stirred on the inside, tears threatening to well up – and no words had been sung yet. It was that bracing harmony of pure notes filling the sunlit space. The sound reminded me of the Bulgarian women’s folk singing that has attracted many listeners  since the 1990 recording, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. There was a similar directness and exuberance, a hearty primitive and uplifting – even startling – vocal effect. Yet these were regular folks, local people from Alabama and others traveling from points near and far who were producing that fantastic harmony. The visceral effect was also similar to being in the presence of bagpipes as they are played. It grabs your attention and stirs you on the inside.

I saw two friends at the gathering. Tim Cook is a member of the Sacred Harp Convention. He grew up in Michigan and told me that when he and his wife moved to Alabama in 1995, he looked for a singing group because of his life-long interest in singing. He found Sacred Harp and has been involved ever since. I asked Tim why the singers used “fa-sol-la” in their music but not the entire do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do that I associated with the names of the notes. He explained that the older English music used a six-note interval, therefore those notes were represented by fa-so-la which was then repeated for the upper notes as well.  The seven-note musical scale was a concept developed later by the Italians who added the other names for the notes.

My other friend, Tommie Willis, said he grew up Primitive Baptist and heard Sacred Harp all his life.  “My mother was a leader in Sacred Harp singing,” he told me, “but none of it rubbed off on me.” He was there to listen to that sound that had been familiar in his childhood.

Sacred Harp came to this country by way of the early English settlers. It was first established in New England before the American Revolution, but gradually died out in that part of the country. For years it was kept alive in the hills of Appalachia, particularly among the Primitive Baptists. Nowadays it continues to be preserved by Sacred Harp gatherings and conventions.


To read an account of the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention in The Birmingham News, go to . If you view their photo gallery, you'll see a picture of my friend Tim Cook leading a hymn. Below you will find a video of some Sacred Harp singers. It will give you a flavor of the music, but there is nothing like experiencing it live and in person. 


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Masterworks Series: By the Seashore

By the Seashore

In my mind
She will always be that young 
The way she was that day by the seashore
When we made our brief acquaintance.

I was a bit ragged
After two days of sail mending
So that her brother could launch his schooner
On the bay.
It was a lovely sight
But I was weary of mending.

She spoke so kindly,
Though she did not have to look my way.
I found myself telling her my weary tale
That should have been no concern of hers.

“I know about mending,”
She said.
“It is like this lace with my crochet needle;
It never ends.
It may be a sleeve that is frayed,
Or a life becoming stretched.
There is someone who can mend that
If you look around.

“You mended my brother’s sail.
I’m making lace to mend Mum’s tablecloth.
The sea mends the ragged shore.
Sit with me here for a while if you will.
Let the wind and the waves
Mend you tired mind.”

So I sat for a while
And calmed my mind
As the waves pounded the rocks
And pools gathered near our feet.
By the time I parted from her that day,
I knew where to find my mending.

I never grow tired of the sight –
The foam and the waves upon the sea, 
Nor weary of the sound  
Wind and water at the ocean's edge.
I still see her sometimes
When I watch the waves,
The lovely lady in blue and lace,
Grateful even now
For that day by the seashore.

                                     ~ CK

Image: By the Seashore, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Artist: Auguste Renoir (French,1841–1919)
Date: 1883
Medium: Oil on canvas

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Monday, June 8, 2015

Monday Music: Speak Low (Tony Bennett and Nora Jones)

Such class, from a rich musical era. The piano, the upright bass, the music of Billie Holiday, the words, the phrasing...Norah Jones, Tony Bennett. How can you describe it? Stop talking and just listen. "Time is so old, and love so brief,,,"


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Saturday Haiku: Glad Symmetry

the glad symmetry
of all creation is seen
in the flower’s bud

Photo: Canna lily by Charles Kinnaird


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Masterworks Series: The Arrival in Bethlehem

The Arrival in Bethlehem

There was a wind that day
As we made our way along the imaginary landscape*
To the town of our temporary destination.

A man in a heavy coat
Sat on the bridge reading a book
While the tree branches declared
That the wind blows where it will.

There were sheep in the fields,
People gathering in the village.
It was a day marked
By ordinary tasks, 
And the ordinary dare not dream of destiny.

A river ran through the village
Because rivers always do.
It might have been the Jordan
Or the Hudson,
Or Mekong, Tiber, Tombigbee 
Perhaps the Chicago River, the Danube, or the Rio Grande.

It could have been the River of Life
Were it not for the ordinary state
Of the town that day.

The village was a place to stop for a while,
A place to begin.
Yet it had no imagination
For destiny.
No one took notice of our presence.

We stayed briefly
While destiny was born
Then crossed back over
The River of Life.

                                                                ~ CK

*Imaginary Landscape is the alternate title for the painting

Image: The Arrival in Bethlehem at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is an unsigned work attributed first to Patiner, then to Cornelis Massys, and later to Master LC (Netherlandish, active second quarter 16th century)
Date: ca. 1540
Medium: Oil on wood

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Poetry Arising from Art

Ekphrastic Poetry and the Masterworks Series

Ekphrastic poetry is poetry written in response to some work of art. That art is usually a painting or a sculpture, but it can also be a photograph. I have written ekphrastic poetry on this blog, usually in my Saturday Haiku series, when I found myself inspired by a work of art, as in The Gleize Bridge over the Vigueirat Canal. Another example was of poetry in response to art was Reflecting upon Michelangelo's Pieta.

Ekphrasis is a Greek term usually translated as "description." Ekphrastic poetry is an exercise that goes beyond mere description. It is an example of art inspiring art, or serving as a catalyst for creativity. An article at, Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art speaks of how ekphrasis has been used in poetry since the time of Homer. The article observes that "modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects." Ekphrastic poetry is one way to interpret, meditate upon, re-invent, or dialogue with a particular piece of art.

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a small treasure for creative inspiration. I was at the local library's annual book sale. I already have too many books acquired from various places, but I cannot resist a good book sale. What I found that day was an old Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Portfolio of Art Masterpieces, Series IV. It consisted of twelve reproductions of masterpiece paintings. Each reproduction is mounted on heavy paper with a brief description of the artist and the artwork. The separate pieces are housed together in a heavy 11 X 14 box, tied with a heavy ribbon. The box itself was collapsing at the corners, but all of the reproductions were intact. I knew right away how I could make use of the art reproductions – I would use them as starting points for ekphrastic poems. My plan would be to spend some time visualizing and dwelling with each work of art, then write a poem based upon that experience of "dwelling with" the painting.

That is how this "Masterworks Series" began. As a discipline to give myself an appointed task to write poetry, I am setting out to do a weekly installment of ekphrastic poetry based upon the art masterpieces that fell into my hands that day at the public library book sale. Tomorrow will be the first installment with "The Arrival in Bethlehem."


Monday, June 1, 2015

Monday Music: Sailing Down My Golden RIver

Pete Seeger wrote "Sailing Down My Golden River" in the 1960s when he got this crazy idea to drum up support to clean up the Hudson River by building a sloop to sail down the river and draw people's attention to the polluted waters. Pete was tireless in his attempts to make the world a better place. Here, in a special concert we hear Arlo Guthrie's daughter, Sarah, singing Pete's beautiful song. Being Arlo Guthrie's daughter also makes her Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, of course, which makes this an especially meaningful moment since Woody had been a mentor to Pete. To hear Pete Seeger performing this song, go here.                                              

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