the day Pete Seeger’s letter came

We were down to the wire. If we didn’t have permission from Pete Seeger’s publisher by the end of the day on Monday, we were going to have to drop “My Voice Alone” (an adaptation of “One Man’s Hands” by Pete Seeger and Alex Comfort) from the CD.

Well, Monday came around, and still no word. I was resigning myself to the fact that this song – which I dearly wanted to have on the record – would have to be cut.

I think it was around noon when I heard a knock on the door. I got up from the floor where I was playing with our then-5-year-old son, opened the door and…

You see, we’d been in touch with Sanga Music for months, trying to get permission to include the song on the forthcoming “God’s Love is for Everybody” CD (this was in the fall of 2002). I had learned the song years before from Chuck Neufeld, who had adapted the words from the original “One Man’s Hands… can’t tear a prison down” to the more gender-inclusive “My voice alone… my hands alone…” This was the version we wanted to include on this project, which was an initiative of Mennonite Church Canada – a collection of new songs I’d been writing, with a couple of covers and “traditional” songs as well.

Our contact at Sanga Music was reluctant to give permission, saying that the lyrical change was too big. I kept insisting – in letters and phone calls – that if he would just speak to Mr. Seeger about it (yes, I called him “Mr. Seeger”), I was confident that Pete would approve. I was a huge Seeger fan, read his writing, listened to (and sang) his songs… and I knew he was all about “the folk process” and was constantly telling people to take his songs and change them, adapt them, add to them… that’s what “the folk process” was all about. Mr. Publisher – if you would just talk to Mr. Seeger about this, I’d really, really appreciate it…

Well, Mr. Publisher was having none of it, and the fateful Monday had arrived…

So when I opened the door, and the mail carrier handed me a parcel – a big parcel – I had no idea what it was. And when I looked at the return address and saw “Beacon, New York,” I nearly fell over. I sat right back down on the floor and tore open the package as fast as I could.

Here’s what I found:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

- a handwritten note on a copy of our permission request, commenting on the lyrics (and “the folk process”!) and graciously granting permission.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

- another page with another hand-written note, on the back of a copy of an article from the Utne Review, about a community in Colombia learning (and teaching the world) how to live sustainably. (This note included Pete’s familiar encouragement to “Keep on,” and the hand-drawn banjo with his name).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

- a copy of his book – “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography” – with more of Pete’s hand-written notes on p. 89, listing examples of how others had adapted the lyrics to “One Man’s Hands” over the years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

- a copy of “Sing Out!” magazine, including a CD featuring one of Pete’s then-recent songs, “Take it From Dr. King”

Wow! We had asked for permission to include the song in our CD and songbook, and over the head of Pete’s reluctant publisher, this is what arrived! (The book/magazine/cd were worth about the same as the nominal fee we were asked to pay – $50 – and the notes and insights and encouragement from Pete himself – priceless!)

Amidst the many tributes and acknowledgments pouring in after Pete’s death on January 27, I have wanted to add my own but have been “speechless” until now. The story of my own brief personal contact with Pete is just one more indication of the passion and commitment and spirit of this man who was able to get people singing – and believing, and acting – for the sake of this world’s transformation into a more generous, caring, sustainable, just, peaceful place.

There are precious few role models whose focus is on getting the people to sing (instead of just “listen to me sing”)… whose songs are accessible and singable and beloved for all ages (while retaining a political “edge” and without being stereotyped as a “children’s entertainer”)… who are unapologetic (and, in fact, insistent) about the social function and “usefulness” of their songs (instead of assuming that such considerations are beneath the concerns of “real art”)… whose life and commitments, time after time, decade after decade, faithfully embody the message (and the struggle) of the songs…

Such role models are hard to come by. I’m tempted to say we’ve just lost one, but actually – thankfully – I don’t think Pete is “lost” to us at all.

Pete’s note to me includes this firm-but-gracious explanation and suggestion:

Dear Brian Suderman,

Many people in the last two decades have amended the lyrics by Alex Comfort. Before he died he freely agreed to let others continue “the folk process.” I urge you to consider, though, that any of us can sing a song, and we can hear the freedom bells. But I leave it up to you. I’ve sent a copy of this letter to Sanga, which will give you formal, legal permission. I enclose words others have used.

hastily,

Pete Seeger

Pete’s comments are so true and important (and also astonishingly gracious). In fact, for years after receiving this letter, I basically stopped singing this song in public, as Pete’s urging rang in my ears – “any of us can sing a song, and we can hear the freedom bells” – and we must!

Lately, though, I’ve started singing it again – most recently, as the “audition” song for potential cast members of the folk musical “Selah’s Song” (for which Johnny Wideman wrote the script and I wrote the music). Selah’s Song is, in fact, in its own way, an extended reflection on “the power of song” – both for good and for ill – as the King and his advisors scheme about propagandistic possibilities (“… get them to sing our songs and string them right along, I wonder could a song do that?”) while young Selah sings (and the villagers join in) “Maybe a song is just the thing we need… maybe a song can get us on our feet…”

Yes, Pete – any of us can sing a song, and we can hear the freedom bells…  and at the same time, I think it’s also true, for me at least, that “my voice alone can’t sing a song of peace”… I can’t do this alone – and thankfully, I don’t have to.

… but if two and two and fifty make a million, we’ll see this world come ’round

We’ll see this world come ’round…

 

(postscript… while I’m in “copying-handwritten-notes” mode, here’s the thank you letter that I sent on Dec 5, 2002… I’ve re-typed part of it below…)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“… I have to tell you the story of how our 5-year-old responded to your new “Take it From Dr. King” song on the CD. When he first heard it, Matthew said “That’s not a nice song. He said “guns,” and guns kill people.” So we sat down and listened to it more carefully, and Matthew realized the song was saying “drop your gun,” don’t use it, do like Dr. King instead. For the next day or two Matthew kept coming up with ideas and blurting them out:

“You know what, daddy? Maybe we could go and steal all the guns and hide them, and then they couldn’t use them to kill people anymore…”

“Hey, daddy! Maybe we could send them all this CD, and then they’d drop their guns!”

And so on. And I thought – “that’s the way, son. Don’t ever stop coming up with those ideas… we need them.”

In a way that’s my hope for my songs as well – that they can help to nurture and stimulate such creative thinking and participation in “God’s great project” of peace, justice, reconciliation… Thank you for doing that for me and so many people through your music.

As you say, Keep on!

Bryan Moyer Suderman”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

at the mandela memorial

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the night I learned of Nelson Mandela’s death, I was in Stouffville’s Barnside Studios, recording the final vocals for the soundtrack CD of “Selah’s Song” – an original folk musical with themes that resonate deeply with Mandela’s story. It was an emotional experience for me to sing these lyrics to the show’s “title track” that night:

‘cause the drumbeat of war that we hear all around

is a sound so afraid and alone

There’s another drummer drumming somewhere

With a rhythm that’s calling us home…

Won’t you sing, sing, sing with me?

Won’t you sing a song of peace?

Two days later, we were on a plane, headed to South Africa for a long anticipated trip to visit family. And three days after that we were at FNB Stadium in Soweto  along with tens of thousands of others for the official Mandela memorial.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a rainy Johannesburg morning, and as we made our way toward the stadium over three hours before the scheduled “start” of the event, we could already hear the people singing from half a kilometer away. We watched group after group arrive – many of them singing and dancing. “Struggle songs” from the apartheid era, and the oft-repeated refrain “Mandela, you’re my President!”

“Siyabonga, Mandela” – “We are grateful, Mandela.” These too were words that were sung, and spoken, and sung again. What a moving experience, to be in the midst of this grateful, grieving, boisterous crowd, knowing that anyone over 20 years old had experienced firsthand both the brutal reality of apartheid and the difficult and costly transition to democracy. Now all were challenged and inspired yet again by this freedom fighter who emerged after 27 years in prison, determined not to seek revenge but to lead his nation in seeking real healing and reconciliation.

Immediately upon our return to Stouffville, I was plunged headlong into dress rehearsals and then an intense weekend of 4 performances of “Selah’s Song” at 19-On-The-Park. As we shared the laughter and tears of Selah’s story, with its reflections on the power of song and ringing call to peacemaking, I couldn’t help but hear the South African songs of struggle and hope ringing in my ears as well.

“There’s another drummer drumming somewhere with a rhythm that’s calling us home…”

“Siyabonga, Mandela.” Thank you, Mandela, indeed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(this piece was written for publication as a column in our local community newspaper).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(In the background of the above picture, you can see a couple of journalists from an Afrikaaner newspaper interviewing Karen and Andrew, my brother and sister-in-law. That article and photos were published here. Karen and Andrew have written articles on this experience here and here.)

(The man standing at the top of the picture is Mzwandile… there is an inspiring article about him here.)

today’s the day! premiere of Selah’s Song

Yes, it’s true! So excited!

That’s all I have time to say right now. More soon. Right now… we have a show (actually a weekend of shows) to do…

Soundtrack CD will be available online soon…

Break a leg, everyone!

singing songs of peace

Looking back on this fall’s touring season, a common thread that comes to mind is “singing songs of peace.”

On one hand, I think of Ephesians 6:15 – “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” On the other hand, I am also mindful of Jeremiah’s warning about about those who “have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace…” (Jer 6:14). I hope that my traveling and singing/speaking/leading is closer to the first, but in my “line of work” I always need to pay attention to the possibility of falling into the second…

Here are just a few “singing songs of peace” snapshots from the past few months:

Singing “A God Who Makes Friends”at the Wild Goose Festival (Aug 8-11, Hot Springs, North Carolina) with the children’s program, getting the kids in pairs and singing to/with each other along with a cooperative hand-clap rhythm… and later hearing of a woman who stood and watched with tears in her eyes, saying how this scene gave her a renewed sense of hope for the world. (My hope too was fed at this event, hearing from folks like Nadia Bolz-Weber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Indigo Girls and many others.)

Singing “New World Coming” with a fascinating-and-a-bit-puzzling gathering of people in Orwell, Ohio, who are mostly refugees and exiles from the Amish communities in that area. Getting to know these folks, and hearing their reflections on their experiences and deep hurts from their “peace church” upbringing, was a new and sobering experience for me. At the end of our time together, the pastor/leader of this community called me back to the front and said “We’re going to sing that song again – and this time _______ will do some free-style rap for the verses”… so there we were, in a shed in the middle of Amish country, rapping and singing our hearts out, expressing our yearning for the fulfilment of the various prophetic visions of the “peaceable kingdom” that our world so badly needs.

Singing “Peace Be With You” at the Stouffville Peace Festival, celebrating and bearing public witness to the “peace church” heritage and history of this community… in the face of attempts to falsify that history in pursuit of rather different agenda (as I reflected in a blog post about Stouffville’s military parade last year).

Singing “When You Learn to Follow Jesus (You Will Act a Little Strange)” at a congregational retreat in Washington DC… the epicentre, of course, of the most massive military force in human history.

Writing/recording/teaching/singing the songs for “Selah’s Song” – an “original folk musical” in collaboration with Theatre of the Beat, and a songwriter’s dream in many ways… as it is (among other things) an extended reflection on the potential of something as apparently powerless as a song to effect change in a world of violence and greed.

I’ll close this post with the third verse of the “title track” of Selah’s Song… which is not a bad segue into the Advent/Christmas season as well…

 So I guess I’ll keep planting my seeds in the ground

Never knowing if they will take root

And I’ll keep on singing my songs in the air

Never knowing what they’re gonna do

‘Cause the drumbeat of war that we hear all around

Is a sound so afraid and alone

There’s another drummer drumming somewhere

With a rhythm that’s calling us home…

Won’t you sing, sing, sing with me

Won’t you sing a song of peace?

Won’t you sing, sing, sing with me

Won’t you sing a song of peace?

 

 

 

lots of writing, just not here

Greetings, all!

Just wanted to let you know that there’s lots of writing going on – just not here. There are multiple projects on the go – some small(ish), some rather large indeed. I’ll be pulling back the veil on some of these projects over the next while, and will be posting updates here as they gradually become “public” and begin to see the light of day…

Stay tuned!

Carry on…

wild goose and other flocks

In the midst of my spring tour (Harleysville, Pennsylvania last weekend, Laurelville PA this weekend, some stops in Indiana and Illinois in a couple of weeks), planning for the fall tour is underway as well… and…

I am delighted to report that I have been invited to perform at this year’s Wild Goose Festival, August 8-11 in Hot Springs, North Carolina. This festival is a kind of cousin to the legendary Greenbelt Festival in the UK, which has been running since the 70s. Speakers at this year’s Wild Goose Festival will include folks like Philip Yancey, Brian McLaren, Phylis Tickle, Jonathan Wison-Hartgrove, and many others… and musicians will include The Indigo Girls, The Lost Dogs, and many, many more

I am anticipating an extending touring season, potentially in both Canada and the USA, come fall… so if you’d like to explore possibilities for a visit to your area, please send me an e-mail and let me know. See you on the road!

writing and publishing in different modes

Over the past while I have found myself writing in some different modes, and some of that writing is starting to appear in public.

Here’s an article I wrote for Canadian Mennonite magazine – “Hearing Jesus as Songwriter.”

And here’s a more ambitious piece – a 33 page booklet that is a bit of a study of how Jesus is portrayed as interpreter of Scripture in the Gospel of Mark. That piece is now available here… and there may well be more on its way in a similar vein…

Not to worry – there’s still some songwriting going on too, but it hasn’t been as consistent or disciplined lately. That said, the backlog of “songs to write” has been steadily growing… there have been a few new songs lately… I expect that, before too long, there will be some more songwriting that will “break the logjam” that’s been building up…

Stay tuned!

remember the land

In May 2011 I was invited to help plan and lead worship at a global ecumenical conference on mining, organized by KAIROS Canada. They have put together a powerful video with excerpts from the various speakers, interspersed with the refrain of a song that I wrote for the conference. You can watch or download the video here.

This theme song is drawn from Leviticus 26 – a text that makes a vivid (even shocking) connection between human obedience to God’s ways (commandments, statutes, ordinances) and the health of the land. When we sing the refrain of the song (“I will remember the land”), we are singing the words that God speaks in Lev 26:42.

The broader context of those words is this: the commandments in the preceding chapter (Lev 25) are all about how to deal with land/property (“sabbatical” year of rest for the land, “jubilee” year of re-distribution of land, issues of debt, servanthood, redemption of servants, etc.). Lev 26 then carries on with a description of ecological health that is described as resulting from obedience to God’s commandments (Lev 26:3-13), followed by a vision of ecological destruction resulting from disobedience (26:14-33). One way or another – whether humans implement it appropriately or not – “the land shall enjoy its sabbath” (26:33-39). And then the text describes the possibility of changed human attitudes and behaviour: “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors… if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I WILL REMEMBER THE LAND.” (Lev 26:40-42, emphasis added).

I thought it was particularly striking to put these words of Yahweh – “I will remember the land” – to a traditional Andean Cueca rhythm and chord structure… a land that has a long history of mining and exploitation not just of mineral resources but of the people who have lived there and still live there. (I spent 4 formative years, age 12-16, living in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the heart of the Andes mountains.) For us to sing these words together, to an Andean rhythm, in the context of a global ecumenical conference on the impacts of mining, struck me as a powerful thing.

During the days of the conference I circulated around, talking to as many people as I could, asking them how we would sing these words “I will remember the land” – in their own native language. These conversations inevitably resulted in fascinating debates and conversations about what exactly the words should be, as each language and culture has its own way of articulating the nuances of these things. Which word – of the multiple options that are possible in each of our tongues – should be used to say “remember”…? To say “land”…? Different words in each language and tradition have different nuances and implications, and our wrestling with these nuances were part of our conversations about how, indeed, we are called to relate to the land.

In worship we sang these words in over a dozen different languages, I believe (the video includes only three). God’s words – “I will remember the land” – which became our own.

At the end of the conference, when we gathered for a group photo, someone started singing this refrain again. And then, perhaps on the third or fourth time, someone introduced a change and started to sing “WE will remember, we will remember, we will remember the land.” I stood there, with tears streaming down my face, marveling at how these words from God in Leviticus 26 had become our words – an article of faith, a promise, a commitment, and a joint vocation. “We will remember, we will remember, we will remember the land.”

The realities depicted in this video are not easy realities to face. Today’s “idle no more” movement is raising voices and issues (including issues raised in the video, and others) to public attention in significant and challenging ways. I type these words on a laptop representing untold quantities of resources extracted, at great cost, from the earth… and I type them knowing (even if only dimly aware) of my own complicity in a reality that is unjust and exploitative for so many… and for the land…

This video, I think, holds that challenge before us in an honest and unflinching way (even if we do flinch as we watch it). My hope and prayer is that God’s words, indeed, may become our own…

“I will remember, I will remember, I will remember the land… We will remember, we will remember, we will remember the land…”

yes we can! (worship intergenerationally)

Don’t worry, I’m not planning to post re: US presidential politics here… but I did think I would appropriate Obama’s 2008 rallying cry (which he, in turn, appropriated from someone else – eg: Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and, I’m sure, others – as a good songwriter/communicator should)… since it so perfectly reflects what many would feel to be an “audaciously hopeful” claim – that “small and tall” really can worship together.

Long-time readers of this blog  will know that this is at the core of “what I do,” and that, by a “long and winding road” (to quote yet another songwriter/communicator), I have a particular vocation for writing “songs of faith for small and tall,” helping families and congregations find ways to sing our faith together.

I have become so used to this that I sometimes don’t realize just how “audacious” this really is for many people. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, when Julie and I led some sessions (including Sunday morning worship) at a congregational retreat. We have been married for (dare I say it?) 20 years, and have done many things together, but it has been quite a while since we have worked together intensively as co-leaders of sessions like this. Julie is a gifted teacher, with years of experience in Christian education settings, primary classrooms, and now running a piano studio with students ranging from 4 to 74 years old.

While we have very different personalities and planning/leading styles, we very much enjoyed the experience of working together and leading these sessions. Judging from the enthusiastic feedback (we’ve already been invited to a similar role at next year’s retreat), the congregation enjoyed it too.

Can we worship together, in ways that engage and speak meaningfully to “small and tall” alike? Yes we can!

(I’m going to add this as a new offering and “performance option” from SmallTall Music – for Julie and I to jointly lead all-ages, interactive sessions for congregational retreats. We’re looking forward to doing this more often – if this is something that you and your congregation has been looking for, please give us a call or send us a note.)

songs for documentary film

Last week I went into Barnside Studios just outside of town to record a couple of songs for a documentary film that is being made about a number of doctors who have been practicing family medicine in Stouffville for many, many years. It was an honour to be asked to contribute to this project by Jane Philpott, who is one of the “driving forces” behind the initiative.

I wrote one new song, from the perspective of one of the doctors interviewed for the film, and the other song is an instrumental acoustic guitar piece. It was a pleasure working with the guys at “Fine Enough Records” (who run Barnside Studios) – they’ve put together a really nice facility. and do a good job.

I’m looking forward to seeing (and hearing) the documentary once it’s done!

Website Content Copyright 2010 - 2013 SmallTall Music. Powered by WordPress, adapted Digg 3 Columns theme.