by Jim Haggerty
A young boy, maybe eight or nine years old, slowly raised his violin and began fiddling a lovely old traditional American tune called the “Arkansas Traveler.” He was a participant in a Saturday afternoon music workshop at our local library. Sitting directly opposite him in a large circle was a man who knew the full four traditional verses that accompany that tune. The boy, gradually joined by other musicians, played the tune alternating with the lyrics sung by this man as all other participants joined in the chorus. It was an intergenerational activity at its best.
This event was part of larger effort to reintroduce or reinvigorate the music and culture of our Catskill community here in Delaware County, N.Y. The Gawler family traveled here from a rural section of Maine, which shares a similar culture of traditional music, to lead several events over two days including music workshops, mini school concerts and culminating in a Saturday night concert at our historic theatre in Walton. The family, consisting of parents, their three adult daughters and one son-in-law, play fiddles, banjo, harmonica, guitar and cello. They also sing traditional and new tunes in beautiful harmonies. This includes work songs, from sea chanteys to slave songs. In the school classes and assemblies, I watched the students’ expressions turn from boredom to enthusiasm and even to a standing ovation. I watched the audience leaving the Saturday night concert. Both young and old had smiles on their faces.
The spirit of this group was not just a theatrical pose. Between some of the school events, we stopped at a local shop and café connected to a farm for lunch. While waiting for our orders, the family suddenly burst into song. We all joined in. John Gawler mentioned several times that many of these tunes and songs are what he calls “pocket tunes,” that is, music to take along with you in your everyday life. This is what traditional tunes mean. They are meant to accompany you. The tunes and songs were passed down from one generation to the next. The music and those who passed these on are all part of the companionship.
The early Jesuits also knew that music and other art forms are spiritual gifts to accompany us in good times and bad. Witness the movie “The Mission.” We often think of expiation as the principle Paschal theme. In light of new evolutionary cosmology, however, we might think of God’s presence in the entire evolutionary movement as companionship, as a sharing with us on the journey of the whole cosmos. This includes periods of great destruction and also incredible beauty. Always, however, the journey is a movement and longing for life, life and more life –until finding its ultimate consummation in God, the Omega point.
I think of the Gawler family when they first arrived in Walton late on Thursday night. Without four-wheel drive, their van was not able to climb the road to their housing destination and they had to get out and push it up a hill. I’ll bet they sang together as they pushed, maybe using one of John’s pocket tunes.
May your Lenten journey not be grim, but instead, be filled with companionship as we all move toward Easter joy.
Jim Haggerty and his wife live in Walton, a small N.Y. rural town in the foothills of the Catskills. They are both retired.Jim worked for the thirty years with Catholic Migration and Refugee Services, United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC. He served on the IVC National Board of Directors for two terms.