Gratitude Friday

It’s Friday again!  Five things I am grateful for:

  1. Week four and four posts on time. It hasn’t felt like a burden yet.  Getting close, but not yet.
  2. It’s National Poetry Month in the United States. What that means for me is in our little town there are more readings and events than I can go to.  I read some poems for two reading events this week to full rooms.
  3. It’s April 12th and we had a snow and ice storm last night. Though that’s curtailed my recent attempts at getting vigorous outdoor exercise, I’m grateful to have a guaranteed conversation starter.
  4. My students are persistent and understanding across the board this semester.
  5. The writing muse has been kind to me the last two weeks.  I’m still stuck in other areas, but being able to write calms the mind down overall. Readings tend to help with that.
Title page, Poems Upon Several Occasions (1748...

I have never heard of this poet, but it looks poetry-ish.

The Blues Experiment Part 3: Celtic Twilight meets Leadbelly

Today I finished my visit to classrooms at a local elementary school.  I played guitar and sang blues for them, and we listened to blues and spoken-word poetry recordings to learn about poetry and sound.  I had a lot of fun, but had a lot of anxiety leading up to it.

In my previous posts (here and here) I wrote about the premise of this experiment—I’ve never played guitar and sang for an audience.  I’ve played music in some form or another since I was seven, but have always had anxiety about playing for an audience.  Something I’ve practiced over a hundred times can suddenly seem unfamiliar and wrong, and my fingers seem to have a mind of their own.  A forgetful mind.

I played for my college classroom last week and had strange mood swings afterwards.  My wife, a cellist who is far more experienced than I at this told me that it’s normal for her to feel strange for a couple days after a big performance.  She recently had a solo with the university chamber orchestra with a guest conductor and they were making changes until the last minute.  It turned out well, but was worrisome, and she experienced “aftershocks” for a day or so.

And that’s what I experienced after my debut: periods of relief and calm followed by sudden waves of anxiety: sweating, elevated heart rate, dizziness. It seemed odd to experience that after the performance.   Anytime, though, that I replayed the moments leading up to my song, I had that automatic response.  Likewise, when I thought about having to go do this for school kids, I got nervous all over again.

On Easter, I subjected my family to my rendition of the blues as well.   I had not sung in front of them at that point either.  In fact, that was the first time I would say I “performed” a song in front of my wife, if you don’t count singing songs to the kids or singing karaoke with the kids.  She said it would be the same for her if she wrote a bunch of poems for me to read.

I sang for and talked to two classrooms of 6th graders yesterday and two classes of 4th graders today, and I had a lot of fun.  It was much easier to sing for them after the practice with my college students and my family, although my pick hand wouldn’t stay in rhythm for some reason on the very last performance.  It was even more fun to talk to them about poetry.  We talked about sound and repetition in poems and in songs, and they had some great ideas about the meanings of lyrics.

For instance, we talked about Leadbelly’s song “Good Morning Blues”—and the 6th graders really liked that name, Leadbelly.  I’m pretty sure that became part of their lexicon later that day.  Hurry up, Leadbelly! Anyway, there’s a verse about the singer not being able to sleep because “the blues was walking’ all ’round my bed.”  We got off on a fun tangent imagining Blue Man Group skulking around the bedroom at night.

Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), half-length por...

But the experience really shined when we got to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Roads Blues.”  The school has “Crossroads” in its name, which got them thinking. There’s a verse:

Standin’ at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride.

Standin’ at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride.

Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.

I led them through a line of questions that had them thinking about what a cross roads represents and why it might be a good name for a school, and how singing the blues about waiting at a cross roads with no one to help might be a metaphor.  (I even had the teachers and administrators nodding at that one!)

The most telling moments for me, though, were the hours before hand.  I expected to be really nervous before my first class.  I had put the dates and times in my calendar for the visits on Wednesday and Thursday.  On Monday night, right before I went to bed, I checked my email one more time, because I couldn’t remember whether the 4th graders or 6th graders were first.  I just about passed out when I realized I had put the wrong dates on my calendar and the first class was the next  morning instead of two days away!  After singing my own blues (okay, cursing at myself repeatedly) I sat down to finalize my plan.

I then got surprisingly calm.  Having less time than I thought to prep forced me to make decisions.  I had, as usual, way more ideas than I could use, but the sudden urgency made the plan coalesce.  The “Cross Roads Blues” occurred to me in a flash and the plan wrote itself.

In the morning, I was nervous about the day, but not about the singing and the talk—I was nervous about finding the right place to park and knowing where to go when I got there.  This morning, I wasn’t really nervous at all, and looked forward to meeting some more kids.  I said to my wife, “I never thought it would be possible to plan to go sing and talk to fourth graders about poetry and not be terrified.”

My last great piece of fun was making a William Butler Yeats poem into a blues song.  Yeats probably didn’t know anything about the blues, but he wrote in English and knew folk songs, so there’s a lot of commonality.  Here the first half his poem, “Down By The Salley Gardens”:

Down by the salley gardens

my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens

with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy,

as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish,

with her would not agree.

Change the order of the lines and add the word “baby,” and you’ve got a blues song:

Down by the salley gardens my baby and I did meet.

Down by the salley gardens my baby and I did meet.

She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.

She told me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.

She told me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.

But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.


Lightnin' Butler Yeats