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Waiting and Learning
Excerpts from Jeanne’s Journal 2016
Exactly nine months and two days passed between the day I learned that Sojourners would publish my review of At Home and my first meeting with Noel. The following journal entries describe that in-between time:
I’ve been researching my next assignment on urban farming, but it's not nearly as interesting as Noel Stookey's music as a kind of soundtrack for social justice and spiritual awareness over the last fifty years. Having heard from the Sojourner’s editor two days ago that she's going to publish my review has boosted my courage to write to him about my project idea. As always, Bill encourages me.
My letter to NPS went in the mail today. I told him a little about my background and about the review of At Home: The Maine Tour that will be published in the April edition of Sojourners. I explained how writing it had sparked the idea for a biographical commentary on his music as a kind of soundtrack about social justice and spiritual awareness.
Having heard nothing so far from NPS, I sent him an advanced copy of the review and a more detailed reiteration of how the idea was born and how the book would encompass three subjects I care most about—social justice, spirituality, and music and the ways they intersect in his story.
Still no word from NPS. At least he hasn’t said no. Thinking that one more little push can’t hurt, today I sent him an outline accompanied by this message. “One of the reasons for writing this book is that the world, and especially the U.S. in its current political climate, is in critical need of role models who encourage compassion, justice, the common good, and spiritual groundedness. Through your music and your example you encourage such values for many people. Our world needs more of the kind of influence that you and your music are. A book about your music, spirituality, and commitment to social justice could increase that influence.”
What have I to lose?
Email from NPS! Wow! He seemed to indicate that he had not seen the 3rd letter and my outline, so I resent them. [ I didn’t know then that he and Betty spend the winter and spring in California. My letters have been going to his assistant in Maine.] Since then, I've been trying to process this great good news. I think I’m on the right path.
Today’s email from NPS gave me an assignment: “if you've the patience and are serious about pursuing the NPS book, my suggestion would be to go to the lyric page [of his website] and go through each one of the songs and see if there's a couplet or theme that provokes a larger question. not necessarily about the origins of the song but the philosophical question it raises and how my life or the lives of those around me (including you <grin>) are part of our communal thought process. and i'm suggesting everything from the lightness (with some implied and deeper relational qualities) of VIRTUAL PARTY to the metaphysical conundrum of CAPRICIOUS BIRD.”
Yes, I am serious about pursuing the book. Yesterday I sent Noel 40 pages titled “NPS Songs and Questions” plus an addendum, and today this came:
“i've just started to review your commentary on the songs and i must say, even after just a few titles, i'm moved by your analysis. the accuracy of your perceptions are of great encouragement to me. i'm never quite sure in the brief performance mode that the songs receive the consideration i had hoped for them but in your writings you've managed to slow down time so that the deeper intent can be more easily recognized. and for even that alone i'm thankful to you.”
NPS and I have worked out a date/place to meet—Sept 17 in PIttsburgh, where he and Peter will have a concert. It’s been a long time coming.
Yesterday Bill (my husband) and I drove to Pittsburgh from the D.C. area. In his last email Noel said his plane would arrive around 9:00 am and he wanted to rest a while before meeting us in the restaurant at his hotel. Bill and I arrived early. The plan was for me to call Noel around 11:00 am. Since we had never talked on the phone, I was a bit nervous. I wanted to present myself as a professional writer, not a giddy fan. Indeed, I hadn’t followed his solo career nor even PP&M music since the ‘60s, except for some PBS Specials. Even as I dialed the phone, I was telling myself to keep a straight face.
“Hi, Noel, Bill and I are here in the restaurant when you’re ready to come down. We’re in the back, and I’m wearing a turquoise shirt.”
He answered, “And a big grin.”
So much for pretense!
I’m saving a description of that first interview for next Monday. For now, I want to focus on Noel’s “assignment,” which took me deeper into his songs. Of course, I’d been listening to his albums for six months, but his challenge called forth the literary critic in me. My professional skills lie mainly in interpreting texts, including poetry, and when I first hear a song, the lyrics overpower the melody. Not all lyrics work well as poetry, and not all poems work well as lyrics. Without getting into the technicalities of that debate and without claiming either art form superior to the other, I recall that in May 2016 I already regarded Noel as a songwriter who seamlessly merged lyrics and poetry.
As a relevant aside, my initial excursions into Noel’s lyrics as poetry is worthy of placing in historical perspective. It was on October 13, 2016, that the Nobel Prize committee announced that it would award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expression with the great American song tradition.” When I heard this, I thought, “Of course, why not?”
Here are just a few examples of the poetry that I quoted in my 40 page “assignment.”
From “April Fool”:
Why must you always play the clown?
You have the edge. You laid it down.
You give it up without a sound . . .
From “In These Times”:
There’s a warning in the wind that comes wailing through the trees
A depression in the shoreline left by the pounding seas
There is a lesson in the drought that brings a country to its knees
In these times
From “The House Song”:
How much will you pay to live in the attic?
The shavings of your mind are the only rent
I left some would there if you thought you couldn’t
Or if the shouldn’t that you’ve bought has been spent
From “The Winner”:
Some people take a word and they abuse it
Hang it on a billboard, oh, how they use it
If you get the message, you may refuse it
But if you get the meaning, you never lose it
Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote, “A poem is a shape of words cut to evoke a world the reader can complete. The poem is shaped to enter and inhabit forgotten or not yet discovered alcoves in the reader’s heart” (1) Noel’s songs invite you into a space where you can encounter the alcoves of your heart, dwell there without pretense or anxiety, and discern its meaning for your life. In short, that’s what I learned from my “assignment.”
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (Harper-Collins, 2004), 80.