Dan Fogelberg: An Appreciation

3 07 2014

Dan Fogelberg - A Living LegacyI first wrote this the night Dan Fogelberg passed away. December 16, 2007. An artist, whose art still inspires.

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My writing on this blog is usually of a more hortatory nature.  These reflections are personal.  I am saddened this evening as I’ve just gotten word that Dan Fogelberg—an artist of rare and exquisite musical gifting—has passed away after a three year bout with prostate cancer.  Dan was 56 when he died this morning in Maine, his wife Jean at his side.

I am a musician—in fact, a musician long before I ever stepped into the ministry.  Dan Fogelberg’s music has molded me as a musician probably more than any other musician living or dead.  He played both the guitar and the piano beautifully.  He had a lilting voice and an artist’s soul.  He was discovered as an art student in Champaign IL playing in clubs.  Dan had a way with poetry and lyrics that remind us all just how powerful the spoken word is, especially when set to music.

I first gravitated toward Dan’s music with the Phoenix album, which gave us a number of memorable moments, among them “Longer” and “Face The Fire,” Dan’s powerful rebuke of our dependence upon nuclear power in the aftermath of the accident in 1979 at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, PA. Dan was never shy about weighing in on political matters with his gifts.  He was adamant–as am I–that there are better ways to go about settling our international differences than by killing one another.

But it was when I first heard Dan’s moving tribute to his father—Lawrence Peter Fogelberg—that I became a fan for life.  “Leader Of The Band” has been for me the most powerful piece of non-religious music that I have ever known.  His father was a jazz musician and orchestra conductor (teaching band in high school).  His mother was trained in opera.  Dan paid tribute to his parents by thanking his father for his gift of music and his mother for her gift of words.  What they passed on to their son has enriched me for nearly 30 years.  The Innocent Age, the album that gave us “Leader Of The Band” was a double album when released in 1981.  It is called a “song cycle” and is a masterpiece.  Fans of the writings of Thomas Wolfe (Of Time And The River) will be very much at home with the material on The Innocent Age.  And so will many others.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about Dan when he was young and moderately successful.  He was living in a house on Lookout Mountain in Laurel Canyon, outside LA.  He rented a grand piano at his home.  His photographer and friend Henry Diltz remembers one day hearing some of the most incredibly beautiful music he’d ever encountered floating through the canyon, all night long until dawn.  He asked his girlfriend, “Who is this guy?”  Dan had been at it, with discipline and beauty, all night long.  That was Dan.  Vintage Dan.

I was privileged to see Dan in concert once—in June,1985, Pine Knob Music Theatre in Clarkston, MI.  The temperature that evening was in the 40 – 50 degree range.  Dan came out in that cold, drizzling evening—Pine Knob is an outdoor venue—and played for over two solid hours, first solo and then with the Chris Hillman Band.  He’d just released High Country Snows, an intelligent foray into bluegrass, which he loved.  It was an outstanding show, one of the best I’ve ever seen.

The world is a little colder, a little lonelier, a little less friendly this evening.  I leave you with the lyrics to “Leader Of The Band.”  Dan, you will be sorely missed by this middle-aged troubadour.  Thanks for the music and the memories.

Leader Of The Band
An only child alone and wild, a cabinet maker’s son
His hands were meant for different work
And his heart was known to none
He left his home and went his lone and solitary way
And he gave to me a gift I know I never can repay
A quiet man of music denied a simpler fate
He tried to be a soldier once, but his music wouldn’t wait
He earned his love through discipline—a thundering, velvet hand
His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand

(Chorus)
The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band
My brothers’ lives were different for they heard another call
One went to Chicago and the other to St Paul
And I’m in Colorado when I’m not in some hotel
Living out this life I’ve chose and have come to know so well
I thank you for the music and your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go
I thank you for the kindness and the times when you got tough
And, papa, I don’t think I said ‘I love you’ near enough.
(Chorus)
I am a living legacy to the leader of the band

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The Human Need For Solitude

5 09 2013

solitude1There was a time, many years ago, when I had the secret desire to become a monk.  I have always loved nature, walking—usually at night, with undistracting silhouettes and moon shadows the only things capturing my eyes—and finding quiet places to still my soul and brain.  It seemed monks had a corner on this, so to speak.  Perhaps you can identify.  It points to something necessary for the development and nurture of us as human beings.

Solitude.

Ours is a time of frenetic energy and busyness.  Things to do and not enough time, so the fiction goes, to get them done.  As a result, we are often harried and all out of sorts.  One of the first casualties of such a lifestyle, unless assiduously guarded against, is quiet.  Stillness.  Reflection.  Prayer.

People like Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, have made significant contributions to literature and life simply because they made room for the kind of thought and prayer that come as a result of intentional reclusion.

Most of us are not called to a monastic vocation.  What we can do is take control of our lives and make times of aloneness and stillness, even silence, a daily part of our lives.  Someone has said, “Hurry isn’t of the Devil; hurry is the Devil.”  Kind of humorous but it illustrates that endless activity and company, without recourse to the kind of soul repair that comes from pulling away from society and technology, will wreak havoc on the inner person.  There are some people in our world almost pathologically afraid of being alone, away from noise, just themselves and their thoughts, their hearts and consciences.   It is a weakness, but it can be mastered.

Here are some things that have helped me as I’ve made solitude a part of my life:

  • Place. Woods are excellent for this as well as mountains or water.  Forests fill me with wonder and being near water calms me.  The lapping of waves on a shore and the rhythm of a lake, a river or an ocean has a hypnotic effect that is hard to beat.
  • Reading.  I usually like to take something to read to help me focus my thoughts and give fodder for my mind and spirit.  A Bible, sacred literature or poetry are excellent companions.
  • Music.  If I choose technology, it is usually music of a more meditative nature.  Instrumentals of all sorts, especially film scores, are excellent choices.  It has a profound way of setting the mood for reflection.
  • Writing.  It is often helpful to have a journal, a composition book or just a legal pad to jot down insights that emerge during your time apart.

I encourage you to make time for reflection, away from the hustle and bustle.  You will find yourself more centered and see an increase in the fruitfulness of your efforts in the marketplace as you return.

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The Spell of the Yukon

27 12 2012

Spell of the YukonThere is snow on all the trees in my hamlet this evening.  The ground is insulated with over a foot of new, white powder.  Winter has finally arrived.  There is something about the cold that is at once frightening and peaceful. There are few things that invigorate the soul like walking at night with the chill, Arctic air in your face.  You move forward, face to the wind, keeping the pace.

This poem by Robert Service describes both the pursuit of gold that drew men into the cold to seek their fortunes, and the rugged Yukon.  Somehow the seeking and struggle ended up being more valuable to these sturdy men than the precious metal.  Stillness, chill, perspective, and peace.

The Law of the Yukon

I wanted the gold, and I sought it,
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy — I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it –
Came out with a fortune last fall, –
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth — and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top.

The summer — no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness –
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ‘em good-by — but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.

They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight — and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
It’s hell! — but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite –
So me for the Yukon once more.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

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The Cost of Leadership

19 05 2012

There’s a common maxim that goes something like this: “The world is run by tired men.”  This proverb obviously includes the fatiguing and never-ending work of women as well, especially mothers.

In business, it is well known that if you want something done, ask a busy man.  The reason being, the busy man has learned the value of time and efficient effort. He can therefore carve out time for additional tasks.

Leadership costs much.  In time.  In emotion.  In soul.  In will.  In body.  The effective leader is one who is constantly improving, staying sharp and crisp, honing his skills and influence.  This cost is beautifully embodied in this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

The Ladder of St. Augustine

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,

That of our vices we can frame

A ladder, if we will but tread

Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

 

All common things, each day’s events,

That with the hour begin and end,

Our pleasures and our discontents,

Are rounds by which we may ascend.

 

The low desire, the base design,

That makes another’s virtues less;

The revel of the ruddy wine,

And all occasions of excess;

 

The longing for ignoble things;

The strife for triumph more than truth;

The hardening of the heart, that brings

Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

 

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,

That have their root in thoughts of ill;

Whatever hinders or impedes

The action of the nobler will; —

 

All these must first be trampled down

Beneath our feet, if we would gain

In the bright fields of fair renown

The right of eminent domain.

 

We have not wings, we cannot soar;

But we have feet to scale and climb

By slow degrees, by more and more,

The cloudy summits of our time.

 

The mighty pyramids of stone

That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,

When nearer seen, and better known,

Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

 

The distant mountains, that uprear

Their solid bastions to the skies,

Are crossed by pathways, that appear

As we to higher levels rise.

 

The heights by great men reached and kept

Were not attained by sudden flight,

But they, while their companions slept,

Were toiling upward in the night.

 

Standing on what too long we bore

With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,

We may discern — unseen before —

A path to higher destinies,

 

Nor doom the irrevocable Past

As wholly wasted, wholly vain,

If, rising on its wrecks, at last

To something nobler we attain.

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Words and Their Power

9 05 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien

“And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.”

In his excellent book, Stein On Writing, Sol Stein writes about his early training as a writer while a high school student in the Bronx during the 1940’s.  One effective teacher taught Stein and his classmates about the power of words by reading “our stories to us in a monotone as if he were reading from the pages of a phone directory.  What we learned with each stab of pain was that the words themselves and not the inflection supplied by the reader had to carry the emotion of the story.”

Words have intrinsic power.  One of the things J.R.R. Tolkien believed and incorporated into his work was the belief that words have power.  That words and their sound when spoken should and do embody what they signify.  Catholics have long believed that to speak the name of a saint, say Francis of Assisi, was to summon their presence.  Christians know the power of speaking the name of Jesus.  Think of the power of these words when spoken:

“I love you.”

“This is My body which is broken for you.”

“You’ll never amount to anything.”

“You’re going to live.”

“The best is yet to come.”

Here is a challenge to us as writers and speakers.  How can we be more fresh and stimulating with our choice of words?  Do we take the easy path of cliché rather than doing the hard work of a finding a rare and poetic expression?  And do we use this almost magical power of words to create life, success, happiness and hope rather than the blackness of despair and discouragement?  All embodied in what we say….

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“To An Athlete Dying Young”

29 04 2012

“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest.  I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.” (Steve Prefontaine)

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

–A. E. Housman

In tribute to running great, Steve Prefontaine (1951-75), who died much too young.

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It “Couldn’t” Be Done?

14 04 2012

It Couldn’t Be Done

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it”;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.

With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

–Edgar A. Guest

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