What Charlie Haden’s Song Means to Me

Charlie Haden died the other day. He was one of the greatest double bass players the world has seen. He will be sorely missed.

I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on the music of Charlie Haden. Mostly, I enjoyed his work with Pat Metheny on the ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ album which Warren Bennett put me on to some time back and for which I am grateful.

But the thing for which Charlie will always mean most to me is the song he sang for his Mum and Dad.

Charlie would have been the first to say that he was not a great singer. I think his vocal chords were actually damaged by a childhood disease and this meant that he had lifelong difficulty in maintaining pitch in his voice. As a result, he only seemed to sing when he needed to. All I know is, when his heart demanded it, he didn’t shy away from singing the song he wanted to sing for his Mother and Father.

He sang his own version of the Folk/Spiritual ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ on one of his albums ‘The art of the Song’ with his Quartet West. I heard it a few years ago on John Kelly’s afternoon show on Lyric FM. It was a song that was only half-familiar to me before I heard Charlie’s version. In my head, it was a moderately upbeat Appalachian Country style number. It also had a 'Down South Spiritual' feel to it with its 'Going Over Jordan' sentiments. It had never really meant anything to me. Until Charlie came along. Charlie’s version struck me deep and has never stopped doing so ever since.

Here’s the reason why;

In her latter couple of years, after her second stroke, my own Mum was confined to her wheelchair. I used to drive to Sligo most every Saturday and visit her in the care home where she needed to live.

On those Saturdays, weather permitting, we would try and get out and about a bit. Nothing complicated, like hauling in and out of cars, we would usually just wheel off around the laneways surrounding the care home. It became a well worn route. I think I tried to stay on the same roads to avoid the unknown, the high kerb or the rough path that would only cause some stress for Mum. We kept it simple.

This one time, thought, we took a different route, just for a bit of variety I guess. This new route took us over the bridge and down to the docks. I thought it might be nice to see the boats and such, to gaze into the water.

But I hadn’t thought hard enough about it. The implications of where we would end up that day. We stopped for a moment by the black water and suddenly Mum was very animated. She made a solid effort to actually get herself out of her chair. She struggled hard with the impossible task. When I asked her what was up, I saw there were big tears in her eyes. Then I saw where she was looking.

I hadn’t remembered that we could see my Granny and Grandad’s house from down here on the dockside. Up, across the water, on the raised area everybody called The Bank. Mum’s childhood home, the place where her own Mum and Dad had lived all their lives. Both of them had ended their days, many years before, in the same home where Mum now had to live. But Mum didn’t remember any of that at this moment. To her, they were still up there, on the Bank, waiting for her to come. 

“It’s all right Mum,” I said, “let’s head on back now.”

What Mum said, perfectly naturally, stays with me.

“I won’t be long,” she said, “I’m only going up The Bank, to see Mammy and Daddy. I’m only going over home.”

A short time after that, she was gone over for real. I evoked this moment when I spoke at her funeral. I felt I ought to. She had made a wish on that day and perhaps there’s some hope somewhere that it was subsequently granted.

I never connected her words with the ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ song at that time. I only did that on the day I heard Charlie Haden dedicate his singing to his own Mother and Father. It struck home, even though Mum wasn’t quoting any song that day. She was only talking in the way she always used to talk. Saying it in her natural way. She only wanted to go over home.

So the song evokes that poignant thing for me. Not just any version of the song though. Just the one where Charlie’s thoughts are undeniably with his late Mum and Dad as he sings it.

For me, this all goes towards proving something that I've always held to be true. If you make something, and you put a piece of your own heart and soul into it then the people who find that thing will also find a part of their own heart and soul inside of it.

Goodnight Charlie. 

Thanks for the thing. 

Birthday Greetings

Some things are better since I started to use Social Media like Twitter and Facebook. One of those things is my birthday.

Before Social Media, birthdays were okay… not my most favourite thing. Another year down, I’d get some cards and pressies and phone calls… move on.

These days, though, my birthday feels like some kind of an actual event. Take this year, for example. My birthday was last Friday. The real life aspect of it was better than most years. I spent most of the day on the road and it was a blast. Then it was home for cards and chocolate and a book-token pressie. (A book-token pressie is one of my most favourite things in the world. I’m not good at buying stuff for myself and a book token is a license for me to buy a little of the stuff I like best… I’ve already used it.) After that there was dinner out with a lovely lady. Who could ask for anything more? Nobody, that’s who.

Except I got more, didn’t I? 

On my birthday, my Facebook and Twitter pages erupt with smiles and greetings and a myriad of kind wishes for my birthday. Friends, virtual and real life, descent on my pages with messages of felicitations and goodwill. Wave after wave of lovely messages continue to roll in, right up until midnight when they are then followed, for a while, by notes from people regretting the fact that they missed my big day.

I can’t help it. I find it all terribly uplifting.

It makes me feel like a more important person than I am. It also makes me feel liked and well-regarded. This virtual warm shower sets me up to better enjoy my birthday out in the real world.

There are so many contacts that it becomes hard to know how to deal with them all. It’s hard to reply to everyone and a general one-off ‘thanks’ seems a little churlish, especially when there might be a couple of individual replies thrown in to the mix. Perhaps this brief essay might also serve as a grateful acknowledgement of your kindness last Friday. I may not have replied, in the hurly-burly, but your message was seen, enjoyed, and highly appreciated and it added a tile to a bright mosaic of well-wishes which may brighten the road ahead for some days to come.

And what a mosaic it is. There are people you hardly know, wishing you all the best. There are people you know very well, who you haven’t hard from in ages. There is family, never in contact as much as we should be. There are the best of friends, saying nice things in ways that only friends will know how to say. How could you not be a little happy about the whole thing?

Of course, to some extent at least, it’s all a bit of an illusion. I know this. I’m not a fool or overly naive. Social media has its methods of telling us when it’s somebody’s birthday and, when we know, it’s quite easy to drop a line wishing the person a happy birthday. I do it myself, all the time. It only takes a brief moment. A quick sentence typed, a click of the mouse… done, easy.

But knowing that doesn’t take away from the effect I feel when it’s my turn to get those birthday messages. They may only be a quite type and click but they mean something, to me at least.

Let me get fanciful about it for one moment. 

Hardly anyone will send a birthday greeting with a hateful thought about the person in their mind. They just wouldn’t bother sending it, would they? It therefore follows that there is at least a small measure of real warmth and kindness in even the most basic of ‘Happy Birthday’ greetings. Of course there are also the larger greetings that contain a lorryload of warmth, they help too.

I think this atom of good feeling carries across social media from the person sending it to the person getting it. It doesn’t come down the wires or across the net. It’s like an small infusion of good-thought which have soaked into the plain everyday words and which has floated ethereally along with them to rest with the recipient of those words. These many tiny beads of warmth combine to raise and cheer the birthday person in a very real and tangible way.

It’s like, it works. This simple birthday greeting stuff really works.

So thanks for Friday. I was looking forward to getting home and seeing if anyone had remembered what day it was. You did. You may have been prodded a bit but you did.

You warmed me up a bit.