ALL THAT I CAN MENTION | If you're one for whom the Holidays bring a quiet, stark melancholy from an aching space felt by the absence of loved ones present or past... today's tribute is yours. In some cases it gets easier over time, but not for all. I hope this song and story find a way into that place, for you, where little else can.
Exactly 60 years ago this past autumn, my grandmother -- my father's mother -- passed away at just 48 years old. Her only child, Johnny, was not yet 10 years of age. Whenever he recalls that time with me, the emotion is still thick, the memories etched. Fragrances can bring it back starkly. Time-worn images remind of rooms and spaces and faces, sometimes in each hour of a fateful day. And certainly, sounds and songs transport one swiftly back to a time of great joy gone by.
That's why when, only a few years back, my father stumbled across some 1940s home-recordings in a mis-marked bin -- recordings that brought back to life the sound of his mother's speaking and singing voice -- the timeless emotion and remembrances flooded in from where they'd hidden for over half a century of life.
It was in tribute to my father's memory of his pianist-singer mother Josephine that the song Don't Think This Christmas was penned for The Bells of Good Will album. And at the time, there were also beloved friends of my own fighting losing battles with cancers, or who had experienced sudden tragic loss, or were simply aching under the distance felt for a loved one deployed far far from home at the Holidays. I was preparing new arrangements of Christmas classics like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and I Saw Three Ships; but there was a song-for-the-season I could feel was still missing for the album... a song for those for whom the holidays are especially difficult times. I could find no adequate candidate in existing repertoire. Time to write.
Thus, one of the last songs Dallas Kruse and I worked to produce for the project was Don't Think. I knew its lyric must be personal and vulnerable. It required extra TLC and could be rushed in no way. Still, it's always uncanny to me how such things eventually coalesce: Though I'd been steeping myriad ideas for weeks, in the end 80% of the song came on an exhausted mid-November 2-hour drive home after performing a show. Hardly got my coat off before I'd rushed in to the baby-grand to set my whetted hands on her. In an hour it was inked.
The basic tracks were laid live in studio as a piano trio -- myself with drummer Frank Lenz and upright bassist Daniel Rhine. What gorgeous and staid beauty they contributed together. I believe it was the first time those two had met, and they took all of a hot minute to sync up. Frank and Dallas were also first-time collaborators that morning, and the two are each perennial jokesters. So needless to say, their combined wit kept the comedic relief ready and vibrant while we went in and out of inhabiting such a sober and weighty piece of subject matter for recording. If you've never experienced musicians' in-studio banter, it is something to behold.
Dallas's strings arrangement for this one particularly gets to me. For a piece like this, it's the spaces you leave bare that speak the loudest - the notes that sound out and then just sit there... for an extra second and two... holding the listening song-inhabitant with just enough perceived safety to venture out deeper into one's sadnesses and even fears, but not so little that one neglects to keep breathing. Such poetic forays are sacred and important for us. We may not be able to handle singing or listening to them too frequently; but when we do, we expect and need a great deal from them.
I first shared the recent video of the story of this song with my Dad, before publishing it for you all. In his response, he offered a special touching insight only he could know: "My mother would have loved to have known you - When you were a boy she'd have had the young pianist I think she thought I'd be when she started in giving me lessons."
Hah! My Dad is modest. Grandmother Jo would have beamed as she watched her son Johnny overcome odds and garner a career-launching PhD in plasma physics, rise to Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, marry the most beautiful and intelligent girl at his school, serve in his community and abroad, and raise three dynamic children, all while showing consistent honor to his elders' generation along the way.
Dad -- If your beautiful, musical mother could see you now. She'd be so proud. And heartened by how the sadness of losing her could be overcome indeed by the good Lord's grace -- "new little bells" ringing years later in the advent of your own children and eventually six grandchildren. Love you, Dad. ~Your Son
Album-art excerpt of wistful man on the shore: Danny Von Der Ahe