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Archive for March, 2010

THE ANGEL OF SAIGON

I meet some remarkable people in my travels and sometimes get to write songs about them. Such was the case this past weekend, as I had a small part in celebrating the life and work of Mrs. Betty Tisdale. I’m grateful to good friend Chuck Hasty for introducing me to her and her work, and for asking me to write a song in her honor.
Here’s the short version of Betty’s story (www.bettytisdale.com).
In the early 1960’s, she began traveling to Vietnam to work at an orphanage called An Lac, near Saigon. She had been at least partially inspired to do so by her reading of a book entitled Deliver Us From Evil, by Dr. Tom Dooley, a physician who also worked with the orphanage. Mrs. Tisdale raised financial and other support for the orphanage and grew, not surprisingly, to deeply love and care for the children over the years that she visited there. The poverty and difficulty of their lives left them vulnerable, endangered, and powerless. They were the smallest victims of the war in Vietnam.
Fast forward to 1975, during the final days of the conflict. When it became obvious that Saigon and the south would fall to the North Vietnamese, it also became obvious that the orphanage would be jeopardized and the lives of the children would be very much threatened. Enter Betty Tisdale. With enormous energy, slight of hand, and pure tenacity, she was able, in part through some political connections, to arrange the use of military aircraft to remove 219 orphans, all under 10 years of age, from the country. She brought them to Columbus, Georgia (where I grew up) and, within a month, had placed all of the children with adoptive families around the US. Days after the rescue, Saigon fell, in images that many of us probably still recall from the nightly news.
Fast forward again, to this past weekend. Jason Robertson (www.ricetogrits.com), one of those 219 orphans, spearheaded a reunion of his fellow An Lac comrades and brought 60 of them together, once again in Columbus, to thank Betty and relive some of their stories together. On Saturday, an evening banquet was held at which a number of folks spoke and Betty participated in a Q&A session. Remarkable stories.
She is now 88 years old and brimming with life and still busy with good work. She runs an organization called HALO (Helping and Loving Orphans) and mentioned, in the course of the evening, upcoming trips to Haiti, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. She is quite simply delightful, inspiring, angelic.
Here are the words to the song that I sang on Saturday. (I hope that, at some future time, we’ll be able to put up a video of the song, with some pictures from the An Lac story, on the blog.)

THE ANGEL OF SAIGON

She saw children who frightened, who were crying and alone,
Tiny victims of the fighting, with no place to call their home,
She saw children without mothers, and it shook her to the core,
This angel in the shadows of the war.

Sometimes angels hide their haloes, and they fly on borrowed,
Face their fear to teach the children, how to play and how to sing,
Some would say that she was crazy, Love just laughed and carried on,
Until her little ones were safely home.

Chorus:
Call her hero, call her holy, call her mother,
With 219 children in her arms
Call her Betty, simply Betty
To us she is the Angel of Saigon.

Change some diapers, forge some papers, hardly seems an angel’s job,
She is willing, gladly able, it is all the work of God,
Board the bus and dodge the danger, load them up and let them fly
Get the children, safely to the other side.

Sometimes Jesus, lives among us,
Small and weak, the least of these,
Sometimes Jesus is an orphan,
With a face Vietnamese.

So we gather just to bless you, to remember all you’ve done,
To surround you with affection, of these daughters and these sons,
And in future generations, we will pass the story down,
Of how you brought us safely to this town.

You are hero, you are holy, you are mother,
With 219 children of your own,
Thank you Betty, thank you Betty,
We thank you our sweet angel of Saigon.

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One Day, 22 songs

Songs are a bit like people in this sense: they grow up. They begin as embryonic ideas and disconnected scraps of sounds that incubate in safe, quiet places and then show up one day on weak, wobbly legs, tentative and uncertain, but ready to be heard.
Playing a song for the first time is one of my favorite aspects of doing music, perhaps a little like showing vacation pictures to a friend (but better because it takes less time and the friend doesn’t have to act polite for too long). It is not unusual, on first performance, to realize that the song is still somehow unfinished, still needing to mature a bit and lose some of its awkwardness, still lacking in balance. But by the time I’ve played it a few dozen times, the song feels like it might survive into adulthood.
I often make the mistake of recording songs shortly after I’ve written them and before I’ve sung them in front of people which explains (1) why they might sound a bit timid and underdeveloped and (2) why the songs often sound quite different ‘live’ than they do on the recordings. And I often think to myself, “I really should go back and record that song again.”
Well … that said …
This past week, Dewayne and I met to do just that. We set up just as we would if we were doing a concert and, with the help of Dean Castile (producer/engineer), ran through 22 songs in about 5 hours time. Twelve or thirteen will make it to the disc. There are all manner of imperfections, timing inaccuracies, and vocal sharps and flats on the recording but there is no way to edit or correct most of those things so they’ll stay as they are. I listened to a good bit of it yesterday and rather enjoyed what I heard. (In some ways, it was the first time for me to fully hear what Dewayne does. Usually, I’m dealing with guitar and singing, which limits my ability to pay close attention to what he’s playing. I’ve always sensed that his parts serve the songs nicely but, until yesterday, I did not know just how true that was.)
The songs I anticipate using will be 20 dollar Dog (on a thousand dollar rug), 1412 and 1420 (the song about two houses), Daddy Who Cares (a parent with teenagers),
Game of Who Has More (two little boys comparing muscles), Love of a Different Kind
(the girl with the blemished face), Meant to Be Found (the Easter egg song), Open Windows (the risk of loving anything), Refrigerator Art (what kids draw and what we are), Running at Her side (the bicycle song), Shoulder to Shoulder (the two one-eyed birds), Santa and Victoria, (Christmas at the Montgomery Mall), and Everything is a Fingerprint (It all points to Something bigger). We’ll use the left over tracks on a future project.

Usually it takes months to complete a CD. We started this one last Wednesday and I fully anticipate having it ready for duplication by the end of this week. That’s got to be a record of some sort. We’ll let you know when it’s available.

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Dewayne


Some years ago, I was asked to play a song at the funeral of a friend. Those are hard requests to turn down but they are even more difficult to carry out. I reluctantly did a song but have figured out, these many years later, that there was another reason, the real reason, for me to be there that day. There was a piano player who also participated in the program. There was something about the way he played that immediately caught my attention. I was impressed by his skill, was moved by his sensitivity to the meaning of the moment, and was happy that I had the chance to meet him before he left the building.
I have realized in hindsight that I played at the funeral that day so that I could meet Dewayne Creswell.
In the past three or four years, I’ve had the gift of his musical collaboration but, better yet, the gift of his friendship on the road. He is a man of winsome good humor, virtuosic musicianship, remarkable patience, gracious humility, and enviable wisdom. … Given that I don’t read music, and that I further complicate things by using a number of non-standard tunings for most of the songs I write, it takes a longsuffering and talented soul to navigate the depths of my musical ignorance. Dewayne does it masterfully and always cheerfully; he has never belittled by limitations and his musical education has not once interfered with his ability to “hear” and enter into the songs that we do together.
Last Friday illustrates how we work together.
We were to do a concert in Montgomery with good friend, Bebo Norman. I wanted to have a new song with which to open the concert so I started working on an idea late Thursday afternoon. I had a little time on Friday morning to work a bit more on the idea and came up with something that I thought might be usable. When I went to pick up Dewayne around lunch time, I asked him if we could work on the new tune, which was still under construction. Within an hour, Dewayne had learned it, had written out a music chart for it, and had added it to the songbook which houses our repertoire. … When I write songs these days, I do so with confidence that, if a song feels a bit anemic in my guitar-playing hands, he will nourish it to health with his piano. Few musical moments are as enjoyable to me as playing a song for the first time after Dewayne has figured out his part. Pure magic.
I still do lots of events by myself and am thankful that a song on a wee little guitar can still speak to listeners. But any of you who’ve heard me when Dewayne is along can attest to the joy that his artistry and presence add to a concert.
I heard someone tell Dewayne after a concert recently that “it’s like you were hearing the songs and stories for the first time.” I think that they were surprised that a musician who has obviously played songs a many times as Dewayne has mine could still find them at all interesting. (Have you ever been to a concert where the backup musicians, who seem to work on autopilot, appear bored out of their minds by the music they’re playing? The lady who made the comment to Dewayne must have been to a few of those in her day.) But Dewayne is always like that – thoroughly engaged, thoroughly encouraging, thoroughly enjoyable. And it’s because that’s who he really is.
Next week, we are scheduled to record for a couple of days. Here’s what we plan to do. We’ll set up like we’re getting ready to play a concert. We’ll turn on the mikes and do our songs, the ones that we usually play together, as if an audience is sitting there. Whatever we come up with goes to tape (or hard drive) and becomes our next CD. No overdubs and lots of imperfections (all sure to be mine), but hopefully music which captures the spirit of two good friends doing what they love to do.

As valuable as Dewayne is as a musician to me, though, I’ve come to appreciate, as much as anything, the road time that we share en route to work. Music, politics, news, theology and the ordinary business of life make up much of our conversation, and it’s always lively; but Dewayne’s family – Jodie (who is gracious to let her husband travel the country with me), and Samuel, Hannah, Rachel and Abigail – are the subjects of his greatest interest and affection. He is a husband of the highest order, a “daddy who cares,” a devoted follower of Christ, a man who loves the right things, and a good friend. I hope you get to meet his someday.

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