Making Simple Gifts - Journal

 Billy's letter to a friend, March 2, 2022:  

I wanted to tell you about something that has kind of surprised me.  I recorded some hymns with my cellist friend, Dirje Childs.  I had these on my mind after seeing Mom, post lockdown - singing with her, even though she’s deep in dementia and doesn’t seem to know where she is or who I am.  She doesn’t talk much but she lights up to sing these words and melodies.  

Dirje thought of it—recording hymns for her.  Then,  just as we were scheduling the studio (to add drama), Dirje had a sudden heart attack and was hospitalized.  Thinking about these hymns seemed to help in a very scary time.  

As you know, I was already in therapy with vocal atrophy and surgery on my larynx.  Still… the day Dirje was released, her team agreed she could do her recovery in the studio.  It was an energizing session - playful and surprising to rediscover these beauties.  

It all seems worth sharing.  But, I don’t know.  I may be too close to it at the moment.  

 Dirje's version, March 7, 2022: 

Our story is simple. Billy and I have been playing for his mother for a number of years. When we weren’t able to do that due to visitation restrictions, we thought about making something that would be deeply memorable for her — perhaps a collection of old hymns. 

So we scheduled a date to get together at Blue Rock and go into the studio. We were excited and held the idea with playful joy and a big smile. 

Both of us were going through some serious health issues. But we knew we wanted to make this little gift for her — in spite of our own fragilities. 

Our studio time was delayed by my small heart attack and a surprise stay in the hospital. Billy and Dodee invited me to Blue Rock for respite and recovery. The day I was released I went straight there—eager to track some hymns in the company of my family of choice. 

My preparation had not been hours of cello playing and song charting. It was listening to Billy’s humble voice/guitar roughs, cell phone on my chest, as I lay alone in the half-light of my ER room.  It continued amid beeping monitors in the solitary wee hours of the mornings during my stay. To my surprise, even in rough form, these sincere and simple renderings spoke to me, comforted and companioned me. 

Neither of us had done heavy pre-production. We were both relaxed and joyful, and held our adventure with the spirit of discovery. 

When we sat down to play, we crafted, improvised and shaped arrangements on the spot. For me, the invitation to supporting Billy’s voice and guitar was sublimely fun. 

This work is a study in contrasts, a portrait of humanity. When we stayed open in the freshness of the moment with each other and these hymns, we also touched the grief and loss of the darker passages we had walked. 

As a result, these offerings came alive in a new way. What started as a little gift for Billy’s Mom ended up being a gift to us—a window that opens to the beauty and fragility of being human. 

Listening back, we realized these might indeed provide something of comfort for others walking a dark passage. 

So here they are. These songs have endured generations. Regardless of your own spiritual orientation, it is my deepest desire that they offer a depth of comfort that goes beyond words, champions your courage, and celebrates the nobility of your spirit.

Billy's morning coffee, studio day, July 27, 2021:

Songs - hymns - spirituals 

These hymns were packed in boxes and stored out in the garage with old mixtapes and a road guitar no longer playable. There were photos and letters of people I used to know, or who knew me, a little bag of keys that fit the locks of who knows what or where. I don’t look at this stuff and haven’t thought about any of it for many years. 

So, when I peeled back the tape and opened the box, so to speak, of Balm in Gilead, Simple Gifts, Spirit of the Living God, and all, they moved in there, and moved me. We each came alive.  What a surprise. Now I’m getting them into my hands and heart. Somehow they’re not old, if they ever were. They are not lost. 

But why? Why listen to these voices again now? I don't know exactly. Maybe my early decades of hearing them repeated on a loop made it inevitable. They’re in me, they are. I just forgot. 

Have I outgrown them? I wanted to think so. In my quest to write songs, discover my way forward, find my voice, be original - I lost them. They had helped form me but I needed to create this person, too. 

But there comes a time when all the the stations on the radio are static. When the babble of the culture makes conversation seem impossible. When the amount of loss begins to grow heavy. When I am hard pressed to write my way out of this paper bag. 

So I begin to notice a still small melody. It’s not mine. It’s ours. When I try to sing it in my broken voice, it gets a little stronger, and so do I. 

And there is nothing like a musical friendship, like mine with Dirje, to help wake up the sleeping soul of a song, bring our stories out of hiding, give courage, breath, flow. 

Suddenly I am singing my mother’s life and my own, finding it fresh, flowing in my hands and heart. Who knew? What feels new and original now is getting inside these songs. They will last. They have more weight than I. That’s freeing. 

I give them breath … and they do that for me. 

Today, the string that vibrates out across the universe—sounds like hymns to me.

Billy, after Mom's recent fall and hospital stay, Sunday, March 27, 2022:

Dodee and I sat with Mom in her room and heard the finished album mixes for Simple Gifts.  Mom was in her new reclining wheelchair from hospice, with a blanket, eyes closed the whole time.  She doesn't open them much these days.  And she doesn't talk to us.  Still, we got to listen and be with her.  So much of what we have together is a love for these songs.  So, we let them play as we watched her dream, turn her head a little, play with her hands, and breathe.