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April – May 2002 Musings: Swimming to the Other Side

April was a full and good month, mostly taken up by my California tour, as well as getting ready for it – and recovering from it. I just had way too much fun out there, and it took awhile to settle in afterwards. I had thought I’d write in this musings about California, or about the song I wrote the day I got back, a sort of a semi-wry travelogue/semi-romantic waltz, called Someone to Come Home To.” But way too much has happened since then, and so I just hope you can make it to a concert soon, and I’ll sing you my new song in person – and I’ll get right to the biggest news.

Last year I was contacted by Marika Partridge, former director of NPR’s All Things Considered. Marika had discovered Pat Humphries’ song “Swimming to the Other Side” at a music camp – she participated in a harmony workshop led by Leela and Ellie Grace, where they sang the song. It was Leela who told Marika about my descant version of the song. So Marika got in touch with me to get a copy of it, and we proceeded to communicate through numerous emails back and forth, where she asked about my connections with the song and the origins of the descant. The upshot of it all was that Marika invited me to give a house concert at her home in Takoma Park, Maryland, last winter.

The morning after the concert, Marika taped a lengthy interview with me, in which I talked about meeting Pat Humphries at the Folkway in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in December 1991. Pat was opening for me that night, and she closed her set with “Swimming to the Other Side.” I immediately fell in love with the song. Pat had recorded it on her first CD, Same Rain, but it was still in the manufacturing stages. She gave me her only cassette copy of the recording (imagine that!), so I could learn it, and I drove the three hours home the next morning, playing the song over and over and over again. If you listened to Marika’s piece on May 22 on NPR, you heard Pat mention that she thought no one would ever sing the song, because it had too many words. Well, I had all of them memorized by the time I got home!

I sang “Swimming to the Other Side” in concerts immediately, but it was several years before I recorded the song myself, on my 2000 release, Leaving Fort Knox. Dana Robinson was producing the recording. We recorded the basic tracks of the song live in the studio, with me playing guitar and singing, Dana playing mandolin, and Andrew Kinsey playing acoustic bass – all of us standing in a close circle around mics. When we listened back to the tracks, Dana suggested that I write a descant part to be sung against the chorus. I thought it was a great idea, and carried the tape around with me for the next couple of weeks, listening – again, over and over, good thing it’s such a great song! – as I drove around in my car.

Pat’s chorus starts out “We are living ‘neath the great big dipper…”. Every time I heard that, all I could think of was a hymn I’d sung in our Congregational/UCC Church (no, not Methodist, as Marika said), as I was growing up in Barre, Vermont. Our choir director, church organist – and my piano teacher – Nora Akley, would choose the most beautiful and obscure hymns. The music was my favorite part about going to church. One of the hymns we sang was called “We are living, we are dwelling” and was set to a haunting traditional Welsh melody. It was a favorite of mine because of the tune, and all I remembered was the first line of words. But driving around listening to Pat’s “We are living neath the great big dipper” all I could think of was “We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful time.” Hmm…. I thought, I wonder if I could combine the two? So I went back to my old hymnal, and there it was “We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful time. In an age on ages telling, to be living is sublime. hark! the waking up of nations, Hosts advancing to the fray…” uh oh, I thought, and as I read on I realized this was a call to war, along the lines of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” not really the right accompaniment to Pat’s call for brotherhood! So, I left it at the first line – updating the translation of “awful” to “awesome” (I do have teenagers, you know!). And I re-worked some of Pat’s lyrics to finish off the descant:

“We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awesome time
We can worship, we can cherish, all the ones we live beside.”

Of course, I had to re-write the melody, because the original Welsh tune didn’t fit with Pat’s melody and chords. I kept it simple, quarter notes in a two-part harmony against Pat’s quick eighth and sixteenth note melody and words. Back in the studio, Dana sang a harmony with my lead vocal through the second chorus, and I brought in the high part of the descant in the third. In the last chorus, Dana added the descant harmony. We doubled each of our descant parts, to give a choral effect. It was really fun recording these parts, with each successive chorus getting more gloriously full and complex.

I loved hearing what Marika did with the piece about the song, how she wove the interviews and her commentary around Pat’s complete version of her song, each of the three verses entering at the perfect time. Her interview with Pete Seeger is awe-inspiring, it gave me chills to listen to what he had to say about the song, and about our world and music’s place in it. It was surely an honor to be included in this radio piece that I think is simply a work of art. If you missed hearing it when it aired on All Things Considered on May 22, you can still hear it on the NPR website (as long as it will be available through the NPR archives.)

And to all of you who have just found out about me through this special NPR piece, welcome to my site! I’m glad you found me! Please keep in touch, drop me a line in my guestbook – and thanks to all of you who’ve already done so. I’ve been touched to read your comments! For those of you who have asked about getting sheet music for my arrangement of Swimming to the Other Side, I’m working on translating my rough handwritten transcription into a computerized version to make it easily legible for those of you who’d like to use it for choirs and choral groups. I’m delighted to hear that so many folks want to sing my arrangement of Pat’s great song!

Those of you who have heard me live know that I often end my live concerts with the song, inviting the audience to sing the descant part. I hope to be able to sing it with some of you newcomers someday! You can check my website schedule to see when I’ll be in your area, or sign up on my email list for monthly notices of my whereabouts. And if you don’t see me coming to your region, and you’d like to help coordinate a concert, house concert, or school program, please feel free to contact me, or my agent Pam Rivers.

Many blessings to you all. Remember what Pete said – it’s hard to stop a good song – and keep on singing!

Warmly, Lui

Posted in Musings

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