This blog post was written as an article requested by the Florida Storytelling Association. I'm very happy to be featured as part of their upcoming festival, held each January in lovely Mount Dora, Florida. Super excited to join them, along with the great storytellers Ingrid Nixon, Sheila Arnold, Margaret Kaler, and Shawn Welcome. You can find information about the association and the festival at www.flstory.com. Here's the article: When I Was One and Twenty -- The Things a Storyteller Can Unlock by Chasing a Great Piece of Music
I’m one of those guys who came to a storytelling career from a songwriting career. I still bring a lot of my life as a songwriter to my work as a storyteller. And when I was invited to write this article (an invitation by which I felt very much honored), I gathered my Dylan quotes and my Stephen Foster tunes and my Tom Waits lyrics, and set out to write an article about all of the doors that a great piece of music can unlock for a storyteller.
And then something happened: a great piece of music unlocked some doors for me. And I decided to ditch everything else and tell you about it:
In the run-up to Veteran’s Day, I got to produce a recording session for radio. The session featured pianist Scott Holden and baritone Robert Brandt, performing pieces by composers from the era of World War I. The music included a handful of George Butterworth settings of A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” poems – heartbreaking pieces about the golden generation that went to fight in The Great War (the poems were written, actually, almost two decades before the war, but together with the Butterworth musical settings they’re often associated with World War I. Butterworth himself was killed in the war, though Housman survived).
Scott and Robert ripped through “With Rue My Heart is Laden” and “Is my Team Ploughing,” and the lovely, melancholy “The Lads In Their Hundreds” (…The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair/There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold/The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there/And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old…).
The session filled my heart, right from the first few notes. And about midway through, we recorded Butterworth’s “When I Was One and Twenty,” that little piece in the voice of the young man who, warned against falling in love, falls in love anyway:
When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say, "Give crowns and pounds and guineas But not your heart away; Give pearls away and rubies But keep your fancy free." But I was one-and-twenty, No use to talk to me. When I was one-and-twenty I heard him say again, "The heart out of the bosom Was never given in vain; 'Tis paid with sighs a plenty And sold for endless rue." And I am two-and-twenty, And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
It’s just a little love-sorrow poem set to music, and some would say there’s not much there – that it was the least of the pieces we recorded that day. But not me. I was arrested. That song had done what songs do: It had chased up a memory, and I began to follow it.
In the memory, I’m fifteen. I’m a brand-new high school student, and I’m spending a lot of time hanging out at the house of my pal, Dave. Living at Dave’s house, in addition to his folks and his siblings, is a cadaverous old step-grandfather – Ralph Baddley. Ralph is in the very last chapter of his life, and much of him is gone already. His ancient voice sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s bank president from Mary Poppins.
What’s more, every chat with Ralph winds up featuring, at some point, a recitation of “When I Was One and Twenty,” forced out through his whining old larynx. Ralph thinks that a couple of high school guys like Dave and me – both teetering on the edge of falling in love with a different person every other week – should perceive the poem as especially wise. And of course it’s totally lost on us. We’re listening to Depeche Mode and Talking Heads records, and for us, Ralph is…
Well, to us, he’s hilarious. We’d as soon listen to Ralph recite Housman as go downstairs and watch Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, and for the same reasons. In the high school cafeteria, one or the other of us will sometimes wheeze out “But I was one and twenty, no use to talk to me!” just to make the other one choke on his milk.
In the memory given to me by the song in the recording session, I can see it. To us, at fifteen, Ralph is a laugh riot. He is, in fact, something like the family joke.
Ralph has been gone now for about thirty years. I hadn’t thought about him in nearly that long. But when Robert Brandt, in the recording studio, sang, “But I was one and twenty, no use to talk to me…” I saw Ralph again. I saw him like I’ve never seen him: Ralph was a child in a time that saw the beautiful hope of the world – its shining young men – used up in the machinery of a war that changed everything forever. Though I only ever knew him in a kind of baffled dotage, Ralph was, in another time, part of that radiant generation. The Great War left sixteen million dead, and then, in the very brief years that followed, more than 50 million more, killed by regional genocides and flu. The world would never be young again. And those Housman poems at which Dave and I tittered in high school were an enormously beautiful, melancholy expression of that time. Ralph’s heart was so full of them that they spilled out of his mouth every time he opened it.
A great piece of music had kicked in the door to a memory, and I had followed the memory through to a change in the things I thought and believed. And that might have been enough. But there was more to do (and I’ve come to feel strongly about this): I needed to talk to the other people in my memory.
So after the session, I shot a text message off to Dave. Our conversation looked like this:
Me: “Can you talk?”
Dave: “I’m in a meeting. But it’s boring. I can text.”
Me: “Okay. I just recorded ‘When I was One and Twenty.’”
Dave: “What’s…oh, wait! That! Ralph Baddley’s poem? You’re kidding.”
Me: “Nope. Not kidding. And I’ve been lost in thoughts of our own naiveté – yours and mine – in those days when Ralph was, for us, mostly comic relief.”
Dave: “He was pretty funny.”
And then, in a long text message, I tell him what happened in the recording session – about Ralph coming back to me on the wings of that Butterworth song, and giving me a new way to see him. It takes a long time.
Dave: “I’m sorry to make you text all that.”
Me: “No problem. I’ve been thinking about Ralph, and how lightly I took him, and about the weight of beauty and longing and sorrow and loss that his generation carried with it. You and I, in our time, have never seen its like.”
Dave: “Most of us took him lightly.”
The screen was still for a long time. Then, from Dave:
“I hope there’s a heaven. I can’t wait to meet the real Ralph Baddley.”
I guess a storyteller always hopes that one’s process might lead to such a place. I get there, when I do, through a process that often includes a great piece of music opening me up to a memory, and then handing me off to explore what’s there (with the other people in the memory, if I can find them). In this case, the process led to two old friends, caught together in a moment of…well…“repentance” is the word that comes first to mind; we were caught in a moment of mutual reflection and greater awareness – an admission of folly and a resolve to be better men. It was a moment of greater and more meaningful communion with someone we had lost.
That’s how it works sometimes – a great piece of music can open doors for storytellers, to places worth going. I’m happy Ralph and Dave and Scott and Robert came to me to help me tell you about it. It’s what I would have said with Dylan quotes and Stephen Foster tunes and Tom Waits lyrics. Ask me about those, too. They’re cool.