Friday, June 22, 2012


Mark and his wife in their Pittsburgh farm

One Father God
One Mother Earth
One life to live
For what that's worth
Everyone born
Is bound to die
Let us love now
And not ask why
For we are all God's children, oh
We are all God's children, yeah
We are all God's children

--Mark Williams, “All God's Children”
 I'd like to officially stage an online barter, as a child of the internet.  My acquaintance Mark Williams, husband of my sister's best friend, is an artist, a singer-songwriter.  I stole his album long ago, and have benefited from it for many years.  I'd like to trade a review for the album, work for work.  As the essays I've been paid for most frequently are music reviews, I'd hope it's a fair trade.

The album is Borrowed and Blue, a suite of songs recorded for his wedding, and released only as a party favor, unfortunately unavailable on iTunes and Amazon.  Maybe if you send him ten bucks he'll burn you a copy.  The songs are incandescent, joyful.  Every time my iTunes shuffle gives them to me, on the wings of amor fatie, I accept them, love them more, weep silently at my desk.

As a songwriter, Mark finds a balance between the grand faith of hymns and the intimacy of a prayer.  It's so rare to find artists with this level of optimism in their lyrics, optimism but not an ounce of sentimentality.  His lyrics soar, admitting the reality of death and fear and brokenness but denying evil its power, proving, by the richness of his voice and the dense furry breadth of his guitar, the truth of his lyrics.

Williams is a deep thinker and a careful poet, a theologian and a mystic.  It's a constant surprise to me that he's never received fame, although whether he'd look at such a fate as a gift remains uncertain.

He'd probably take it as he takes most things:  with hope, and faith, and music.  His voice has a raspy immediacy that makes me these raw recordings feel like he's singing to his closest friends, as, in fact, he is.  Like Nick Drake's basement recordings or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, the music has a fearless honesty underlining his earnestness.  This is someone who believes that Jesus can save us.  Who believes that the only way to meet our greatest doubts is with art.

Each song on the album feels inspired.  “Walkin' Down the Road” colors his world with the reality of darkness.  “I've been mean, I've been cold / I've done things I've never told,” he sings, and all of us are there with him.  “I have lied and I have bled,” as have we all.  “I Shall Not Fear” brings an interpretation of a biblical song, the 23rd psalm, continuing the ongoing metaphor of life as a road we walk down, one heavy foot in front of another.  “Every traveler on this road / Is forced to bear a heavy load.”  But--
When the cold winds blows
And I'm all alone
When I'm tired and lost and all alone
I'll speak the truth with every breath
And walk this road, yea, unto death

And I shall not fear
I shall not fear
The one that gets me every time is "More (Give It All Away)." So much of American culture is about always needing more, wanting more--it's in every commercial, every heart.  We want more money, more cheap plastic crap, more of everything.  But Williams subverts that concept, makes “more” mean so much more, making it into something different.  More is our siren call, but God Himself gives us more.
I am less than I desire to be
And there's no question that the fire in me
Wants more, more

Then I offer on my own
Wander off too far from home
To return
Then he soars into the bridge:
For we must
Give it all away
Give it all away
Give it all away
Give it all away
To return
That's honest, unabashed Christianity. It's an anthem.  He admits to pain and brokenness, but is honest about the things that Christ actually said, the way Christ asked us to live, to follow his “Way,” the path he followed.

Or this line, again from “Walkin' Down the Road”:
Jesus Christ, I am afraid
That you've seen the mess I've made
All along I've been ashamed
Such exquisite honesty. It's the best kind of gospel music, in the sense that he's telling us good news.

For those who think “Christian music” is an oxymoron, for those doubtful of a spiritual realm, for “every boy and girl dying to be free,” Borrowed and Blue is a profound work of art.  Williams said in this recent interview that he considers his songs “modern field music.”  Although for many of us the fields where we work have changed, the need for a call and response that creates unity among our many voices remains.  That's what this album is, and each song here is a masterpiece.

Williams is a farmer and an artist.  His day job is running an urban farm in the city of Pittsburgh, a program that had its funding slashed by government austerity measures this year.  But Mark keeps walking down his road, blazing a path for the rest of us who want to plant gardens and make art.  I can only aspire to be like him to build community by growing food, by walking down my own road.

Erica Jenks Henry, my sister, called me out in her interview, for the half-thieving magpie way I have of assembling music, a guilty obsession I've tried to justify publicly on these pages.  But I hope by writing these words that not only can I justify my theft, but also  can prove that it's been for a greater purpose, because more people need to hear Mark's music.

He ends the album with one last song, “Hallelujah.”
This world got a hold on me
Breaking my bones
Tying me down
Lord knows I want to be free
On my own I don't know how
I don't know how

So I sing hallelujah
The chorus echoes with of its own hallelujah chorus, a mournful harmonica underlining the truth of our own pain.  It's that way for all of us.  Call and response.  Hope and despair.  One imagines the hymn ringing out in the voices of those growing our fields, building the new life that all of us can imagine, if we build it together.  On our own, we don't know how.  But if we have artists like Mark Williams leading the way, maybe we'll find our way to the home he imagines.
Love the Lord
With all your heart
Love your neighbor
And there's a start
For we are all God's children
We are all God's children

In this life there's no guarantee
Tomorrow's a day we'll never see
I don't care about yesterday
All I want to know is who you're going to love today

We are all God's children, oh
We are all God's children
We are all God's children

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