Thursday, March 4, 2010

SLEEPY LITTLE TOWN

We stopped in Burley Idaho for gas and dinner. Merlyn and I were headed back to Utah after a recording session. My brother, John Hansen, lives in Boise. He was producing our album Out of the Blue and the studio, engineer and musicians live there (including John, guitar player extraordinaire). Merlyn and I made the 5 hour trek to Boise on weekends when Merlyn was not working and when Dave was home to handle our kids. What great memories we have of those recording sessions! We finished the album in Nashville after Robby, our engineer, moved there. Great memories there as well. But I digress….

It was a wintry day, the ever-present Idaho wind whistling through the windows of the car. We drove down the main drag in Burley looking for a Wendy’s or Arby’s. The streets of those old Idaho towns are wide; wide enough, I suppose, for teams of horses pulling large wagons to fit side by side. They paved the roads the same width when horses turned into cars. Hanging above us, swinging in the fierce Idaho wind, were long strands of Christmas lights. These lights, as opposed to the feminine twinkle lights of the suburbs, were full size light bulbs - not big pointy Christmas lights, but Edison-like round topped light bulbs, in all different colors. I suspect this is a necessary thing in Burley, with that wind and all. It was so charming to me. I looked down the thick ribbon of Main Street and watched the zigzag of color shift with the moving air, rising and falling like kids on roller coasters. It seemed so old fashioned and comforting; so Christmassy.

The rest of the way home I felt the glow of those lights as the snow swept across the barren highway back to Utah. I got to thinking about the Christmas decorations of my childhood. Of the Salvation Army Bell Ringer outside of the entrance to South Hills Village; of the tinsel hanging in the aisles of DiStefano’s Drug Store; the aroma of peppermint and end caps full of Chia Pets at Woolworths, and the sprays of decorations hung from the lamp posts and telephone poles along portions of Route 51 and Old Clairton Road. I thought about the beauty of a generation that embraced allowing a Nativity Scene to be set up in front of City Hall. I thought about standing on risers on a December night, singing that high-high soprano part to the Halleluiah Chorus, hearing the echo of altos across the Thomas Jefferson High School stage answering us – seeing my sister among them, a hot tear springing through my lower eyelashes as the music swelled and I could see our teacher Mr. Rotella being moved by it. My throat closes in when I cry, making singing painful and unpleasant to the ear. I wish, how I wish, I cried pretty when I sang!

When I started writing Sleepy Little Town all these memories swirled in my space. It was a sweet trip home. I remembered, in the process of writing, how it felt to be away from home for that first Christmas. Dave and I were engaged, so I flew home for a couple days to meet his parents. But my family had decided to spend Christmas in CA with my sisters Sherry and Sue. I remember boarding the plane, it may have been Christmas Eve day, and aching with the thought of leaving Dave. I remember writing on a TWA cocktail napkin, a little love letter to him. I ached also for the scenes of my childhood, realizing the door was closing on some part of me and I might not be allowed to open it again.

The next Christmas Dave and I spent in our little house in Provo Utah. I was working at 7-11 and they would not give me any time off for the holidays. We bought a stubby little evergreen and placed it in the corner of the living room. I covered it with red bows and little puff ball ornaments and ceramic figures I had made at the BYU Craft Center. I remembered lying on the couch in the living room, listening to an 8 track tape of Nat King Cole’s Christmas album, longing for the people I love, aching in the middle place just below the heart and above the belly. They were gathered without me, and though I longed to fill it, there was indeed and empty chair at their table.

We rarely realize, when we are in the middle of life, how sacred and rare the every-day is. We come to cherish the good and simple things because they repeat. Repetition is essential in this human existence. There is something very eternal about it. We repeat what matters to us; and by looking at what we have repeated in our lives we can tell, in retrospect, what mattered to us. Every writer knows the value of repetition. So does God. We repeat the sacrament, we pray always, we forgive 70 times 7. When I hear the ring of a Salvation Army bell I try to dig in my pocket and find some money. Anything. We tend to use credit cards so much these days that I am afraid they will soon do away with the bell ringer outside the grocery store. I feed the bucket in an attempt to keep the repetition going. I tried to incorporate that feeling of repetition in the opening guitar lines of Sleepy Little Town. The bass line alternates with a bit of discord on the second chord. That’s intentional…it reminds me of the ding dong of a church bell, without being too obvious.

This is a love song for my hometown, Pleasant Hills, PA. It is also a love song for the town of my children’s memory, Farmington UT. Wherever your home is, you are blessed, as I am, to have any sweet memories of Christmas past. Of course we love the people who mean so much to us. But I thank the Lord, also, for the places that wrap themselves around us as we journey back Home.

Sleepy Little Town

Sleepy little town,
Strung with Christmas lights
Wrap your love around the one
Who’s missing you tonight
There’s and empty chair
At your table now
If God would grant me just one prayer
I would be there somehow

But miles and miles of winter white
Keep me from my home tonight
And this Christmas we’re apart
But visions of you warm my heart

At the Five and Dime
That I know so well
Twinkle lights keep rhythm with
The Salvation Army bell

And outside City Hall
Past the manger bed
Families gather, children wait
For the man in Christmas red

And all these miles of winter white
Keep me from your arms tonight
Though this Christmas we’re apart
I hold you here within my heart

The high school choir will sing again
O Little Town of Bethlehem
I didn’t know when I sang there too
I’d be missing you like I’m missing you

Sleepy Little Town…Sleepy Little Town…
My Sleepy Little Town

By the way, the photographs in the insert to the album Sleepy Little Town are of my family.  The cover photo was taken before I was born, in the room above the drug store in Shelley, Idaho.  My two oldest sisters, Sherry and Sue, are in that photo. Inside are pictures of myself and all my siblings and my children, as well as a photo of my mother-in-law, Helen. My friend Doug Wintch once told me a music album is like a photo album of your life at the moment. I was concerned that by the time a recording was done I could to the songs better.  He told me to let go and leave it be...it represents a portion of my life, just like a photo album would. Wise man, that Doug, and a darn good songwriter.

4 comments:

  1. how lucky am i to be a part of your memories! and btw....happy birthday!

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  2. Happy Birthday? Guy's was yesterday. I have to be honest and tell you, Cori, how sad we are never to have been able to be a real part of these projects. But then, I'm not sure Guy would make it through - every time he listens to you, he seems to become less than opaque, as though the material dilutes him in time and heart.

    Most people don't write songs, you know. And evidently, a lot of people don't think about their lives as they pass through them. I was waylaid at an early age by Thornton Wilder, and so was never allowed to walk without consciousness.

    But you, you do it all.

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  3. Yup, today is my birth day. Also the day I gave birth, 30 years ago (can this possibly be true, you ask?) My mom and I share two days of giving birth. We both had babies on March 5th and on Nov 19th. I like the symmetry of having been born of her, and then having given birth with her, on the same day.
    As for Guy (and you, its a team) being part of recording these songs: first, I never felt like I was ever on the level of professionalism to be a Rosewood artist. This was before I kneew you and Guy, I know better now. But mostly, second, I just live too far north. Not so much a problem now, because I don't have kids to get back to. But when they were younger I had so little time to actually spend in the studio that to take a couple more hours each time to get to and from the studio would have made it impractical. And I have loved and continue to love working with Mark Stephenson.
    So glad I did, finally, get to have Guy's magic on GIVE ME JESUS on the last album. That was a magical day for all of us. Very spiritual.
    Love, by the way, your sentence about Thronton Wilder.
    The only influence Thornton has had in my life, sadly, is a good inch of my hip that appeared after inhaling Thornton's toffee in England!

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