Monday, April 25, 2011

The Service of Song by Jim Clark, lyrics by Byron Herbert Reece



For his second CD,Jim has set to music a dozen poems by a masterful but neglected Appalachian poet and writer. During his short, tragic life, “Georgia’s farmer-poet” Byron Herbert Reece published four highly regarded collections of poems and two novels then lapsed into obscurity. Building on the strengths of his CD of poetry and traditional folk music, Buried Land, Jim sought timeless musical settings to bring to life some of Reece’s finest poems. The biographical essay on Byron Herbert Reece is included in the CD.

Reece’s biographer Bettie Sellers recounts that Reece remembered his parents attending song fests where local people “would congregate at the home of someone, preferably a person of good voice who knew a lot of songs, and sing away the Sunday afternoons.” He also remembered his mother’s pure, clear voice singing lullabies, some of which he later learned derived from the Child ballads of England and Scotland. As an adult, though, Reece seemed to prefer Classical music, and he would often speak of the pleasure he took in listening to it on the radio and later on phonograph records he would save his money to purchase. An often repeated detail of Reece’s suicide is that when his body was discovered the phonograph was just finishing playing a rendition of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in D.” Several of Reece’s own Christmas poems were set to music by Kenneth Walton and published by Boosey and Hawkes during his lifetime, and near the end of his life he worked on the libretto for an opera based on the traditional ballad “Mattie Groves” in collaboration with John Vincent, director of the Department of Music at UCLA, where Reece had once served a stint as Writer in Residence.

Byron Herbert Reece is unquestionably the bard of the North Georgia Mountains, but his scope and his appeal are much wider. Though Reece was a product of and participant in his tiny community of Choestoe, his solitary nature as a writer, exacerbated by his tuberculosis, and his wider experience of the world afforded him a larger and more objective perspective on his community. His poems and novels together comprise a richly detailed narrative of an Appalachian farming community confronting the modern world as seen through the penetrating eyes of an intimate stranger. Would Reece have appreciated these musical settings of his poems? I can’t say. Thankfully I don’t have to fear his judgment, which could sometimes be pointed. I’d like to think maybe he would hear in some of them echoes of the old hymns and ballads he loved as a child. At any rate, I hope they do his life and his art some useful service.

About Jim Clark: Much in demand as a reader of his own work and a workshop leader, Clark nevertheless felt something was missing in his professional life. So, in 1995, he began combining his talents as a singer and musician with his abilities as a writer and an interpreter of his own work, resulting in a unique multi-disciplinary performance of poetry and stories rooted in the Appalachian foothills of his birth and complementary old-time mountain music played on the guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, and autoharp. This cross-fertilization of genres culminated in Buried Land, a CD recorded in 2003 featuring original poems and traditional folk music, much of it related to the flooding of his parents’ family farms in Clay County, Tennessee, in the 1940s by the TVA Dale Hollow Dam project. He has since recorded two folk-rock CDs with his band The Near Myths: Wilson (2005) and Words to Burn (2008). His most recent CD is The Service of Song (2010), featuring Clark’s musical settings of poems by north Georgia “farmer-poet” Byron Herbert Reece.

Clark is currently the Elizabeth H. Jordan Professor of Southern Literature and Chair of the Department of English and Modern Language at Barton College, in Wilson, North Carolina, where he is Director of The Barton College Creative Writing Symposium and an editor of the literary journal Crucible.

Here's a video of my favorite song from the CD. In fact, I used the audio in a Gypsy Art Show podcast some time ago.



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