When musicians intrigue me I listen to their songs over and over again. I want to fully absorb their art, become part of their relationship with the world.
This ritual doesn’t just tickle my fancy. Music is medicine. It conjures up ideas, revives memories and unleashes insight.
Here’s how it happened one time.
Toward midnight on a Sunday I dropped in on social media. Friends were having a cross-cultural discussion about music. One person alleged that Baptists are less apt to invoke a state of spiritual transcendence than Buddhists or Hindus. The assertion sent me looking for a video clip, figuring the sound of a big Baptist choir might leaven the conversation.
Does the Holy Spirit tinker with internet algorithms? So it seemed when my search engine routed me to the Spiritual Baptists, a denomination of Afro-syncretic Christians who spread throughout the Caribbean from Trinidad. My heart was instantly lifted by their praise music, with its poly-rhythmic pulse and locomotive vocal percussion. I felt opened up by something that was equally exotic and familiar, like I’d turned a corner in a distant land and suddenly realized I was home.
“When I die, I’ll live again, oh glory hallelujah…”
Then the phone rang. Dora needed directions to our house so she and Baby Gramps could stay the night. As the Baptists sang in the background I guided her to our driveway. It all strangely fit together. I had just met them a few hours earlier in Cannon Beach, where Gramps headlined an end-of-summer concert for the Tolovana Arts Colony. It was my first sampling of his solo performance, a phenomenon that can’t be fathomed unless it’s experienced first hand.
Gramps is a legendary folk artist who’s been making music for 53 years, as long as I’ve been alive. He blends virtuosic guitar skills with an uncanny stage presence and a voice that can sound like a didjeridoo, a coyote, a grumbling prospector, a Tibetan monk, or Popeye. Sometimes while he’s playing his body suddenly flexes in a way that reminds me of a startled infant.
My favorite song during his set was “Ghost Train of Freak Mountain,” a ballad he performs to summon up memories of folk musician friends who’ve passed on. In Cannon Beach Gramps devoted the entire song to Billy Hults — the late washboard-player, publisher of the Upper Left Edge, and co-founder of the Tolovana Arts Colony. He shared some words about Billy as he played, inserting licks from Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” Then Gramps added a “Geechee” rhythm he said came from descendants of former slaves who settled on the Sea Islands of Georgia and the Carolinas.
That’s when the evening’s music started mixing into gooey medicinal salve. In hindsight, it’s all one song.
Geechee is a term that’s linked with the Gullah people, carried in chains to this hemisphere from Africa. The roots of their culture broke free of those bonds and merged with their new surroundings. I imagine the Gullah borrowed folkways from indigenous Americans, as did European indentured servants and immigrants. Some of these cultural currents swept south to the West Indies where they contributed to various traditions, including the Spiritual Baptists.
I got closer to those Afro-syncretic roots while conducting field work after college on the island of Saint Lucia, not far from Trinidad. Every morning I woke early and hiked several miles to the forested slopes of Mount Tourney, where I studied birds. Many interesting encounters shaped my time there.
Once I witnessed two elder women singing hymns near the top of Tourney. They were unaware of my presence, so I stood there quietly admiring their beautiful voices as they clapped their hands in quick syncopated rhythm. Their style of worship was different from anything I’d experienced.
When they finished I introduced myself and explained what I was doing in the bush. In gratitude for their songs I gave them an unopened jar of apple juice (the only thing I had that wasn’t dirty or half-used). They graciously accepted, and we talked about birds.
Another time I met a man who was building a ceremonial fire on the side of the mountain. He said he was ritually preparing the space to grow produce. At the time he was tending a small farm further back in the country, and he wanted to be closer to town. He invited me to eat with him at his farm camp later that week, and we had a delicious fish dinner.
The next day I was sitting at a secluded spot on the side of Tourney, a place where I could look out over the countryside. I was wondering whether I fit into the scheme of things, actually praying for a sign. At that moment I looked down and saw part of an indigenous stone axe sticking out of the earth. I was amazed and humbled to my core. While eating fish the evening before I had noticed a similar artifact at the farmer’s camp. He told me that such objects are found where lightning strikes, that a person may go their whole life and never come across one of these “thunderstones.”
I picked up the axe and in its place left a special rock I’d found in the backcountry of Utah. The exchange marked an important point in my relationship with creation and the old ones who first called this hemisphere home.
Life is woven with threads from many ancestors. Our time on earth is an unbroken circle according to the Gullah, a view that’s shared by people around the world. Birth, adulthood, and death are all integral parts of a whole. In keeping with that worldview, remembrance of the dead is not just a respectful social custom. It affirms a continual bond with loved ones who’ve died yet remain part of the community.
Some Protestant authorities forbid their followers from maintaining connections with deceased family and friends. I don’t understand how ancestral ties are handled by the Spiritual Baptists. What I do know is that their hymns move me deeply. They lift up love for someone who died long ago yet continues to play the central role in Christian households. And amidst all the music of that Sunday, they reminded me how such transcendent love connects with every soul.
Riders of the Ghost Train generally shun authoritarianism — religious or otherwise. When Baby Gramps invokes their memory he upholds the lineage of folks who’ve long camped at the cultural crossroads – hippies and hobo songsters and sea-shanty bards, ancestors who learned a thing or two by mingling with natives and servants.
I imagine a jam session across time and space, one that can be heard simultaneously on the slopes of Mount Tourney and Freak Mountain. Billy is wielding the washboard, unseen yet fully in synch. Gramps is throat-singing as he improvises strange and wonderful sounds. I hear women offering up melodies of sweet praise.
May the music be unbroken and hold us together. Listen again.