Bill Long 12/2/08
Stephen Johnson's New CD
December is here, and I have been growing more desperate to hear good Christmas music each day. While the rest of the world is supposed to be spending money to shore up a faltering economy, I want to indulge in the traditional melodies of the season (and some new ones) and forget gift purchases, for now. But I want music that is played withheart as well as music that probes actual religious themess. Tunes that talk about Christmas trees or holly jolly Christmases just don't do it for me.
To that end, I was initially delighted that a local radio station, K103, was playing an "all Holiday" music selection beginning right after Thanksgiving. Surely here was a way to indulge in my love of Christmas music. So, I began with great anticipation to listen to K103 in the daytime, but the songs were Christmas "schmaltz," such as endless repetitions of Bing Crosby's White Christmas or someone's incredibly boring rendition of O Holy Night. Worse than elevator music, I thought.
So I decided to give the station one more chance by tuning in on an evening. I thought to myself, "Surely in the evening they will have improved the quality of the programming because of the greater critical acumen and appreciation level of listeners." To my surprise, however, I discovered that there was some music but the time was mostly taken up with John Tesh. I first "met" John Tesh as a gymnastics commentator in the 1992 Summer Olympics. I thought at the time that he was trying too hard to be cute, trying too hard to be lyrical in describing the gymnasts. In fact, the gymnasts' work spoke much louder and more eloquently than his words.
Fortunately John Tesh dropped out of my consciousness for 16 years, until I heard him on the radio a few nights ago. The syrup was a little thick in his voice, but what I noted this time around is that he had developed a series of "intelligence updates" where he would kindly give his listeners advice on all kinds of subjects, such as how to avoid the endless rounds of a recorded phone menu, how to handle grandparents that fall asleep when they are supposed to be babysitting your kids, how eating soup before dinner will help you lose weight and how to learn to deal with conflict with friends. John was a veritable storehouse of information that I certainly wasn't asking for, nor did I find it even interesting in any way. Then, on top of it, the music was just as bad as during the day. I turned off my radio and decided that I might not be listening to much Christmas music this year.
Meeting Stephen Johnson
Until...I picked up a CD by Garden City, KS musician Stephen Johnson. Stephen's partner Curtis generously gave me a copy of the CD Holiday when I was in GC preaching/teaching at a little Congregational Church a few weeks ago. I had met Stephen and Curtis briefly on an earlier visit to the church, and they were kind enough to attend my pre-church class as well as worship. I perceived in Stephen a real intellectual and inquisitive spirit, but not until a few weeks ago was I able to see some of his musical talent. He played piano for the second service, and his hands so lithely and energetically skipped across the keys that the congregational singing was significantly intensified as a result.
So, upon arriving home, I decided to open the CD which they had given me. It is playing now as I write this essay. Stephen plays 15 Christmas favorites (with My Favorite Things sneaking in there somehow!), and his sound is so much different and much more welcome than K103 and John Tesh. His soulful rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," his rich harmonic interpretation of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," his seaching reading of "What Child is This?" and his meditative and deeply harmonic treatment of so many other tunes (Angels We Have Heard on High; Carol of the Bells; Noel, among others) has made me more than forget my musical disappointment with the "radio" Christmas songs.
This Christmas season I am so grateful for so many people and things--friends who have come into and stayed in my life, opportunities to use some of my talents in work, a sharp brain and time that allows me to write to my heart's content, new possibilities for 2009, health and enough money (for now!) in a down economy. But as I am giving thanks for various things, I will not forget to express thanks for Stephen Johnson and his wonderful and spirited musical skill. Thank you Stephen, for making many good days for me...