Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

A Sad Powerful Sort of Memorial

Tom Gibney, a very close friend of my family -- and, indeed, of much of the folk music community of the northeast -- died in April. Many performers spoke and sang of Tom at the Old Songs Festival last June. Every person who speaks of Tom, without fail, begins, "I know this is what people always say after somebody dies, but Tom really was a nice, nice guy." He absolutely was. The nicest. He was also an extraordinarily fine singer and musician, but he was generally beloved for his sweetness and his fine character and his kindly dry wit at least as much if not more so than for his talent.

In recent years Tom sang as part of a trio called Poor Old Horse which last year released a fun CD called The Curate's Egg. You can find the explanation for the CD's title in the cartoon at the bottom of that link. I recommend this recording.

For nearly twenty years, from the late sixties until the early eighties, my parents produced a folk festival in a park in Middletown, New Jersey, where they live. Tom was a regular performer over the last several years of the festival. As a memorial to Tom, my father put together a collection of Tom's performances at the festival, from his tapes of the concerts. He sent them off to be professionally packaged and reproduced, with a nice photo of Tom taken at the festival as the cover: Tom at Middletown: 1977 - 1984, volumes 1 and 2. It is very simple and straightforward.

My father's recordings are simply an archival record of the concerts, with the occasional sound glitch and wayward distracting noise. These are quite literally raw recordings. The CDs themselves are a private memorial for family and friends, and not for public distribution. I received a copy of the set last Friday and loaded the CDs into the player in my car, where I do most of my listening.

The next time I got in my car I started to play the CDs. I was stunned. My parents and an old friend had given me thorough reports of Tom's memorial service, and it was very sad to me of course. I had privately grieved three months ago. Yet the first recording began with Tom's offhand almost silly introduction from the stage, then a little guitar strumming, then his singing his own gentle version of The White Cockade, and I lost it. Unexpectedly. Listening to the recording was wonderful and alive and time-transporting and nostalgic and evocative and very, very painful.

I love these recordings, simply as recordings. Tom had great taste in both his selection and his musicianship. All the songs are songs I know well, but Tom makes every one of them his own. My friend Michael Shewmaker was in the car with me Saturday night, and he listened with me for a while as we drove. Michael didn't know Tom, but he, too, knows nearly every one of these songs and his response was identical to mine. He said you can tell from the singing what a gentle nice guy Tom was. He wants a copy of these recordings for himself, just to listen to.

And me, I'm amazed at the power of a musical memorial such as this. I think the recordings are so painful and so beautiful because they are so alive. They communicate, as music can do -- specifically traditional music, for those steeped in the tradition, because the songs themselves have a lifetime of resonance.

My father did a very good job, and a very good thing.
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