Found Music

Heh – haven’t been writing as much as I’d hoped these past two weeks. Well, writing, yes, but not coming up with anything post-worthy to share.

Last night was nice, though, and I’ve found myself rolling the evening over in my hands, like a small glinting stone, trying to figure out what made it special. The moment was between sets of chanteys on Balclutha. I’ve written about Balclutha before: a hundred or so folks gathered on folding chairs in the large shelterdeck at the ship’s stern, singing loudly together, taking turns leading old sailing songs late into the night while anchored at the Hyde St Pier. It’s always – okay, almost always – a lovely time. Last night was one of those times – old-timers led us in new songs, newcomers worked up the gumption to lead us in some old favorites. Nobody launched into one of those ill-advised and ill-received solo ballads that goes on forever at a dreadful slog, leaving the rest of us politely joining in at the brief one-line chorus and spending the rest of the interminable duration checking our watches. It was a lovely. As usual, Peter orchestrated from The Bench, that long elegant curved wooden seat where the sing’s nominal old salts sit, stepping in to lead when the crowd’s direction sputters.

I ended up at The Bench last night too, mostly due to some seat shuffling and a there’s-room-here wave from Talitha and Michael. Intimidating, and humbling, but great fun. Not sure if I lived up to my field promotion – only led one tune, and only adequately, at that.

But as fun as it was, that wasn’t where the magic happened. It happened between sets, while I was wandering out above deck. It was one of those clear warm nights where the city looks like a box of Christmas tree light laid out on the shore. Gibbous moon, not quite full, high above, played through shadows through the ship’s rigging, and the evening air carried the sound of gently creaking ships, asleep at their moorings.

Most folks congregate around the galley during breaks, lining up for the cider, coffee and hot cocoa Alice and her crew dish out to stave off the (non-existent) chill. But others seek out more remote corners of the ship – I’ve come to think that the enforced close quarters of spending four months at sea drove ship designers to subconsciously create havens where one could, at least in one’s mind, be alone for a few moments on a long journey. I’ve always liked finding those places, so I wandered up and aft, to the stern, to look out over the harbor – the lighthouse on Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, glowing its soft dull red (historical note for those who are prone to ask why the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t gold-colored – the strait leading to California’s rich interior was dubbed the “Golden Gate” since 1846, long before any bridge spanned it; in fact, even before gold had been discovered in the Sierras).

Anyhow. It was a pretty night. But there was music coming from the charthouse. The charthouse is a small room set up just ahead of the wheel; nominally, I guess where the charts were kept. I followed my ears, and found Joan, Shawn and Jay, of the trio Barbary Ghost. They’d set up camp in the charthouse – apparently, from the photo on their site, this was a favorite haunt of theirs – and were puttering through some lovely tunes. Not playing for anyone, just having fun with a couple of friends. Several mothers and dads sat on the side benches, bouncing infants and singing along, while the curious (like me) peered in, squeezed themselves through the door, and settled in to sing along.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it felt so special. I think it has something to do with found music. Like found art, it’s a reminder that everything in this world, every moment, has the power to be magical. It’s not in the substance of the stuff around us, it’s how we respond to it. Here, now we are walking, but take the steps differently – ever so slightly – and we are dancing. And here’s the neat part: both steps may look exactly the same from the outside.

So sure, great big musical productions can be enormous amounts of fun. They are an edifice, a ziggurat of someone consciously saying: Pay Attention. I’m Going To Create Art. And it’s lovely. But for me, it’s the sunsets, the butterfly on the window that are special. The tune of people just finding themselves somewhere and deciding to sing along. They remind me just how much magic and beauty there really is in this world. And how it’s just below the surface; how all you have to do is take a moment to listen, to look for it. And – most importantly – how easy it is to share with others, just by singing along. And that’s what makes me happiest of all.

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