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“Children of Peace” — Research for a Song

(This first appeared, with slight changes, on my Yorkscene.ca blog 9 Feb 2011)

Yes, I’m doing research for a song. Because not all songs are about the writer’s navel-gazing feelings, or about love, that bottomless pit of inspiration (and too often cliché) for songwriters.

I love writing songs on unusual topics and songs that tell stories. If they tell a Canadian story, even better. So I’m now writing one about the Sharon Temple (www.sharontemple.ca), a unique heritage site in the north of York Region, where I’ve lived since 2006.

The temple, completed in 1832, was built by a fascinating sect called the Children of Peace. You could say they were the first hippies: they valued peace, social justice and equality; they lived together cooperatively in one village; they held feasts where everyone shared food; they wore colourful clothing when they marched in processions; and music and song were a big part of their worship. (Not much sex or drugs, though, from what I can tell, though there were rumours about their leader having a special relationship with a female member of the sect — and it wasn’t his wife.)

When I visited the temple last summer I thought maybe there was a song there – after all, I’d already written one about the Thomas Foster Memorial near Uxbridge, another striking building with a poignant tale behind it.

So I began by reading a book about the sect written by the curator of the temple, John McIntyre, whom I also happen to know. Then I wondered: would I simply recount the basic facts, how Pennsylvanian David Willson came to Upper Canada looking for land, joined a Quaker meeting, and then had visions that led him to break away from the Quakers to found the Children of Peace and build the temple? That was too straightforward.

One photograph I’d seen at Sharon haunted me: the abandoned temple, paint peeled away, windows broken, with cows grazing obliviously around it.  I kept wondering what it must have felt like to see the temple in that sorry state while recalling its glory days. So I invented a very old woman, the last surviving member of the sect, to be the narrator of my song. I sent my first-draft lyrics to John. He told me that the last member had indeed been a woman, Emily McArthur (1837-1924);  she’d been part of the sect for decades and had in fact seen the temple looking as it had in the photograph!

I knew then I’d found my way into the song. Here are the first two verses (note the village of Sharon was originally named Hope by the Children of Peace):

my name is Emily McArthur
I am old but I remember
when our meeting flourished, one in spirit and in mind
and we named our village Hope
and thus we lived in Hope and prospered
but now I am alone, I am the last one of my kind

Now the temple stands deserted,
peeling paint and broken windows
and the wind blows through the thistles growing wild beside the door
and cattle graze around it
their great brown eyes unheeding
that the Children of Peace are no more

 

In the Land of One Hand

I recently broke my wrist engaging in that traditional Canadian winter pastime, slipping on a sidewalk that didn’t look slippery.

I won’t bore you with details of the ensuing saga related to two hospitals and the casts they’ve put on me and then had to modify because of the pain the last one was causing (hmm, I seem to have in fact just bored you with some details, my apologies), but suffice to say I’ve spent far too much time in the past three weeks sitting around emergency departments and fracture clinics, contemplating just how I’ll be getting through the three upcoming gigs I had, given that due to the way the cast sits on my arm, not to mention the fact I can barely hold a dishcloth in the bad hand, let alone a guitar pick, I CANNOT PLAY GUITAR!

So I began to get an idea for a silly song while sitting in Emerg three days ago deep in contemplation of my situation. By popular demand, here are the lyrics, set to a corny, self-pitying (but not quite maudlin) country-waltz tune, which I laboriously — since I don’t actually play piano — picked out on a cheap Casio keyboard:

 

IN THE LAND OF ONE HAND   © M.L. Hammond 2012

 

I live by myself in the land of one hand

and unless you have been there you won’t understand

all the things you can’t do when one hand is broke

Like putting on pantyhose – ha! what a joke

 

in the land of one hand all the beds are unmade

teeth are unflossed and guitars are unplayed

clothes are un-ironed and veggies aren’t peeled

and things packed in plastic are eternally sealed   

 

(seriously, try opening a bag of e.g. pretzels with one hand!)

 

and I only eat stuff that comes out of a box

because tin cans and jars might as well be Fort Knox

and for holding things down I use elbows and knees

you should see what I do to give toothpaste a squeeze!

 

But here is the upside: I’ve got an excuse

for letting my vacuum fall into disuse

My current, modified cast

I’ve never liked housework, so isn’t it grand

that we don’t do much cleaning in the land of one hand

 

Instead I twiddle my thumb

and I spend hours napping

and that sound that you hear

it’s my one good hand clapping

 

In the land of one hand, things take twice as long

and get done half as well – for example, this song

so I’ve cancelled today and tomorrow’s unplanned

and for once in my life I’ve got time on my hand!

 

Writing Beyond My Means

(Originally posted June 11, 2011 at Yorkscene.com)

Some people live beyond their means. I write beyond my means. What I’m saying is that I write songs that are sometimes too complicated for me to easily perform.

I recently went into the studio with a really accomplished pianist, Marilyn Lerner. She was my first-ever piano player, just a kid fresh out of music school, but who’d been taking piano lessons since she was tiny. She moved on into jazz and improvisational music and new music, but her playing is always full of heart and emotion. (Listen at http://www.marilynlerner.com)

But me, well, I’m not a schooled musician. I had three years of violin as a kid, which I begged for, because my parents were both tone deaf and music wasn’t a big deal in our home. And that was it for my formal musical education.

In my early 20s, having learned some chords on guitar, I ended up in a folky band called Stringband (http://is.gd/YKqX0M). A few years later I took a summer course at the Royal Conservatory for grades 1 & 2 theory – I figured it might improve my songwriting. But in the band we mostly worked things out by ear, and all that theory ended up out the window. So a few years later I took some piano lessons. I wrote some pretty cool songs on the piano, but I couldn’t really play the thing because I’m about as coordinated as a jellyfish.

Now for me, it’s all about the lyrics, and I often write complex songs with irregular structures and throw in extra bars and odd chords — whatever the words and story dictate. But then when it comes time to perform them, well, I can’t count beats worth a damn, especially while I’m singing.

So recording with someone like Marilyn who can sight read and who’s got a chart (written out by my producer, definitely not by this musical illiterate!), while I have only a lyric sheet with little chicken tracks in pen on it, the tracks representing the number of beats between lines or places where the words are actually a pickup, or need to be stressed – well, it can get embarrassing when I screw up. Which I did fairly often the night we recorded together, in part because the song is also very new, so it’s not burned into my brain yet.

So that’s what I mean by writing beyond my means. The only thing that saves me is that Marilyn and other schooled musicians I’ve worked with really like those complicated, quirky songs of mine, and seem to find the patience to deal with my musical ignorance.

And for that, like others who live beyond their means, I owe them a huge debt!