Sometimes a simple setting is the best background for musical eloquence. Such was the case October 7th at 3:30 p.m. at The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula featuring the troubadour extraordinaire, David Gordon. Humor, eloquence, elegance, emotion, talent, and much more were on abundant display! Though having physically moved to Oregon, Gordon’s spirit and music will never leave the Monterey Peninsula. An early arriving audience busily buzzing in anticipation certainly attested to this fact to be part of the sold out program. As the subtitle noted, songs from 1852 through 2016 were featured. By weaving themes together, the strength of lyrics proved their timeless as well as timely relevance. Along the way, history of the composers or of the times that inspired the pieces was also woven in. If all history lessons were presented in Gordon’s inimitable way, perhaps more of us would retain historical facts and be more sensitive.
Starting off playing just two chords on a beautiful Taylor guitar, Gordon introduced the program by inviting the audience to “sail away on music” using David Wilcox’s “Come Away to Sea.” The warmth and emotional vibrancy was clearly felt as though speaking individually to each audience member. With a nod to sad, overwhelming news, “Laughing Matters” from the 1996 musical revue “When Pigs Fly,” by Dick Gallagher and Mark Waldrop, provoked the kind of audience reaction that recognizes the irony. This morphed into the 1930 “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime.” Backing up to 1852, Gordon told of Stephen Foster history and, even though having made a living writing for minstrel shows, how he came to stop writing in plantation dialect that was so popular in the shows mocking African’s who had been enslaved. The first great American protest song was a wrenching version of “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.” It will be impossible to hear this song again without remembering Gordon’s heartfelt emotion. Having married into an abolitionist family, Foster came to realize that introducing real English and not the dialect was the direction he would continue. One of Foster’s subsequent pieces, “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” as presented could easily be represented in today’s headlines, again the irony.
Amidst the themes, hope and love were ever present. Wilcox’s “Love Will Show The Way” was another example. One of the most poignant selections, that was new for many in the audience, was the Fred Hellerman “Come Away, Melinda.” Again, a theme of war and aftermath. For a 180 turn of theme, a Calvin Trillin news piece about Ross Perot was set to music by Pete Seeger in 1993. Suitably titled, “I Lie,” it was presented to hilarious reaction from the audience.
In 1948, there was a terrible airplane crash with no survivors. The people flying were a number of Braceros, Mexican workers who were working legally in California, who were being flown back after picking season and hoping to be hired again. News reports cited the “white” deaths but only referred to the others as deportees, which they were not. Thus, yet another poignant read on history is the Woody Guthrie “Deportees.” Somewhat sticking to news reports, Beth Nielson Chapman composed “Ain’t Necessarily So” for Willy Nelson. This is NOT the George Gershwin version!
After the break, the audience was anxious for more and quickly returned to see what was next. Gordon is a master of emotion. He said he was going to read a poem two times. What he read was Brian Bilston’s “Refugees.” The kicker is that he read top to bottom the first time, but bottom to top the second. If not familiar with this, do look it up. From this came Anais Mitchell’s 2010 “Why We Build The Wall.” It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with current news and feel like there’s nothing or very little one can do. Listening to Si Kahn’s “What You Do With What You’ve Got” might change a mind or two.
So quickly, Gordon announced that he was at the end of the program but would possibly have an “extra” if the reaction was there – and of course it was. After John McCutcheon’s “I Wish You Goodnight,” Gordon said that having a sing-a-long was necessary and finished with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
This Magical Musical History Tour afternoon with David Gordon was a bit like sailing away on wings of music. Impossible to really write about the flow of this program and how Gordon worked seemingly disparate songs into the cohesive and thought provoking sets. What more can be said? Most of the songs used few chords in accompaniment, but caressed in Gordon’s fingers, there was the music magic. There are not enough superlatives to describe Gordon’s talent and emotional honesty that he shared with the audience. For anyone not in the audience, a YouTube look-up of these composers and pieces will definitely expand your musical knowledge, and show the relevance of songs dating back over 150 years. When asked at the end of the program what to say in this review, Gordon answered, “David Gordon gave a program, it was good, I was there.” Please believe, it was so much more as attested by comments overheard as people lingered to talk together and with Gordon.