"Greenwich Mean Time"

Scroll down to read more about the story behind the song. Hear the song on Spotify (link below), or listen and buy from my "Music" page

Dear old friend, you’re my prime meridian
Grounded in space—no change of attitude
marking one place. While I travel the Latitudes
and broaden my views. But when I’m confused
you guide me along. You're my 0 and 360
My Greenwich Mean Time       
I can navigate a vessel,
but that don’t make me special
I only see my one piece of sky
And all the miles between
make it hard for us to see eye to eye.
But you can’t deny you were there in the beginning,
and you’ll be there till the end
You're my 0 and 360. My Greenwich Mean Time.                            
When the clouds block out the sun
and the moon refuses to shine. 
If you'll be my East and West,
 I’ll be your North and South. 
And together we’ll find our way
The length of my days is written in your hands
and the curve of your smile like that old brass line
calling me home. No matter how far I roam. No matter where I lay my head. 
It’s you, my dear oldest friend can set me back on Mean Time

We were sitting at the dinner table in Burlington, NC relaxing after all the wedding festivities were over. My parents and sister had flown across the country and another family had driven eleven hours—all to help friends of fifty years with a wedding in their home. Toward the end of the meal, the father of the bride looked around the table at all of us gathered there and exclaimed: “What is it about old friends?”

The three couples at the wedding have been friends since the 1960’s, and the friendship continues strong today. In the late 60s, my Dad began serving as pastor of a little church outside of Oxford, Mississippi. We lived in an asbestos-shingled house on a dirt road, complete with a cattle gap on the driveway. The second couple and their family lived about three miles away; they farmed cotton. When the third young couple and their family moved to the community a couple years later the friendships gelled for life. Whether for church events, weekday dinners, or neighborhood parties, my parents and their friends all worked together to grow, build, bake, or sew whatever needed doing—creating something grand and beautiful from meager resources.

I was 8 when we left Mississippi for South Carolina. My Dad subsequently pastored churches in Atlanta and Missoula, MT. The third family moved to NC where they worked in construction and organic farming. The cotton farmer eventually retired and lives in the same house that still looks almost exactly as I remember it from childhood; most of their children and grandchildren live just a few miles away with the exception of one grandchild who lives in England. My parents’ and their friends’ lives have diverged from each other over the past 45 years in almost every way imaginable, and yet the friendships have lasted.

It takes a lot of work and good intentions on both sides to be friends with those who are different from you. It seems these days that fewer and fewer people are willing to put in that hard work. The value of diversity and difference as a goal unto itself is being questioned and undermined at every turn. In fact, in almost every decision we make these days whether online (listening to music, reading an article, watching tv, buying goods or services) or in the physical world (buying a house, choosing a school for our children, or our jobs and social activities), we encounter forces (both active and passive) that funnel us into groups of people who are “like” us. It may make things easier in the day-to-day to habitually choose sameness (and it certainly makes it easier to get us to “click” and “buy”), but I think “sameness” causes us to lose our way—our sense of purpose and direction—both individually and collectively.

My answer to the question “What is it about old friends?” is the song “Greenwich Mean Time” (on my latest cd “Play Me”). Old friends (and family) orient us in our own lives. They help us understand who we are, and how we got here. We remember each other in childhood or youth and are reminded of choices we have made then and now. They are also the people we have potentially diverged from the most in our lives. And yet, if we are lucky, they still accept us as we are. I have a lot of fun in the song using the metaphors of time and measurement to explain friendship. My prior blog post of four years ago goes into more detail about Greenwich, England (the location of the “prime meridian”—or 0 degrees longitude) and some of the other metaphors I wrote into the song. One of the main points I make in the song is the importance of difference. We can’t know where we are in the world without two measurements: longitude and latitude. Those are very different kinds of measurements, but only lines at different angles can intersect. Parallel lines never converge. The intersecting and diverging lines of longitude and latitude help us learn where we came from, where we are, and where we are headed.

 

 

 

 

"When Dragons Were Real"

(Listen to the song on any streaming service or preview and buy from my "music" page)

"We were knights in armor of shining steel
fearless in battle on our noble steeds
When you scraped your knee
or got scared in the night,
you would run to me
and I’d make it all right
I could be brave
if you could believe
Back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Maybe one fine day we’ll be heroes again
standing proud and true on our own homeland
We will chase away monsters from under the bed
Find happy ever after in the lives we have led
We will believe
and we will recall
back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Now my armor’s rusted and paint’s begun to peel
There are bills to be paid and deadlines to meet
Words are our weapons
 we hurl in the abyss
Wounds from wars
don’t heal with a kiss
You don’t believe—
you don’t even recall
Back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Close your eyes
(just close your eyes)
Wish on a star
Don’t let this hard world
break your heart in two
Magic still lives
in you

I wrote the song "When Dragons Were Real" four years ago when my first child was about to leave home for college. During rehearsals with my bass player, Cheryl, we spent more and more time talking about how we were dreading our oldest children leaving for college. Finally she announced: “You have to write a song about this!” I had attended several songwriting workshops and started my own weekly songwriting group but had only written a few songs at that point. I told her I didn’t think I could do it. Nonetheless, every week she asked how her song was coming along. So I worked at it—and wrote terrible drafts with sappy lyrics. I wrote and rewrote lyrics about being happy to let my child go into the world and discover new adventures. But all my background notes and journaling were about how sad I was. As I reflected on my sadness, I knew I was dreading simply missing him. But mostly my sadness was about this part of my life being over. Part of the wonder of being a parent is getting to relive your own childhood (if you were lucky enough to have a happy childhood). You tell remembered stories, go back to forgotten places, act silly, and (at least pretend to) believe in magic. You get to be the hero in your own life. But now, with both of my children well into adolescence, the magic of childhood was over. Again

Fortunately I had two therapists in my song-writing group (thank you Mark Larson and DeWitt Crosby!). After the second time the song had been taken apart in critiques, Mark finally said “I don’t think you are writing a song about letting go. I think you want to hold on.” Aha. But the struggle didn’t end with the lyrics. I had to figure out how to play it on the guitar. I knew I wanted to create a “magic” sound in the musical riff. Nanci Griffith’s harmonic ping for the elevator at Woolworth’s in her song “Love at the 5 and Dime” was the perfect inspiration (see my youtube cover here). In order to get the harmonic ring sound with a chord, I knew I would need to write the song in open tuning. Although I only knew one song in open tuning at the time, fortunately, Nanci's was the song I knew.

Chris Rosser and I play guitars in the recording; however, I took the unusual step of crediting the piano player, Chad Lawson, in the song title because I was so moved by his interpretation of the song. Chad is a chart-topping classical musician who interprets classical and early 20th century composers as well as writing his own original compositions. His gift is creating magic in the silence between notes. He knows when to be restrained, and when to cut loose. I had hired him to record three other songs but not this one. When he said he’d worked on an arrangement, we went ahead and recorded him. I’ll never forget hearing him bring this song to life on the piano. The hairs on my arm stood up and tears ran down my face—a beautiful moment of creation for which I am so grateful.

After months and years of work, I am finally releasing this baby song into the world. You never know where something you create might end up—the ripples in other lives—but you hope for the best and let go.

 

Leaving the Nest

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photos by Jack Oates

My father recently photographed a family of robins in their nest—from the early days of tending the eggs, to indefatigably feeding the demanding chicks, to the chicks taking flight, and one final farewell (and snack) from the edge of the yard. Dad almost captured the moment when the last chick left, but the movement of his camera so startled the chick that she leapt off the nest, careened through the air and crash-landed on the opposite side of the yard.

In two days I take my second (and last) child to her freshman year in college (hopefully without the crash landing): the proverbial “empty nest”. I have the usual mix of emotions: relief (they launched!), fear (they launched!), liberty (a quiet house!), loneliness (a quiet house!), excitement (what’s next?), unmoored (what’s next?). As I enjoy Dad’s pictures, I’ve contemplated the empty nest—as in completely empty. You don’t see Mama and Papa Robin moping forlornly in the nest (or throwing a block party for that matter). They are gone, too. Life has it’s seasons, and this one has passed. Time to let go--leave the nest. And yet....

Whether one has children or not, there comes a point in middle age when you think: Is this all? What do I want to leave behind? Do I have unfulfilled dreams and how will I honor that impulse? Do I need to learn to accept life’s disappointments or risk a new challenge (even if I fail)? And the philosophers among us keep asking: Why am I here? What is all this living for? What does anything really mean in the face of decay and mortality?

I am grateful to have recently been introduced to a wonderful new podcast created by Mark Peres titled (aptly) “On Life and Meaning”.  He interviews people from disparate professions and cultures about what gives their life meaning—from the famous (Peter Reinhart, baker, writer, educator) to the not-so-famous (me). I reflect on my life and what propelled me into songwriting and performing again. I also play the two songs I dedicated to my children: “When Dragons Were Real” (coming out on cd soon!) and “Edge of a Hurricane”. Having children reconnected me to my own childhood—that sense of wonder, joy, and unbridled hope and love—only to lose it all over again when my children grew up. And now the specter of time and frailty looms, and the world seeming even darker and hate-filled than ever before. At times like these it seems even more important not to let go, but to hold on to that wonder and hope and love that still lives within us all.

You always remember your first time

February 1st, 2017, 11:30am in the birthplace of Bono and William Butler Yeats (Dublin, Ireland) my first radio airplay by Sean Brophy of 103.2 Dublin City FM. He mentions my name at the top of the show in a lineup with Fairport Convention (Sandy Denny) and the Oscar nominated song from La La Land (sung by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). Esteemed company. Listen to Sean’s entire entertaining and diverse show by clicking the play button above or going to the mixcloud page here . Charlotte, NC and Bob Malone (who played piano) get a shout-out in the intro to my song “Keep on Talking” at 49:10.  Many thanks to Alexis Bruce (my manager), Chris Rosser (recorded and mixed the cd) and the folks at Gat3 studios for their work on the song. 

The Beauty We Create Together...

The "Something True EP Release Party" in December was a heart-warming reminder of how a community of people can support and encourage each other. Levin Chaskey captured the songs and the mood  in the video below, Cheryl Hoover sang backup, Chris Rosser (who recorded, mixed and played on the cd) contributed his talents, fellow songwriters, artists, poets, professors, family, and neighbors attended and celebrated with me. Many thanks to Alexis Bruce and Charlotte Star Room for hosting. (Don't miss the video shot of the sketch my neighbor—whom I've known since she was born—drew of me that evening!)

 

EP Concert with Chris Rosser: December 16 in Charlotte, NC

Singer/songwriter/producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser (who recorded my EP and a full cd of original songs premiering early next year) will be in town on December 16 to help launch my 5-song EP. Everyone on my email list is getting access to a free stream and download of the title track (available now) and a free EP (available next week). If you aren't already on my email list, sign up before December 16th and I will send you the link! Details of the concert are on my schedule page. Thank you so much for your support.

Photo by Levin Chaskey, cd graphics and design by Matthew Fleming

Photo by Levin Chaskey, cd graphics and design by Matthew Fleming

Edge of a Hurricane

On the day hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, I was up in Asheville (which just barely caught the edge of the storm). I was walking along the French Broad river in the Olivette neighborhood when I came across a couple getting married. It was just the two of them, the minister, and a photographer. I was so struck by their deciding to get married even in the middle of a storm; they seemed so frail but also strong--choosing love no matter what the sky might portend. I wanted to sing something for them, but I couldn't think of what I would sing, even though I have sung for many weddings over the years. Right then and there I decided to write a song about that moment. As I searched for ideas, the larger metaphor of how dangerous and frightening our world is today loomed larger and larger in my imagination. I recorded this demo at the end of October as I finished up writing, so I could have a record of the song in progress; flawed though it is, here on 11/9 (the day after the 2016 election) I thought it was important to send out some light. No matter who you voted for or what your political bent, I think we can agree that the level of anger and alienation in our country is frightening. It has made me question whether the political experiment of democracy as practiced in our diverse country (made up primarily of immigrants who have been here only a few hundred years or less) can survive. It is in our darkest storms that we have to shelter each other—choose love. My daughter just turned 18 and voted with me in this last election. As I prepare to send her out into this dangerous world, I dedicate this song to her—and to all those who are frightened and despairing. 

STACY AND ERIC WERNER’S HOUSE CONCERT IN MISSOULA

My friend Stacy Jennings Werner and her husband Eric hosted a house concert for me in Missoula, Montana with local musician John Floridis. If you’ve ever thought of hosting or attending a house concert for a musician, I hope these pictures will encourage you! It’s an intimate, special evening. (All photos by Jack Oates.)

My sister, Nancy Spragins, flew over from Seattle for the concert (and, as always, was a huge help to Stacy and great source of moral support for me).

 

Lots of great food including cherished family recipes (my grandmother's caramel cake!)

 

Tuning up and getting ready to play.

From left my cousins (Gingy & Peter Heyler, sister Nancy, and my Mom) along with other friends and neighbors made a great listening crowd

The concert was live-streamed by Western Montana's Facebook page. You can watch it (in two parts) on my Facebook Music Page

John and I played for 3 hours. One heck of an audience (40 or so in Missoula and 9,000 watching all over the world) stayed with us for most of the concert.

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Stacy, John and me basking in the glow…..        Stacy and Eric…the hosts (and friends).

"Saving the Whales" top 10 finalist in CSA songwriting contest!

Delighted to announce that my song, "Saving the Whales" is a top 10 finalist in the Connecticut Songwriting Association's Environmental Contest and will appear on the compilation cd. I will perform at an event on September 10 at Coogan's Farm in Mystic, CT along with the winners and other finalists (my roommate, Jane Fallon, at the Ellis Paul Songwriting Retreat won the Grand Prize!). Details and tickets here if you live in the area!

 

RELATED SHOW

  • Artist: Katie Oates
  • Date: 09/10/16
  • Time: 3:30pm
  • Venue: Coogan Farm
  • City: Mystic , CT
  • Country: US
  • Age restrictions: All Ages