By Daniel Garrett
For Murray Greene, in memoriam
Fields of Wonder: Songs and Spirituals of Robert Owens
Robert Owens, piano; and Stephen Tucker, conductor
Producer Darryl Taylor; and Executive Producer Louise Toppin
Albany Records/Videmus, 2006
How Sweet the Sound: A Charm of Spirituals
Brent McMunn, piano
Producer Darryl Taylor; and Executive Producer Louise Toppin
Albany Records/Videmus, 2010
“Language involves a certain materiality, in virtue of which it gives a ‘corporeality’ to meanings and makes it possible for them to be ‘located’ in the world. “
—Andre de Muralt, “The Object of Formal Logic,” in The Idea of Phenomenology
“In one of those mirrors / the colors are true. In one of these pictures the pigment’s / my own.”
—poet Reginald Shepherd, “Blue”
Is art, such as that of a great singer, the truest friendship, ever open, ever generous, a provider of perspective and pleasure, wisdom and witness? The classical music singer Darryl Taylor’s album Fields of Wonder is a terrific collection of art songs by the African-American composer Robert Owens, songs of beauty, thought, and feeling, work that assumes a quality of abstraction and attention that is cultivated and rare. The composition “No Images,” based on William Cuney’s poetry, is a lament for a woman who does not know her own beauty. “Four Motivations,” a series of four songs, contains “The Cottager,” “Hope,” “A Complaint,” and “Could I But Ride Indefinite.” The opening piece, “The Cottager,” is based on a poem by Dorothy Wordsworth, and the lyrics, as sung, unfold very slowly, a lullaby sung during a night scene at home, with Taylor’s voice soft, clear, verging on the androgynous. “Hope,” inspired by Emily Dickinson, is pretty, rhythmic, even upbeat. In Dickinson’s poetry hope lasts long, without asking for anything, surviving every weather. “A Complaint,” utilizing the verse of William Wordsworth, has a theatrically heroic quality in its sung declarations. “Could I But Ride Indefinite,” again with words by Dickinson, with no changes made for the male gender, suggests independence, even isolation (“and visit only where I liked/ and no man visits me”); and it is not cold but more controlled than expressive.
Much of classical music has been founded on the sound of the human voice, in imitation of it, or with the voice at music’s center. Darryl Taylor’s album Fields of Wonder is a return to that elemental beauty. The tenor voice—soaring in a high range in its maturity—is the voice with which others seek to harmonize, and it is usually a lyric tenor or dramatic tenor (and, past and present, black male tenors include Lawrence Brownlee, Vinson Cole, Kenneth Gayle, Roland Hayes, Kenn Hicks, George Shirley, Noah Stewart, and Kenneth Tarver). Darryl Taylor, a distinguished tenor, is a Detroit native, a graduate of the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan; and a professor at the University of California at Irvine, he is the founder of the African American Art Song Alliance. His singing is eloquent, without false mannerism. Taylor has performed in America and Europe; and has had leading roles in The Magic Flute, Falstaff, Porgy and Bess, and other works. His tenor singing can be heard on the recordings Love Rejoices: Songs of H. Leslie Adams (2001), Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes (2002), Poetry Preludes: Music of Richard Thompson (2006), and Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Complete Orchestral Works (2006). On Fields of Wonder, Taylor sustains a strong narrative line in “Hope” and there is very apparent masculine strength as well as tenderness in “A Complaint.” The orchestral music is pretty, with energy, conducted by Stephen Tucker. One marvels at the contour, tempo, and harmony of sound, and how time seems to contract and expand.
On Fields of Wonder, “Stanzas for Music,” with lyrics by the notorious Lord Byron—a beautifully complex and seductive man: mad, bad, and dangerous to know—is a combination that is, surprisingly, spiritual poetry, very carefully, delicately, sung (beginning with “Bright Be the Place of Thy Soul”); and a sensitive view of love, of parting and regret, with private and public discourse, and a musical arrangement that rises and falls (“When We Two Parted”); and the third part (“Oh! Snatch’d Away in Beauty’s Bloom,”), perhaps a work of grief, requires and inspires concentration, acute consideration, of detail, of beauty and consciousness, and it is full of the singer’s soft, full round notes; and the concluding song (“So We’ll Go No More A-roving”) has a fast rhythm, and lines suggesting romance but romance held at bay, making it a rousing but strangely ambiguous conclusion.
Remembered love and forgotten lovers (“unremembered lads”) are the focus of “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” utilizing the words of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay that suggest a general, abstract memory, a mood more than a feeling, rather than a specific relationship. In “Euclid Alone,” Millay declares “…heroes seek release / from dusty bondage into luminous air,” lines that easily allude to transcendence, at once abstract and natural. There is a nice piano introduction to “Euclid Alone,” and singing that is hearty without being careless, with really good diction; and the second part of the song is broader, stranger, with more variety of movement and tone.
Music can root us in the present but also gesture to the past or the future. Music can comfort; and it can excite. Early music was often bound to voice and text. Music had its uses; and the ancient Greeks identified string instruments with Apollo and calm and order, and wind instruments with Dionysus and excitement, frenzy, passion—disorder. The Greeks had music for religion and theater and, course, household entertainment. That music, and the brassy music of Rome, seen as pagan, would be repressed by Christians as the church grew more powerful. Yet, early church music was influenced by Jewish tradition and common tunes, and developed into Gregorian chants. The chants became more complex with subsequent inclusions of voices singing lines different from the fundamental rhythm. Musical notation increased, with markings of staff, pitches, and modes. Compositions became more sophisticated with the control of time and rhythm and multiple lines. Larger forms were created for both church mass and entertainment. Diversity of forms and styles flourished, shaped by experience, memory, and wild invention: cantatas, preludes, oratorios, fantasias. In Europe, social ambition and accomplishment were mirrored in music. Following the baroque style were explorations of emotion and form, some of them abstract, some in new combinations of sound—in sonatas, concertos, and symphonies. Sonatas could establish a key and melody and then move away from that and then return, usually with a variation. Personal sensibility became more and more important. Originality too. Many innovations grew abrasive, something seen as a perverse kind of integrity. Yet, there is freedom in diversity for both composers and listeners. However, it took time for African-Americans to be accepted as performers and composers in the classical music field.
African-American composers chose divergent strategies as they sought to establish territory in the classical field, both mastering established forms and also using spirituals, folk music, and jazz as references. Some composers set Negro literary texts to music. There are examples of that on Darryl Taylor’s Fields of Wonder. “Three Countee Cullen Songs” add more diversity and an obvious cultural pride to the collection. It is wonderful to be reminded of the delicacy, of the fine thought, of Cullen’s poetic accomplishment. Yet, history is part of the poet’s awareness, and injustice and the possibility of change are acknowledged in “From the Dark Tower,” with survival and self-maintenance obvious concerns: the lyrics are sensitive, allusive—but clear, and about African-Americans. “Yet Do I Marvel,” engaging existential questioning, concerns the mysterious ways of divinity; and it is intensely sung, but there is a spirit of resignation, a putting away of dreams, in “For A Poet.” The album’s music composer and pianist, Robert Owens, an African American artist who creates work according to the highest standards, accessible to all with a taste for excellence, was born in Texas, reared in California, and he was a prodigy, writing a concerto at fifteen. Owens studied at the Ecole Normale de Musique and the Vienna Academy of Music, performing concerts in Denmark and Austria, before returning to America, where he taught in New York at the Albany State School. (Owens would move to Munich.)
Composer Robert Owens met and was inspired by the poet Langston Hughes, setting Hughes’s work to music and other poetry too. The suite devoted to Langston Hughes gives the album its title: “Fields of Wonder.” After an instrumental introduction, a poetry of nature, scenic impression, and metaphor, also of social relation, is presented in “Fulfillment,” suggesting there is no conflict to be found among art, nature, and social awareness: there is bond and transcendence. “Night Song” is beautiful and elliptical; and “Silence” is about intuition, perceived feeling and thought; and “Carolina Cabin” is accessible, intimate, a description of refuge; and there is recognition of the perplexed response of an audience to an artist in “Songs,” a recognition that seems modern (a perplexity that is always a possibility); and hopeful is the concluding evocation of nature, “In Time of Silver Rain.” There are of couple of Hughes pieces, set to music by Owens, that are about romance: “Desire” and “Dream and “Juliet.” There is a suggestion of sex in “Desire”: “Desire to us was like a double death” and…“in a naked room.” Dream and reality are one: fear of a lover’s absence in a dream turns out to be fact upon waking in “Dream,” which Taylor sings without armor—it is a sensitive rendering. “Juliet” is a few short lines of terrible intensity. About the expectations for maturity, manhood, friendship, love, and reality, the poem and song called “Man” shows how one goes from expecting things to be easy to understanding the harder facts. “Sleep” presents the return to simple reality, without illusions, after sex. Closing Darryl Taylor’s album Fields of Wonder, are the arrangements of two traditional songs: “The Crucifixion,” a spiritual about the acceptance of suffering, mysterious, strange, heroic, eloquently sung; and an assertion of how the poor, not the rich, are redeemed in heaven in “I Got A Home in-A Dat Rock!,” another spiritual. It is a remarkable album, full of divergent experiences and imaginings, rich and true.
Is art, such as that of a great singer, the truest friendship, ever open, ever generous, a provider of perspective and pleasure, wisdom and witness? In the great philosopher Plato’s dialogue Lysis, or Friendship (the Heritage Press, New York; 1968), Plato’s teacher, the world’s teacher, Socrates, speaks with intelligent young men of prominent families. One of those young men, Hippothales, is very fond of Lysis, another young man. Socrates warns against the excess praise of the social status of one’s beloved, of encouraging vanity. Hippothales had been writing self-damaging poetry, the celebration of the obvious. Socrates and the young men move to a place where education, sport, conversation, religious sacrifice, and dice-playing occurs. Socrates questions Lysis about love and trust, questions that acknowledge the limits of love—the censoring guidance of parents, with its restraint of impulsive action without knowledge or purpose, and the cultivation of mind and duties. It is Socrates doing his work, examining conscience and concepts, a form of intellectual drama. “And in matters of which you have as yet no knowledge, can you have any conceit of knowledge?” asks Socrates (page 17). You should not act as if you know if you do not know. The dialogue also concedes the possibility of misplaced trust, the abuse of authority. Moving beyond the love of parents, Socrates considers passionate friendship, a more intimate love. “Is the lover the friend of the beloved, whether he be loved in return, or hated; or is the beloved the friend; or is there no friendship at all on either side, unless they both love one another?” pursues Socrates (page 19). The confusions and convolutions of human response—whether like goes to like, or the sufficient requires anyone or anything, or opposites attract. The young men, listening, seem to agree with whatever argument Socrates makes at the time, indicating the need to develop intellectual rigor. Socrates emphasizes the necessity of distinctions. Each person having within mind and spirit the presence of good and evil, one can answer either call. Socrates says that “arguments, like men, are often pretenders” (page 29). His questions of logic can seem like weird poetry, both precise and perverse; and yet, under his eyes, value expands in different directions (page 31). He insists that we decide whether we love virtues—and people—for themselves, or for our own sake (page 32), while acknowledging that friendship and love suppose congeniality (page 34). Yet, the conversation about friendship and its nature, its particular logic, ends without a definitive answer to the question of the basis of friendship.
I first read the dialogues of Plato when I was very young. I remember taking a college course on philosophy, and then the professor, having read something I wrote in a college paper, The Reporter, asked if I might like to take an independent study course with him, in which I could read philosophy and write. The focus was Nietzsche, a philosopher whose insight and wit I relished, but I am embarrassed now to think of those short, thin little pages I showed the professor, and I appreciate ever more his interest and kindness. There would be other philosophy classes and better papers; and, later, essays, stories, and poetry featured in significant publications and very, very, very obscure sites. It was such a time of exploration and growth, the kind of time I would like my life always to be. I began to have friends I was passionate about; at least I thought they were friends—attractive, intelligent people whom I liked and liked to talk to and do things with, eat, attend films, go to literary readings and political gatherings. It took me a while to learn that discipline is more important than inspiration, and that commitment is more important than passion. The artist and the intellectual, like the student and the worker, must move beyond mere fascination and pleasure. Friendship, like work, if it is true, must last through celebration and catastrophe. How often does it?
I have to think hard to remember names that once were easily and enthusiastically spoken: Sheilla, Ruck, Lloyd, Stephen, Eugene, Dennis, Larry, Rebecca, Tom, Curt, Paul, Peter, Beth, Lisa… Work and new cities and new lovers and old torments and arguments made their separations. Yet, the literature and other arts, and the philosophy, that we sometimes talked about remain: the work of June Jordan and Adrienne Rich and James Baldwin and John A. Williams and Toni Morrison, and Wilhem von Kleist’s The Marquise of O and Theophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, and the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and Tennessee Williams and Pirandello, as well as the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, and Julian Schnabel, and the paintings of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, and the comedy of Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney, and the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Joan Armatrading and jazz and independent rock music, and feminism and literary theory and Buddhism. I have maintained an interest in philosophy, including that of John Stuart Mill, William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Richard Rorty, as well as in the philosophical fiction and poetry of writers such as Voltaire, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Andre Malraux, Octavio Paz, Zbigniew Herbert, Saul Bellow, and Thomas Bernhard. So much more. I value an African-American literary tradition that has a rigor that can be called philosophical, although its writers may be too focused on particular political dimensions to give sway to their full potential for abstract thought: I am thinking of the work of Wallace Thurman (Infants of the Spring), Richard Wright (Native Son), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), John Oliver Killens (Youngblood), James Baldwin (Another Country), William Demby (The Catacombs), Margaret Walker (Jubilee), Hal Bennett (Lord of Dark Places), Gayl Jones (Corregidora), Alice Walker (Meridian), Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon), Toni Cade Bambara (The Salt Eaters), David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident), Charles Johnson (Oxherding Tale), Gloria Naylor (Linden Hills), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying), Percival Everett (Glyph) and Michael Thomas (Man Gone Down).
I have found the arts—literature, film, paintings, and music—like philosophy to be great, great resources. One wants a language, and a vision of the world, equal to one’s breath, depth, height, and width, equal to one’s experience and one’s hopes: and one tries to achieve that in ordinary speech with others, but, very, very often, the only expression of what one seeks can be found in art or philosophy. Too frequently, the people we know reach for the easy word, the easy image, when the difficult is most true, most necessary. I thought of this again after an argument with a friend who had not given me any significant response to work that I had shared with him but yet requested I respond to a personal essay of his involving his father, a survivor of the Jewish holocaust. It is exhausting to be asked, again and again, to accept mediocrity for excellence; consequently, I prefer candor, and I told my friend what was obvious: his work lacked both art and truth (“it lacks literary eloquence, wisdom, and spiritual grace”). When he and I first met years ago, we had been working for a publishing venture peopled by a conflicted, rather sad staff that yet managed to make gorgeous work—a mark of both professionalism and transcendence. My friend had been a very likable guy—sensitive, smart, funny, and able to learn, but, at some point, he seems to have stopped learning. He had taken two of the most significant subjects, the father/son relationship and the holocaust, and made them banal. It was a dull, sloppy document. My friend, in his late forties, had used his father’s experience, and that experience’s influence on his life as that man’s son, to justify his own weakness as a man, as a husband, as a father, and to encourage pity: wanting the world to be no more than a mirror for misery and an enabler of amoral pathologies, in which the rigors of intelligence are replaced by the habits of impulse: body, mind, spirit, and will are weakened by habitual indulgence, which has the impact of disease—so that a thinking person becomes no more than a feeling animal, without conscience. I corrected spelling errors in his work that he should have seen, then asked questions about purpose, knowledge, and possibilities: one being, if his parents had loved him more, what would he be inclined to think and do? (That is an important question: if you know what else you might be and do, you can begin to work toward that—and the work, its requirements and lessons, will help you to heal.) My friend was shaken by that honesty and sent back hateful and hysterical words—that bothered me much, much less than he or I thought they might. What did annoy me was his saying that an excerpt from a significant project of mine, a piece of philosophical fiction, was something he did not like, finding it too abstract. I had waited months and months, weeks, days, hours, for an assessment of that work and he had failed to give it—until he was angry. Why are people so disappointing? Is it because we lack a language of believable idealism or active support for our best ideas? Why is it hard to accept that intellectual clarity and moral reasoning are not indulgences of a fine temperament, but an actual, daily necessity? We do not desire intellectual or moral reasoning because we think we are perfect, but because we know we are not: it helps us to avoid significant mistakes, and when we have made mistakes it helps us to recover a path that is good, logical, right, and true. Someone looking for exoneration for bad behavior, someone who hates the idea of self-discipline, refuses to accept that. An observer returns to the beauty and the joy, and the lessons and the comforts, of philosophy and the arts.
Is art, such as that of a great singer, the truest friendship, ever open, ever generous, a provider of perspective and pleasure, wisdom and witness? Darryl Taylor’s How Sweet the Sound is in some ways a very surprising sequel to the work that the singer, a tenor, has done—in that it presents his movement into another musical practice and sound, that of the countertenor. His voice had been rather light, with some ambiguity; and here is, without question, a more feminine sound. It is a very warm sound too, as in “Peter, Go Ring dem Bells,” arranged by Margaret Bonds. “Steal Away,” arranged by Maria T. Corley, is dramatic, soulful, and even ponderous. “Amazing Grace,” with an arrangement by Hale Smith, is clear and tender. This “charm of spirituals” has arrangements by various artists, devotees of the African-American tradition of spirituals, including Hall Johnson, Moses Hogan, Jacqueline Hairston, Harry Burleigh, Deon Price, Robert Morris, Betty Jackson King, Thomas Kerr Jr, and Roland Carter. It is a mostly dynamic, engaging collection; although there are a few times, very few, when the sound is questionable, a little too predictable.
“Is not birth, beauty, good shape, dis- / course, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, / liberality and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?” asks Pandarus to his niece Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, the play about the death of heroism and love by the great William Shakespeare, a writer of ambiguity and multiplicity (The Tragedies, Smithmark Books, 2000; page 4). What is the nature of man; his beauty, purpose, and wisdom? Whom do we anoint with the word—man? Not all African-American males were so recognized: the enslavement of Africans was justified by hostile accusations of animality. “So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty masters must answer to the final Judge,” wrote Thomas Paine in “A Serious Thought” (The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume 2, The Citadel Press, 1969; page 18). The African-American spiritual tradition is one that developed in America during the enslavement of Africans, beginning with country singing out in the yard after praise services, then in cities in tents, the songs inspired by the story of the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus and the good news of salvation described in the Holy Bible. The songs expressed not only spiritual faith but the experience of earthly difficulties and the dream of freedom. It was the French philosopher Albert Camus, who commenting on literature and politics, on the French and Russian revolution, and the instinct for rebellion, said, “The slave, in fact, is not bound to his condition, but wants to change it. Thus, unlike his master, he can improve himself, and what is called history is nothing but the effects of his long efforts to obtain real freedom” (“Historical Rebellion,” The Rebel; Knopf, 1956; page 140). So it was written, so it has been true: through personal effort and political demonstration, more and more liberty was secured by blacks. As conditions for Negroes improved, the spirituals began to be seen more and more as a form of art, even gaining the attention of classical performers and arrangers. Thus, Darryl Taylor is part of a long tradition.
Darryl Taylor’s exploration of the countertenor sound may be brave. The tenor voice, which is usually a lyric tenor or a dramatic tenor, also can be a heroic tenor (heldentenor), strong enough to dominate an orchestra, or a countertenor (or a male alto, akin to the soprano or falsetto range). Some countertenors are David Daniel and Bryan DeSilva, Jeffrey Dooley, Kenneth Fitch, Joseph London, Benjamin Marcatoni Augustine Mercante, Drew Minter, Florin Cezar Ouatu, Daniel Schuetz, and Tim Severloh. The African-American men who have made a name for themselves within this range are Patrick Dailey, Michael Harper, John Holiday, and Derek Lee Ragin, but the field is not so crowded that a young man performing as a countertenor, Hisham Breedlove, in a metropolitan subway will not get a few lines of newspaper attention. Yet, it is a little shocking to hear a black male sing this way. It is impossible not to wonder if this is a claiming a power or an abdication of power. I think of Darryl Taylor’s work on Fields of Wonder, then How Sweet the Sound, and ask, was the first a mask for another self? Or are both works different aspects of the same self? Or is it all merely performance? One young scholar, Alisha Lola Jones, a University of Chicago graduate student, prepared a paper on black countertenors, “I Shall Get Home Someday: Black Countertenors, Bio-Musicality, and Gendered Gospel Performance,” and for a November 12, 2013 workshop demonstration she described her subject thusly: “Countertenors are typically men who perform music that matches the vocal range and timbre of female contraltos and mezzo-sopranos in the Western art music tradition. These men are typically trained to deploy a full-bodied vocal delivery such that listeners are unable to determine whether the sound is emanating from a male or female body. Black male operatic countertenors who perform in Christian churches and other gospel settings must contend with a distinct set of cultural tensions to demonstrate their performative competency. Music ministers also face challenges in choosing repertoire for countertenors, particularly when those ministers lack experience working with men with that vocal designation. Shared anxieties concerning uses of the body in performance reveal the ways in which black male gesture is a contested component within gospel contexts.” Alisha Jones was then preparing for a Society for Ethnomusicology conference, but the description sounds very much like a presentation she made at a September 2013 Black Vocality conference at Columbia College Chicago, sponsored by the Center for Black Music Research: “Alisha Lola Jones (University of Chicago) discussed gendered sound in contemporary gospel music-making, focusing on African-American countertenors. Her ethnographic case study with vocalist Patrick Dailey (Boston University) argued that hearing gender ambiguity in vocal sounds signifies socio-cultural anxieties provoked by non-normative uses of the body. Jones explored the role of bioacoustics, with the use of laryngeal scoping, for example, in uncovering how African-American countertenors’ vocal styles are voluntarily and involuntarily produced, and asserted that the singing activities of these countertenors exemplify how black vocality symbolizes black personhood. Following Jones’s presentation, countertenor Patrick Dailey performed a baroque aria, a concert spiritual, and a hymn to illustrate how his singing in Baptist churches of the American south inspires his vocal approach, regardless of genre,” according to Marti Newland in the Fall 2013 CBMR Digest (Volume 25, No. 2).
On Darryl Taylor’s How Sweet the Sound, the spirituals are easy to admire. Both reflective and exultant is “Mary Wore Three Links of Chain,” and it is a song of which one wonders if the singer is channeling another person’s experience, merely embodying a tradition, or engaging in genuine self-expression. “I Cannot Stay Here By Myself” is a plain-spoken song that rises into something large, hovering, silvery, and piercing. There is something in the tone of “I Got to Lie Down,” arranged by Hall Johnson, that reminds me explicitly of older black women I have known: emphatic, practical, self-possessed. Taylor’s phrasing is masterful, no matter what or how he is singing. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is given a dignified reading, while “Lord, I’ll Go” has appealing wordless singing.
Wheels, one of faith, one of grace, one within another, are described in “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” a composition that identifies a man has the vision to see in a world of hypocrites in which souls are lost. Here, in this song, “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” the phrasing might be too cute, too colloquial. “Deep River” is measured, thoughtful. “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” is beautiful, extravagant, engaging, and includes the request that others pray for the singer (in order to drive Satan away). “Lament (This May Be My Las’ Time)” is spiritual theater, as it mines the anxiety that has underpinned much of past black culture. “I’ll Reach to Heaven” is confident, large, a declaration of spiritual faith despite signs of foreboding and difficulty. “Go Tell It On the Mountain” is cheering and pretty. “I Want to Die Easy” is something of a lament, it is certainly a ballad, in which the narrator says, “I want to die easy when I die” and “I want to see Jesus when I die.” A troubled life has created the wish for comfort, rest. “Guide My Feet” is slow and quiet, and “Climbing High Mountains” seems both austere and rich (sincere, thoughtful, and full of emotion), while “Git on Board,” upbeat, about the salvation train that has room for more people, may be too cute—and yet the piano is a significant counterpoint to the cheer. “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word (Crucifixion)” is dramatic, expressive, with a great tone. A testimony of faith is requested (“Anybody here love my Jesus?”) in a song that compares religion to a blooming rose, “Is There Anybody Here?” It is a rather fascinating collection: Darryl Taylor has taken on a countertenor sound that some would consider feminine, a fact that can be alienating in the African-American community, and he has used that sound to explore a quintessential African-American tradition, a force for bonding within that community—and for the larger world.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.