The first time I heard this song, it was at a little music jam after a house concert here in Decorah where I got to open for Tucson based minstrel Namoli Brennet. I had never heard of her or her music until that night, and after just the sound check, I was honored to be opening for such a fine musician and songwriter. After the concert was over, Namoli sat down on the living room floor with me, Amalia Vagts (our hostess) and a few other people and with two guitars, a mandolin and a djembe, our happy bunch made a musical feast that nourished all of us for days. Near the end this lovely post-concert jam, when my heart was already tender from expanding so much, Namoli busted out this song and transformed the gathering once again.
Up until then, we had all just been enjoying each others’ singing company – shouting Indigo Girls and Bob Dylan and 80’s rock ballads and the like. For my part I was basking in the glow of such generous musicianship and wicked guitar skills. And it was wonderful to use all of our collective excellence to make music for its own and each others’ sake. At first, I was astonished that Namoli had the energy to sing and play long into the night after the concert when she had to be on the road early the next morning. But it seemed that she needed the musical communion as much as we did. And when she started in with this gentle, quiet song about life at sea, I could hear in her voice that she wasn’t just playing a pretty song for us, she was singing from her heart. And suddenly I was sent back in time – not necessarily to a time when sailing ships were the way to get around, but to a time when music was shared out of necessity – when musicians were story tellers and community gatherers because there were fewer stimuli in the world to distract people from the grace and plight of the human condition. Now, it seems that the variety and availability of music has turned this miraculous gift into a commodity and uprooted it from its sacred origins and uses. And whenever I get such a stunning reminder of the how nourishing music can be, I marvel at how we can dare to bastardize something so close to the heart of who we are.
The song is based on the poem written by John Masefield in 1902. I think my dad read it to me once when I was a kid - or maybe since he’s a sailing and a poetry buff I'm just assuming he did. Both the words and the melody tell of the speaker’s longing to be back at sea. In Namoli’s voice, I felt that same pull drawing me out into the deep, rolling mystery of the unknown. I went home and downloaded the song immediately and have performed it myself on the road (though I haven’t ventured very far yet). I’m learning how to stay afloat and to love the vastness and the loneliness of attempting music as a vocation. And I’m grateful for every harbor and lighthouse that every friend has been to me along the way. AND I’m stoked to have this blog to meet up with each of you along the journey and compare notes and check maps and generally spread the light and warmth around! Cuz in the end, it seems to be music’s own generosity that keeps us all hungry for more. Whether it is filling concert halls or smokey bars or steamy shower stalls with sound, there’s always the chance that the grace it’s made of will lighten the load and keep us afloat a little longer.
I’ve included John Masefield’s original poem here cuz the words of the song are a tad different. Sorry I couldn’t find a clip of the song anywhere. And check out Namoli Brennet’s music at www.namolibrennet.com cuz she’s the bomb diggity!
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.