Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Decorations in our Sylwester Home

Our Sylwester family saved money every Christmas season by not buying a big conifer Christmas tree. Our main Christmas tree was a deciduous tree -- the size of a normal Christmas tree. I understood that my Dad would cut one down near Plum Creek, but I never saw him do it. Since he got the tree in December, all the leaves had fallen off by the time we brought it into our home. I called these trees "branch trees".

We did buy a conifer tree too, but only a very small one, typically only about three feet tall. We decorated this smaller tree with normal lights and decorations.

We decorated our main, "branch tree" and our walls mainly with paper origami decorations. My Dad had studied and practiced origami since he was a boy, and so he was able to construct quite fancy decorations. These origami decorations hung and displayed better on our branch tree, with its open spaces.

All our family's children learned how to fold some simple ornaments, and so we too folded some of our decorations. We all knew how to fold, for example, diamonds and swans.


My parents photographed our origami decorations, but all those photographs are lost. Looking in the Internet today, I found the following photographs that remind me of the decorations that my Dad folded:


My Dad spent many hours folding these decorations every year. His annual masterpiece was a huge, multi-pointed, flat, gold star that he hung on a wall. He would splurge on buying a huge piece of gold paper for this star. I think he must have bought this paper in a stationery store in Lincoln -- maybe he even special-ordered the paper. He would spend a couple hours folding just this one star.

I thought I would be able to find a photograph of such an origami star in the Internet, but the closest I could find was the below photograph.

My Dad's star was always gold and had about twice as many rays, which were narrower and longer. The diameter was something like two feet. His star was quite spectacular, and he hung it on a wall where it would be seen immediately by anyone coming through our front door.

My Dad earned money by selling articles about crafts to magazines. The most profitable such articles explained how to make origami Christmas decorations. Every year he earned a couple hundred dollars by selling such an article to Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The article would include drawings and photographs illustrating the instructions and the completed decoration. He had to submit the article to the magazine a couple months before the Christmas issue, so he completed many of our family's Christmas decorations in the early fall.

The money that Dad earned from Better Homes and Gardens paid essentially for all our holiday expenses -- for the children's Christmas presents and for going to watch a movie in a theater.


In 2009 I wrote an article in this blog about Christmas shopping in Seward and Lincoln and an article about the St John Christmas Eve service.

Amahl and the Night Visitors

The opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was broadcast on television every Christmas season from 1951 through 1966. During the years 1951-1962 the broadcasts showed live performances in color, and during the years 1963-1966 showed a videotape in black-and-white. 

I think that I watched the opera on television every year during 1963-1966, because I saw the same performance about four times, always in black-and-white. During 1963-1966, I was 11 to 14 years old.

It's possible that I saw the opera broadcast live in 1962 and earlier, but then we still had only a black-and-white television. I am certain that I never have seen the opera broadcast in color.

Watching Amahl and the Night Visitors on television during the Christmas season was something we did every year. The broadcasts did not happen after 1966, because the composer Gian Carlo Menotti decided that he did not like the black-and-white recording and so took legal action to stop the broadcasts.

Now the entire old black-and-white broadcast can be watched on YouTube.

If you watch some of this video now, you probably will be surprised to know that the opera was very popular in the early 1960s. As a boy aged 11 to 14, I loved watching it on television every year, attentively from beginning to end.

I remember watching the opera performed live in the Concordia College auditorium one year, perhaps around 1967. I suppose that this live, local performance was done by a traveling troupe taking advantage of the fact that the televised broadcasts had ended. I remember that the auditorium was packed, and I myself enjoyed watching it. Since I had watched it on television four or so times, I knew the story and songs well.

The opera was broadcast live in color on television in 1978. There's no way, however, that watching the opera ever could become a Christmas tradition again. Now, practically no kids could bear to watch it for even five minutes.

Here is the Wikipedia story synopsis.
Amahl, a disabled boy who can walk only with a crutch, has a problem with telling tall tales. He is sitting outside playing his shepherd's pipe when his mother calls for him (Amahl! Amahl!). After much persuasion, he enters the house but his mother does not believe him when he tells her there is an amazing star "as big as a window" outside over their roof (O Mother You Should Go Outside; Stop Bothering Me!). 
Later that night, Amahl's mother weeps, praying that Amahl not become a beggar (Don't Cry Mother Dear).  
After bedtime (From Far Away We Come), there is a knock at the door and the mother tells Amahl to go see who it is (Amahl ... Yes Mother!). He is amazed when he sees three splendidly dressed kings (the Magi), one of whom is black. At first the mother does not believe Amahl, but when she goes to the door to see for herself, she is stunned. The Three Kings tell the mother and Amahl they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous Child and they would like to rest at their house, to which the mother agrees (Good Evening!; Come In!), saying that all she can offer is "a cold fireplace and a bed of straw".  
The mother goes to fetch firewood, and Amahl seizes the opportunity to speak with the kings. King Balthazar answers Amahl's questions about his life as a king and asks what Amahl does. Amahl responds that he was once a shepherd, but his mother had to sell his sheep. Now, he and his mother will have to go begging.  
Amahl then talks with King Kaspar, who is childlike, eccentric, and a bit deaf. Kaspar shows Amahl his box of magic stones, beads, and licorice, and offers Amahl some of the candy (Are You A Real King?; This is My Box). The mother returns (Amahl, I Told You Not To Be A Nuisance!). Amahl is told to go fetch the neighbors (All These Beautiful Things; Have You Seen a Child?) so the kings may be fed and entertained properly (Shepherds! Shepherds!; Emily! Emily; Olives and Quinces; Dance of the Shepherds). 
After the neighbors have left and the kings are resting, the mother attempts to steal for her son some of the kings' gold that was meant for the Christ child (All That Gold). She is thwarted by the kings' page. ("Thief! Thief!") When Amahl wakes to find the page grabbing his mother, he attacks him. ("Don't You Dare!")  
Seeing Amahl's weak defense of his mother and understanding the motives for the attempted theft, King Melchior says she may keep the gold as the Holy Child will not need earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom. ("Oh, Woman, You Can Keep That Gold") The mother says she has waited all her life for such a king and asks the kings to take back the gold.  
She wishes to send a gift but has nothing to send. Amahl, too, has nothing to give the Child except his crutch. ("Oh, No, Wait") When he offers it to the kings, his leg is miraculously healed. ("I Walk, Mother") With permission from his mother, he leaves with the kings to see the Child and give his crutch in thanks for being healed.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Meaning of the Song "Sounds of Silence"

During the years when I lived in Seward, 1960-1968, I was interested primarily in folk music (Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, Smothers Brothers, etc.) and surfing music (the Beach Boys). I bought records to listen to such music. I did not listen to Top-40 radio stations, so I was oblivious to much current music. 

My friend Jim Hardt listened to the radio stations and even recorded his favorite songs on a big-reel tape recorder that he kept in his bedroom. Jim introduced me to the music of Simon and Garfunkel, telling me they were really great. This must have been in 1965-1966, when I was in eighth grade, because that was the year when their song "Sounds of Silence" became their first big hit. 

One reason I liked the song was that it included a religious element, mentioning "bowing and praying" and "the neon god" and "the words of the prophets". In general, the lyrics were pleasingly poetic, but incomprehensible. Here are the entire lyrics.  
Hello, darkness, my old friend.
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.  
In restless dreams I walked alone --
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
B'neath the halo of a street lamp.
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night and touched the sound of silence.  
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more --
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare disturb the sound of silence. 
"Fools" said I, "You do not know.
"Silence like a cancer grows.
"Hear my words that I might teach you,
"Take my arms that I might reach to you."  
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed in the wells of silence. 
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made. 
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming. 
And the sign said: 
"The words of the prophets
"Are written on the subway walls
"And tenement halls
"And whispered in the sounds of silence."

About six years ago, I decided to develop my own interpretation of the song. I read a couple of biographies of Paul Simon and studied his lyrical evolution. I found that this song's lyrics are much more religious -- in particular, more Christian -- than most people appreciate. Below, I will share with you my interpretation of Paul Simon's lyrics in the song "Sounds of Silence".  


Paul Simon was born in 1941 into an observant Jewish family. Especially his mother was rather strict about adhering to Jewish teachings and customs. Paul grew up in a solidly Jewish neighborhood in Queens, New York. He once remarked that during the first part of his boyhood he thought that everyone in America was Jewish. (I obtained this information mostly from Laura Jackson's biography Paul Simon.)

Paul's father was a professional musician, and Paul too decided to become a professional musician while he still was a boy. When he was 14 years old, in about 1955, he began to write music and lyrics ambitiously. From that young age he committed himself to developing a career in the music business. He, accompanied by his friend Art Garfunkel, made his first record when he was 16 years old, in 1957. The song, titled "Hey, Schoolgirl," reached the 49th position in the popularity charts. 

Pressured by his family to attend college, Paul enrolled in Queens College and majored in English literature. He studied poetry in an intelligent manner and began to write lyrics that were far more intellectual than "Hey, Schoolgirl".

During Simon's college years, many Jewish-Americans of college age became involved actively in the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans. Jewish-Americans had been affected by the mass murders of Jews in Europe during World War Two, less than 20 years previously, and Jewish-Americans felt that they too, like African-Americans, were a second-class minority in the United States. 

While attending Queens College, Paul Simon was a classmate and personal friend of Andrew Goodman, who became an active participant in the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from Queens, in the summer of 1964, Goodman was murdered in Mississippi while helping African-Americans register to vote. (Garfunkel did not attend Queens College, but he too knew Goodman.) 

Already before Goodman was murdered, Simon had become impressed positively by the inspirational and effective role that Christian churches played among African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement. As a musician, Simon was influenced in particular by the role that Gospel music played. 

Furthermore, Simon obviously was impressed positively by the Christian religion itself. He apparently perceived it to be much more dynamic and universal than his own Jewish religion, which seemed stagnant and isolated. His infatuation with Christian ideas and music probably was to some extent also an act of adolescent rebellion, a means to antagonize and to declare his independence from his Jewish parents and neighbors. 


During Simon's senior year of college, President John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. During the following weeks he began to write the song that became "The Sounds of Silence." He essentially finished the song in February 1964, and then he and Garfunkel recorded it in a studio on March 17, 1964, near the end of his senior year. 

As I will argue below, the song describes God's difficulties in communicating through His prophets to human beings. The prophets are not recognized by humans, who reject real prophets and instead turn to false prophets. God therefore must use various clever methods of communicating through his real prophets. 

Simon did not think that President Kennedy was such a prophet. Rather, Simon apparently felt that the assassination aggravated an already existing crisis of humanity. The aggravated crisis made it even more urgent that humanity try to recognize and heed real prophets of God in order to be saved. 

After graduating, Simon moved (alone, without Garfunkel) to England, where he spent the summer of 1964. During that summer he lived platonically with a woman named Judith Piepe, who was a European Jew who had converted to Christianity and become a full-time social worker for her church. This relationship is additional evidence indicating that Simon himself had drifted from the Jewish religion far into the Christian religion during this period of his life. 


It was during this same summer of 1964 -- on June 21,1964, that Simon's friend Goodman was murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan while participating in the Civil Rights movement. 

It seems to me that the news of this murder prompted both Simon and Garfunkel to re-affirm their own Jewish identities. Until then, they had performed and recorded as musicians with non-Jewish names. They had called themselves Paul Kane and Artie Garr, because they felt their real Jewish family names might be less marketable. When their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, was issued on October 19, 1964, the duo had decided to identify themselves for the first time and forever afterwards by their real, Jewish names -- Simon and Garfunkel.,_3_A.M.,_3_A.M
The cover of the first, 1964, album of Simon and Garfunkel,
titled Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.
Although the duo identified themselves now by their real Jewish names, the album as a whole was saturated with Christian songs and themes. Probably most of the two young singers' Jewish families and friends were appalled by the album's contents. 

Most of the songs in this album revolved around Paul Simon's thinking that the Earth's population was approaching a mortal crisis but that God still would save those people who would listen to the warnings of contemporary prophets. Jesus Christ had been an example of such a prophet who had not been heeded in his own time but who nevertheless still did and would bring salvation to those people who did or would heed him. 

That theme, expressed variously in most of the album's songs, is the context for understanding the song "Sounds of Silence", which is the album's central song -- the sixth of the album's twelve songs. Before I explain the one song "Sounds of Silence", I will summarize all the surrounding songs, which as a whole coherently reflect Simon's blatantly Christian attitude when he wrote that one, central, poetic song. 


The album's first song is "You Can Tell the World" and its lyrics are as follows:
Well you can tell the world about this;
You can tell the nation about that.
Tell 'em what the Master has done,
Tell 'em that the Gospel has come,
Tell 'em that the victory's been won. 
He brought joy, joy, joy, joy, joy, joy
Into my heart. 
Well my Lord spoke, he spoke so well --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Talked about the flames that burn in Hell --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Now my Lord spoke, he spoke so well --
Yes he did, yes, he did. 
Talked about the children of Israel --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
He brought joy, joy, joy into my heart. 
(repeat 1st verse) 
Well my Lord spoke, he spoke to me --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Talkin' about a man from Galilee -- --
Yes he did, yes he did.  
My Lord spoke, he spoke to me --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Talkin' about a man from Galilee --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
He brought joy joy, joy
Into my heart. 
(repeat 1st verse) 
Well I don't know but I've been told --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Streets of heaven are paved with gold --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
Now the Jordan River is chilly and wide --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
I got a home on the other side --
Yes he did, yes he did. 
He brought joy, joy, joy
Into my heart.
The album begins with this blatantly Christian song, but it is a song that acknowledges that Jesus spoke well about the children of Israel -- about the Jews. 


The album's second song was "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream", and here are its lyrics:
Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd ever dreamed before.
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war. 
I dreamed I saw a mighty room,
Filled with women and men,
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again. 
And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made,
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed. 
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing 'round and 'round,
While swords and guns and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground. 
Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before.
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.
This song implies that an agreement for universal disarmament would require God's intervention. After such an agreement is made, all the participants will join hands and bow their heads and pray in gratitude, because God's help would be necessary for the agreement to happen. 


The album's third song was "Bleecker Street", and here are its lyrics:
Fog's rolling in off the East River bank --
Like a shroud it covers Bleecker Street --
Fills the alleys where men sleep --
Hides the shepherd from the sheep. 
Voices leaking from a sad cafe --
Smiling faces try to understand --
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand
On Bleecker Street. 
A poet reads his crooked rhyme --
Holy, holy is his sacrament --
Thirty dollars pays your rent --
On Bleecker Street. 
I head a church bell softly chime,
In a melody sustaining. 
It's a long road to Caanan,
On Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street 
Bleecker Street is the main street running through Greeewich Village in New York City. This neighborhood was a home and a performing venue for many people involved in American folk music, including Paul Simon. 

The people (i.e. sheep) who live and perform in this neighborhood are separated from Jesus Christ (i.e. the Shepherd) by a fog. The people there fail to really communicate and make contact with each other. 

The poetry readings in Greenwich Village's night clubs are a false sacrament. The poet earns 30 dollars, just as Judas Iscariat earned 30 gold coins for betraying Jesus. 

Bleecker Street is far from Caanan (from the Promised Land, from Heaven), because the people there do not have a clear (unfogged) relationship with Jesus. 


The album's fourth song was "Sparrow" and here are its lyrics:
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Who's traveled far and cries for rest? 
"Not I," said the Oak Tree.
"I won't share my branches with no sparrow's nest,
"And my blanket of leaves won't warm her cold breast." 
Who will love a little Sparrow
And who will speak a kindly word? 
"Not I," said the Swan.
"The entire idea is utterly absurd,
"I'd be laughed at and scorned if the other Swans heard." 
Who will take pity in his heart,
And who will feed a starving sparrow? 
"Not I," said the Golden Wheat.
"I would if I could but I cannot I know,
"I need all my grain to prosper and grow." 
Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy? 
"I will," said the Earth.
"For all I've created returns unto me,
"From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be."
The above song refers to Jesus' saying in Matthew 10:29-31:
Not one sparrow (What do they cost? Two for a penny?) can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. .... So don't worrry! You are more valuable to Him than many sparrows! 
The Earth (i.e. God) that created the sparrow will provide love and a resting place to the sparrow.
The song's last line refers to a phrase in the Christian funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer:
Earth to earth,
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust.

The album's fifth song was "Benedictus", a hymn sung in Latin. In translation, the lyrics are a repetition of the words: 
Blessed is he who comes in name of Lord.
Hossana in the highest.

The album's sixth song was "Sounds of Silence." This is the central of the album's 12 songs.


The album's seventh song was "He Was My Brother". 
He was my brother --
Five years older than I.
He was my brother --
Twenty-three years old the day he died. 
Freedom rider --
They cursed my brother to his face.
Go home outsider --
This town's gonna be your burying place. 
He was singing on his knees --
An angry mob trailed along.
They shot my brother dead --
Because he hated what was wrong. 
He was my brother --
Tears can't bring him back to me.
He was my brother --
And he died so his brothers could be free.
This song is about Andrew Goodman, Simon's Jewish-American friend who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in June 1964. When someone like Goodman (or Jesus) dies as a martyr, the death can bring salvation to other people. 


The album's eighth song was "Peggy-O". 
As we marched down to Faneri-o
As we marched down to Faneri-o
Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
And they called her name, pretty Peggy-o. 
Come a-running down the stairs, pretty Peggy-o
Come a-running down the stairs, pretty Peggy-o
Come a-running down the stairs, combing back
Your yellow hair. 
You're the prettiest little girl I've ever seen-o
In a carriage you will ride, pretty Peggy-o
In a carriage you will ride, pretty Peggy-o
In a carriage you will ride, with your true love by your side
As far as any maiden in the ar-e-o. 
What will your mother say, pretty Peggy-o?
What will your mother say, pretty Peggy-o?
What will your mother say, when she finds you've gone away
To places far and strange, to Faneri-o? 
If ever I return, pretty Peggy-o
If ever I return, pretty Peggy-o
If ever I return, all your cities I will burn
Destroying all the ladies in the ar-e-o
Destroying all the ladies in the ar-e-o 
This song is a variation of a traditional Scottish song about a soldier who meets and falls in love with a young woman but then goes away to war, where he is killed. 

Paul Simon's version of the song is quite different. Here, the young woman runs away with the soldier, who intends to return to the town later to kill the rest of the town's women. 

In the context of the album's other songs, I interpret this song as referring to an angry God, imposing vengeance on the majority of people who ignore His prophets' warnings. Peggy alone followed the soldier from the town, and all the rest of the women who failed to follow were destroyed when the soldier returned.

Likewise, those who fail to follow Jesus will be punished when God returns at the end of the world. 


The album's ninth song was "Go Tell It On the Mountain", and here are its lyrics:
Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere. 
Go tell it on the mountain --
Jesus Christ is born. 
Down in the lonely manger,
The humble Christ was born,
And God sent salvation
That blessed Christmas morn. 
(repeat chorus) 
While shepherds kept their watch
O'er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens
There shown a holy light.
This is a traditional Christmas song -- one of hundreds. Why did Simon, a Jew, select it for his album? 

I will suggest later in this article that Simon liked this song because it refers to a communication about God's plans and because this communication takes place on a mountain. This mountain image resonates with a story from the life of Elijah the prophet. 


The album's tenth song was "The Sun Is Burning", which was about a nuclear war causing an apocalyptic end of the world. This song's lyrics were as follows:
The sun is burning in the sky.
Strands of clouds go slowly drifting by.
In the park the lazy breeze
Are joining in the flowers, among the trees,
And the sun burns in the sky. 
Now the sun is in the West.
Little kids go home to take their rest,
And the couples in the park
Are holdin' hands and waitin' for the dark,
And the sun is in the West. 
Now the sun is sinking low.
Children, playing, know it's time to go.
High above a spot appears.
A little blossom blooms and then draws near,
And the sun is sinking low. 
Now the sun has come to Earth.
Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death,
Death comes in a blinding flash
Of hellish heat and leaves a smear of ash,
And the sun has come to Earth. 
Now the sun has disappeared.
All is darkness, anger, pain and fear.
Twisted, sightless wrecks of men
Go groping on their knees and cry in pain,
And the sun has disappeared.
Humanity is threatened with destruction by nuclear weapons, and therefore humanity must learn to recognize and heed the prophets that God sends. 


The album's eleventh song was Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changing'". The song's second line mocks pundits, who pretend to prophesize. They are merely guessing where life's roulette wheel will stop the next time.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen,
And keep your eyes wide.
The chance won't come again. 
And don't speak too soon,
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no telling who
That it's naming. 
For the loser now
Will be later to win.
For the times,
They are a-changing.
In the album, this is one of two songs (the other is "Sounds of Silence") that mention prophets explicitly. 

In this song, people pretending to be prophets are told to open their eyes to see the signs right now. But they should not speak until they understand God's full message (because the wheel's still in spin). The correct message might be communicated from God by someone who seems to be a loser in life now. 


The album's twelfth song, the final and title song, is "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM". 
I can hear the soft breathing of the girl that I love,
As she lies here beside me asleep with the night,
And her hair, in a fine mist floats on my pillow,
Reflecting the glow of the winter moonlight. 
She is soft, she is warm, but my heart remains heavy,
And I watch as her breasts gently rise, gently fall --
For I know with the first light of dawn I'll be leaving,
And tonight will be all I have left to recall.  
Oh, what have I done? why have I done it?
I've committed a crime; I've broken the law.
For twenty-five dollars and pieces of silver,
I held up and robbed a hard liquor store. 
My life seems unreal -- my crime an illusion --
A scene badly written in which I must play.
Yet I know as I gaze at my young love beside me,
The morning is just a few hours away. 
The song depicts a person who feels regret because he has committed a robbery and so now must deal with the terrible consequences, which include the loss of love. He will try to escape, but probably he will be caught and imprisoned. 

I speculate that Simon perhaps began writing the song as a meditation on the Christian image of "a thief in the night." The Apostle Paul described this idea as follows:
That day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. 
When people are saying, "All is well, everything is quiet and peaceful" --
-- then all of a sudden, disaster will fall upon them as suddenly as a woman's birth pains begin when her child is born. And these people will not be able to get away anywhere. There will be no place to hide. .... 
(I Thessalonians 5:2-3; see also Luke 12:39-4)
In the song's final form, this possible original meaning is no longer apparent. In the context of the album's other songs, however, I think Simon perhaps began composing the lyrics as a meditation on the Christian apocalyptic allusion to a thief in the night. 


In a nutshell, the album Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., was a blatantly Christian album, written during a profoundly Christian period of Paul Simon's life. That is the context of Simon's song "Sounds of Silence". 

Simon was obsessed with his idea that God was trying to communicate, by means of his modern prophets, to human beings that they should avert nuclear war. Simon sang that human beings should remember God's previous attempt to communicate to them by means of Jesus Christ. 


After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel finished recording their first album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in mid-1964,they broke up as a duo, and Simon moved to England. Simon moved into a home owned by a Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity and who worked as a full-time church worker.

Only a couple thousand copies of the album were purchased initially by the public, but the song "The Sound of Silence" was released as a single, and during the last half of 1965 this single gradually moved upward in the popularity charts and reached the Number 1 position on New Years Day 1966. When Simon heard that news, he immediately returned to the USA and re-joined Garfunkel as a duo.

In 1966 the duo looked like this ....

The cover of the 1966 album
We've got a groovey thing goin'
of Simon and Garfukel
... and sounded like this:

The 1966 album, titled Sounds of Silence, featured that same song -- still a huge hit -- but otherwise this new album differed from the first album. Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.. The new, 1966, album was a moderate success, reaching Position 30 in the popularity charts. 

In October 1966 the duo released a new album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which became a huge album hit. 

In December 1967 the movie The Graduate, with its soundtrack consisting almost entirely of songs of Simon and Garfunkel, began appearing in the theaters, and the movie's sound track was issued as an album, titled The Graduate, in January 1968. 

Although two previous albums had included the song "The Sounds of Silence", the The Graduate soundtrack album is the first album that included the song and that was purchased by a major portion of the public. This album's version of the song was the version that has become most familiar to the public, during and after the year 1968. 

During the summer of 1968, I left Nebraska and moved to Seward. During that key year and that personal move of mine, the song "Sounds of Silence" became a really gargantuan hit in the USA's popular-music musicology. 


By that time, however, Simon had evolved personally beyond the infatuation with the Christian religion that he had experienced during late 1963 and early 1964, when he had written the song. American society too had moved beyond that same period, when folk music and Gospel music had enjoyed an unusually high popularity. By the time when most people became familiar with the song -- during and after 1968-- they perceived the song almost entirely as a secular song. 

Even when fans of Simon and Garfunkel belatedly purchased the album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM and heard the album's surprisingly Christian themes, they perceived it as a secular song, because they already had become acquainted with the song as a single or on one or both of the two secular albums -- on The Sounds of Silence or on The Graduate


Since Simon had grown up in a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood, he certainly was familiar with the story of the Jewish religion's major prophet Elijah. 

When some Jewish prophets protested against idolatry practiced by their country's aristocracy, Queen Jezebel ordered those prophets to be murdered. Protesting against that order, Elijah stepped forward to participate in a contest against 450 priests of Baal. This contest ended with Elijah murdering all 450 of the priests of Baal. This massacre sparked a religious war, and Elijah fled from Israel, fearing he would be killed.

Elijah fled without any particular destination. At one point, however, an angel appeared to him and gave him some food and water and directed him to travel much further, to Mount Horeb. There, on the mountain top, Elijah waited for divine guidance about what he should do. Elijah tried to understand the divine guidance unsuccessfully in a windstorm, in an earthquake and in a fire storm. Ultimately, however, he understood it only from a slight breeze -- "a gentle whisper" -- in the mountain top's thin air.

These events are told in 1 Kings 19: 8-14:
Then Elijah got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, where he lived in a cave. 
But the Lord said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 
"He replied, "I have worked very hard for the Lord god of the heavens; but the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you and torn down your altars and killed your prophets, and only I am left; and now they are trying to kill me too." 
"Go out and stand before Me on the mountain," the Lord told Elijah. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by,and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain; it was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. 
After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 
And after the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. 
And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his scarf and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  
And a voice said, "Why are you here, Elijah?" 
He replied again, "I have been working very hard for the Lord God of the armies of heaven, but the people have broken their covenant and have torn down your altars; they have killed every one of your prophets except me; and now they are trying to kill me too." 
Then the Lord told him, "Go back .... there are 7,000 men in Israel who have never bowed to Baal"
Long List of Thanks, painted by Frank Ordaz
Elijah then returned to Israel and led an uprising that ended with the deaths of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, thus saving Israel from the establishment of the Baal religion. 


I speculate that Simon began writing the song "Sounds of Silence" as a meditation on this story about the prophet Elijah. Simon was concerned about the threat of nuclear war, and he dreamed of nuclear disarmament, but he was not a pacifist. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Simon's concerns about nuclear war grew, and he came to believe that humanity had to learn to recognize and heed the prophets that God would send to save humanity from its predicament. Such prophets might be quiet, humble people who spoke softly but wisely. 

That was Simon's primary thinking during that young period of his life, when he was about 22 years old. Simon began with the story the Elijah story that he knew from his own Jewish uprising -- the story about how God had communicated to Elijah effectively in a whisper.  When Elijah learned to appreciate and understand this quiet, divine guidance, then he proceeded to reform his idolatrous society. 

During this same period of late 1963 and 1964, Simon was becoming infatuated also with the Christian churches of the African-Americans who were developing their own effective Civil Rights Movement. In that religion, the prophet was Jesus Christ, and in that movement the most effective method of communicating was joyous Gospel music. 

It was the combination of those ideas that developed into the album Wednesday Night, 3 AM


Let us know focus on the song "Sounds of Silence", which is structured like the Elijah story. 

* The poet is like Elijah, seeking divine guidance.

* The dream is like the angel, who sent Elijah to Mount Horeb.

* The street light is like God on Mount Horeb.

It begins with the poet walking outside in the dark. He had been inside sleeping, but a dream had prompted him to get up and go outside. The poet is seeking divine guidance that his angel dream has promised. He has sought this divine guidance before, listening for divine words spoken aloud. Instead, he is surrounded by mere silence.   
Hello, darkness, my old friend.
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.  
The angel dream has directed the lone poet to a street light, which emits a halo. The street light is like Mount Horeb, with its divine summit. 
In restless dreams I walked alone --
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
B'neath the halo of a street lamp.
Suddenly, the street light emits a flash of neon light, which prompts the poet to focus on the surrounding silence, which will be the medium for the divine guidance.  
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night and touched the sound of silence.  
Now, the poet understands that the silence itself is the divine guidance. The silence illustrates to the poet that human beings do not communicate with each other effectively.  
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more --
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare disturb the sound of silence. 
The poet himself has been failing to communicate or to act effectively. The poet has been trying to teach and embrace others, who do not perceive his efforts.
"Fools" said I, "You do not know.
"Silence like a cancer grows.
"Hear my words that I might teach you,
"Take my arms that I might reach to you." 
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed in the wells of silence. 
Instead of listening to true prophets, people are worshiping false idols. 
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made. 
Ironically, the true prophets might be people who have low stations in life -- people living in tenement apartments and traveling in the subways. The true prophets might not speak loudly or even aloud. Ultimately, hey might simply write graffiti on walls. 
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming. 
And the sign said: 
"The words of the prophets
"Are written on the subway walls
"And tenement halls
"And whispered in the sounds of silence."

At that time in his life, Simon apparently felt that the way to find such prophets might be through the Christian churches of the kind that were leading the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans. That is the answer toward which Simon points in the other songs of his first album Wednesday Night, 3 AM.

After Simon and Garfunkel finished recording this song, their Jewish friend Andrew Goodman was murdered in June 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan and immediately became a national hero of the Civil Rights movement. This event caused them to re-appreciate with clarity and pride their own Jewish religion and its own ability to inspire Jews to act courageously and effectively. Simon and Garfunkel immediately wrote the song "He Was My Brother" and added it to the album, which was issued in October 1964. 

And when the album was issued, the duo was no longer named Paul Kane and Artie Garr, but rather Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Raking and Burning Leaves

Every fall in Seward, one of the family duties was to rake leaves.

Raking leaves at your own family's house was boring and unpaid, but one exciting reward was to watch and smell the leaves burning.

The smell of burning leaves was a familiar pleasure back in those years. I almost have forgotten the smell, though, because the burning of leaves is illegal in all the places where I've lived since I left Seward.

You wanna hear something funny, Daddy?
Grandma said they used to just burn their
leaves instead of puttin' them in trash bags.
Raking leaves for other families was a good way to earn some money. I used to rake the leaves for the Bickels -- an elderly couple -- every year, and I would earn a whole $5 for about five hours of work. Because I earned so much money, such a day of raking was very happy for me, even though I got a lot of blisters on my hands. My Dad was able to arrange this job for me, because our Sylwester family was related to the Bickel family.

I never got to set the leaves on fire. Only the big kids or adults did that. I remember vaguely that some gasoline was poured all over the leaves, and then a lit match was thrown onto the pile. While the leaves burned, we kids would use big sticks to stir the leaves, to keep the fire going.

Burning a pile of leaves was a good occasion to roast and eat marshmallows.

Here's a photograph of some teenage boy proudly enjoying the burning of a small pile of leaves in his back yard.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 1964 Presidential Election

Recently I read a book titled A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater's Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, written by J. William Middendorf II, who served as Goldwater's campaign treasurer during 1963-1964 and as the Republican National Committee's treasurer during the following four years.

Reading this book reminded me about my own childhood experiences of watching presidential politics.

My first political memories are about President John Kennedy's press conferences. When I was in second grade, our family lived in Middle Creek, which was a rural area outside of Seward. We lived next to a church and a one-room school, and I attended that school.  I wrote about that period of my life in this previous article of this blog.

Since we did not have any neighbors there, I did not have any friends to play with, and so I would just go into our home after school and watch television. The usual television programming that I remember was old Three Stooges films, which I enjoyed watching. Sometimes, however, the usual programming was preempted because President Kennedy was giving a press conference. At first I was annoyed by these preemptions, but eventually I came to enjoy watching Kennedy, because he seemed to be funny. I did not understand the humor, but I could see that he made the journalists laugh. My Mom would watch and laugh too.

Here is a video collage of funny moments in Kennedy's press conferences.

My next political memory after that was the assassination of President Kennedy, which occurred in 1963, when I was in sixth grade.

Then my next political memory was the presidential campaign of 1964. The two parties' political conventions took place during that summer, when I was between my sixth and seventh grades. The Republican convention was during July 13-16, and the Democrat convention was during August 24-27. Since those months were summer vacation, I was able to spend a lot of time watching the conventions on television during the days and evenings.

The Republican convention was especially interesting, because there was a dramatic struggle within the Republican Party. The common wisdom was that Goldwater was an extremist taking over the party, and this take-over was being resisted heroically by the party's wise moderates. The main two moderates were New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton.

I favored Scranton. I did not understand the political issues, but I liked the way he looked and talked. I think my parents like Scranton. For sure, they did not like Goldwater.

I did not like the way Rockefeller looked and talked. I kind of liked the way Goldwater looked and talked, but I understood that he was a villain. Since I did not understand the politics, my opinions were just impressionistic.

Here is a video of Scranton's campaign. Much of it is silent, but there are parts with audio of him speaking.

When I look at this video now, I don't experience the same favorable impressions about him. At that time, though, I liked Scranton so much that I even cried when the count of delegates during the convention gave Goldwater the majority.

Scranton came to the convention with 214 delegates, and Rockefeller came with 114, but Goldwater came with 883. Nevertheless, I hoped that Scranton would win by an upset because all the delegates would see what a great guy he was.

Here is a video showing some of the television coverage of the 1964 Republican convention. Watching this when I was 11 years old was very interesting, entertaining and educational.

The Democrat convention in August was not so interesting, because President Lyndon Johnson did not have to fight against any significant opposition within his own party.

Reading the book A Glorious Disaster, I was reminded that one of the biggest issues during the 1964 election was the use of tactical nuclear weapons. At some point, Goldwater had remarked that if the USA got into a war in Europe or Vietnam, then he would allow the military theater commander to use small nuclear weapons in some circumstances. The Democrats made a huge deal about this remark, giving the impression that any lieutenant colonel would be able to explode nuclear weapons whenever he wanted.

I had forgotten about that issue until I read the book. That issue never has been significant in any other campaign, but it was perhaps the major issue in 1964.

The 1964 issue that I remember was whether restaurants, hotels and other such private businesses should have to serve Negroes. As I thought about that issue at that time, I came to think that the government should not compel private businesses. My family recently had traveled through some Southern states, and we saw the segregation system, which was atrocious. Nevertheless, as I listened to the 1964 debates about that issue, I found myself agreeing with the Goldwater people who argued that the government's powers were limited. I pretty much kept that opinion to myself, however.

Another issue was whether the USA should get out of the United Nations. One aspect of that issue was that some people even criticized the UNICEF collections that we kids while trick-or-treating.

Another memory of that election was all the campaign bumper stickers and buttons. The Goldwater paraphernalia featured the chemical symbols for "gold" and "water".

I remember that Toby Beck's parents favored Goldwater and had AuH2O bumper stickers on their car and maybe a poster in their yard. That was the only family that I remember making such a public show of their support for Goldwater. My parents were for Johnson.

On October 27, a week before Election Day, Ronald Reagan gave a speech that was televised. This speech is so famous in US political history that it is called "The Speech". I happened to watch that speech, and I was hugely impressed by it. Thus, during the campaign's last week, I was converted suddenly into being a Goldwater supporter.

Here is a video of "The Speech".

A day or two before the election, our seventh-grade class voted for who we thought should be elected. As I remember, Johnson won our class vote by a big majority, but I voted for Goldwater.

The next presidential election, in 1968, was extremely dramatic and memorable, but by that time I had left Seward, Nebraska, and was living in Eugene, Oregon.


Gene Meyer posted the following comment on my Facebook page:
Mike, loved the commentary. We were there as kids in the 60s. My house voted for Goldwater, though I don't know why. My dad and mom always voted Republican. 
The ad of the child with the daisy and the count down helped Johnson win...biggest landslide ever?. 
He (Johnson) was a good president, I think. Nixon wasn't. Ford was a place saver, Regan energizied things but was a "little" corrupt. Bush 41 was too wonky. (Wouldn't be prudent, Read my lips). Clinton was the master politican with no regard for trurth or culture...just do what I need to do to get my way...(Back off Newt, you're toast), Bush 43 meant well, but WAY over his head. So my bias (family bias) gave me pause. 
I've mostly voted Republican over the years, (though I did vote for Carter), mostly because of Supreme Court nominations. I think both parties are married to special interests and money. I think Obama means well, but he can't sell anything and will go down worse than Bush 43 as the poorest viewed president since Hoover or Coolidge.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


My strongest memory of trick-or-treating during my Seward years was that I always wore paper-bag masks. Since my family had seven children, we did not have money to buy masks. Besides, my Dad liked to teach crafts -- especially paper crafts -- to us kids. After all, my Dad was an origami expert.

The image below -- from a 1957 Lulu comic book -- shows the concept. Get a grocery-shop paper bag, cut holes in the front for the eyes and mouth, and put curled paper on top for the hair. You can see the image in larger size at the Happy Holidays website.

Let's Make a Halloween Mask,
from the Happy Holidays website.
The image below is from some 1950s publication. You can see the image in larger size at the Mid Century Living website (double-click on the image there).

Easy Breezy Halloween Masks
from the Mid Century Living website.
These instructions advise people to put a couple holes in the bag's top for ventilation. I don't remember that we ever did that, and I do remember that wearing the paper-bag masks was a sweaty and smelly experience.

We would use scissors to curl paper strips for the hair, which would be glued onto the paper bag's top. The Wiki How to Do Anything website includes a seven-step instruction, which concludes with this image.

How to Curl Ribbon
from the Wiki How to Do Anything website.
I don't have any photographs of our family's paper-bag masks, but below are some images of other families' masks during those years.

The kids in the below photograph did not curl their paper-strip hair enough.

The kid on the left in the below photo is wearing a paper-bag mask. Both kids have plastic-pumpkin containers for their candy. We Sylwester kids always used paper bags for the candy.

The second kid in the below photograph is wearing a paper-bag mask, while all the rest of the kids are wearing plastic masks. Poor kid.

None of the kids in the below photograph are wearing paper-bag masks. The kids on the left and front are wearing plastic masks that were common then.

Below is the same photograph in a larger size, to show the kind of plastic that was used to make those masks.

None of the kids in the below photograph are wearing paper-bag masks, but the big straw hat strikes a memory cord for me. It seems to me that many families had such a big straw hats, which were used on Halloween.
When we went trick-or-treating in the neighborhood around the Concordia campus, we got lots of candy. A few homes gave out apples. I would keep trick-or-treating until after 10 p.m. I was able to mostly-fill a grocery bag.

The days following Halloween were a continual pig-out on all the candy.

We St. John's pupils were encouraged to collect money for UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) when we went trick-or-treating. Our teachers gave us UNICEF boxes that looked like the one, marked 1964, in the below image. I remember the UNICEF boxes looking like milk cartons.

A UNICEF box from 1964.
The box in the below image looks familiar, but I don't know the year. I remember that our UNICEF boxes always had a peaked top and a slot.


So, we kids would go to a home, say "trick or treat" and get some candy, and then we would say "UNICEF", and we would get a coin or two. After Halloween, we would give the coin-filled UNICEF carton back to St. John school, which (I assume) sent all the money to UNICEF.

One important decision that each kid had to make was the age when he felt too old to continue trick-or-treating.  I remember vaguely that most kids stopped in about seventh grade, but I think I continued about a year longer than most kids -- maybe until I was in eighth grade.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Meaning of the Song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"

When I lived on Faculty Lane in the early 1960s, folk music was popular in the USA. We Lutherans especially liked folk songs with a Christian component, such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore".
Michael, row the boat ashore -- Hallelujah!
 Sister, help to trim the sail -- Hallelujah!
 The river is deep, and the river is wide.
Green pastures on the other side.
Jordan's river is chilly and cold.
Chills the body but not the soul.
The river is deep and the river is wide.
Milk and honey on the other side.
I especially liked the song because my own name is Michael.


The song was arranged by Dave Fisher, the leader of the folk-music quintet called The Highwaymen, The quintet was formed in 1958, when Fisher and the other four singers were freshman at Wesleyan College, a Methodist all-male college in Middletown, Connecticut.

Dave Fisher as a student
at Wesleyan College
The group soon became popular at Wesleyan and then began performing at other colleges in the region. During the summer between their freshman and sophomore years, the group performed on a cruise ship. In December 1959 the group was signed to a contract by United Artists and began recording its first album.

The Highwaymen
Fisher selected and arranged all the group's songs. He explained: “I would find songs in my own record collection, in books, and from other singers. Also two of the members were from Latin America, and they contributed some great South American and Mexican tunes.” The band relied mostly on guitars and banjos, but also played a variety of instruments, including bongo drums, recorders, and a Bolivian Charango (a ten-stringed instrument made from the back of an armadillo).

The song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" had been recorded by a folksinger named Bob Gibson in 1957 but the song still was unknown to the public when Fisher included it in the Highwaymen's repertoire. Fisher also gave the song a significantly new arrangement. One of the group's members, Steve Trott, explained:
Dave Fisher's the guy who arranged the biggest folk hit of all time, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore". He was a musical genius who knew opera, classical, folk music and every other kind of music like the back of his hand. He was able to put it all together and meld it into the Highwaymen sound. He put a couple of minor cords into it that hadn't been there before, and that made all the difference. 
The United Artists producers who initially managed the Highwaymen insisted that the song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" be included in the first album. Fisher himself did not appreciate the song much, considering it to be a "filler song" for longer concerts. The song was placed in the middle of the album's B side.

The album languished in record stores through the group's junior year of college but then began to spread in popularity, mostly because of the Michael song. During the summer between their junior and senior years, the song rose to the top of the Variety, Cashbox, and Billboard charts, spending three weeks as the Number 1 song on the Billboard chart during August 1961. When the album was re-released, the cover highlighted the Michael song.

The album's song can be heard in the YouTube video below.

The five students continued to attend their senior-year classes at Wesleyan, but performed in concerts all over the country on their weekends. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Hootenany television shows.

After the students graduated in June 1962, they performed and recorded full-time, until they broke up in 1964. By that time they had recorded eight albums.

One other of their songs, from their second album, was a big hit, reaching Number 13 on the Billboard chart. This song was called "Cotton Fields", and it began like this:
When I was a little-bitty baby,
My mama would rock me in the cradle,
In them old cotton fields back home.  
Oh, when them cotton balls get rotten
You can't pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home. 
 It was down in Louisiana
Just about a mile from Texarkana,
In them old cotton fields back home. 
It may sound a little funny,
But you didn't make very much money
In them old cotton fields back home.
You can see the Highwaymen perform "Cotton Fields" on an old television show in the YouTube video below.

These two songs caught an early wave of the public's growing interest in the Civil Rights Movement in the former slave states. The songs evoked images of African Americans laboring in physically demanding, poor-paying jobs. These images attracted broader sympathy in the White public than the images evoked generally by blues or rhythm-and-blues songs.


After the Highwaymen made "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" popular, it was recorded successfully also by Harry Belafonte in 1962, by Pete Seeger in 1963, and by Trini Lopez and by the Smothers Brothers in 1964 -- and by many other folk musicians. The song has become a classic of American folk music and is familiar to practically everyone who has grown up in the USA.


The song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" apparently originated and developed on St Helena Island, which is a 64-square-mile area just off the coast from Beaufort, South Carolina. This area now is connected with the mainland by bridges, but during the slavery period it was a sea island. A major military fort called Fort Freemont was located on the island. The island was populated mostly by slaves, who worked on plantations that grew rice, indigo, cotton and spices. The slaves had a distinct culture that is called Gullah, which preserved many African words and customs.

Soon after the Civil War began, the Union navy captured Fort Freemont and then all of St Helena Island at the end of 1861. The White plantation owners fled, and a northern abolitionist, Charles Pickard Ware, was assigned to administer the island. He was a Harvard graduate who collected folk songs, and while he held this administrative position, during the years 1862-1865, he wrote down many songs that he heard the former slaves sing. After the Civil War, in 1867, he published a book titled Slave Songs of the United States. The song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" was included in the book, and its words were written down by Ware in 1863 from the singing of former slaves as they were rowing a boat between the island and the mainland.

There were two versions of the song:
Michael, row the boat ashore -- Hallelujah!
The Michael boat is a gospel boat -- Hallelujah! 
I wonder where my mother's there.
See my mother on the rock, going home. 
On the rock, going home in Jesus' name. 
The Michael boat is a music boat.
Gabriel, blow the trumpet horn. 
Oh, you mind your boasting talk.
Boasting talk will sink your soul. 
Brother, lend a helping hand.
Sister, help to trim that boat. 
Jordan Stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stands on the other side. 
I wonder if my master's there.
My father's gone to an unknown land. 
Oh, the Lord, he plants his garden there.
He raises the fruit for you to eat. 
He that eats shall never die. 
When the river overflows.
Oh, poor sinner, how'll you land? 
 The river runs, And darkness comes.
Sinner, row to save your soul.
 ... and ...
Michel, row the boat ashore -- Hallelujah!
Then you'll hear the trumpet blow -- Hallelujah! 
Then you'll hear the trumpet sound.
Trumpet, sound the world around. 
Trumpet, sound the jubilee.
Trumpet, sound for you and me.
I have modernized the two songs' pronunciation, spelling and grammar. Ware's book transcribed the songs as they sounded in the African-Americans' dialect. For example, Ware's transcription of several lines looked like this:
I wonder where my mudder deh.
See my mudder on de rock gwine home. .... 
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
The original song probably had a melody, rhythm and tempo that was different than the Highwaymen song has. In his book's introduction, Ware described the rowing songs as follows:
As I have written these tunes, two measures are to be sung to each stroke, the first measure being accented by the beginning of the stroke, the second by the rattle of the oars in the row-locks. 
On the passenger boat at the [Beaufort] ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute; twenty-four was the average. Of the tunes I have heard, I should say that the most lively were 'Heaven bell a-ring' (No. 27), 'Jine 'em' (No. 28), 'Rain fall' (No. 29), 'No man' (No. 14), 'Bell da ring' (No. 46), and 'Can't stay behind.' 'Lay this body down' (No. 26), 'Religion so sweet' (No.17), and 'Michael row' (No. 31), were used when the load was heavy or the tide was against us. .... 
One noticeable thing about their boat-songs was that they seemed often to be sung just a trifle behind time; in 'Rain fall,' for instance, 'Believer cry holy' would seem to occupy more than its share of the stroke, the 'holy' being prolonged till the very beginning of the next stroke .... 

Probably most people who know the Highwaymen's version of the song understand it to be a depiction of the post-death passage from life on Earth to life in Heaven. In Greek mythology, a person who had died was transported from life on Earth to life in Hades on a boat across the River Styx by a boatman named Charon. The Medieval Italian poet Dante incorporated this depiction into his poem Inferno, which made the depiction a familiar element of Western culture.

The boatman Charon transporting a boatload of dead people
across the River Styx to Hades, where the dead people
will spend the rest of eternity.
Christians (and perhaps Jews) understand the song as a similar depiction of the post-death transport of religious believers from life on Earth to life in Heaven. In this context, the song's boatman named Michael must be the Archangel Michael. Since the destination of this trip is not Hades, but rather is Heaven, the song is hopeful and joyous.

I presume that David Fisher understood the song that way and that he selected a few of the phrases and images from the original song that reinforced that understanding. Fisher excluded contradictory phrases and images, such as the lines about Gabriel sounding a trumpet, which was an element associated not with an individual's post-death passage into Heaven but rather with Judgement Day. On that future occasion, Jesus will return to Earth and decide which people will go to Heaven and which will go to Hell.

When the song became popular in the 1960s, it was adopted by the Civil Rights Movement, which sang the songs in assemblies and marches that were organized to protest against racial segregation and discrimination. In these situations the song was understood as describing passage into a reformed US society that was racially integrated.


The African-Americans who lived on St Helena Island during the Civil War were completely ignorant of these depictions from Greek mythology and from Dante's Inferno. Their ideas and imagery came only from the Bible, which does not include any such depiction of a boatman transporting dead people across a river from life to the after-life.

It should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with the Bible's Book of Daniel that the images in this song come mainly from that book. Daniel was especially interesting to African-American slaves because that book describes particularly the experiences of the Jews who lived in captivity in Babylon, in exile far from their homeland Israel.

Furthermore, Daniel tells how these captive Jews were able to outwit and resist the kings and lords who ruled Babylon and who oppressed the Jewish captive exiles there. For example, one popular African-American slave song told the story from Daniel about Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego. This song is performed in the YouTube video below.

There was three children from the land of Israel --
Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego. 
They took a little trip into the land of Babylon.
Nebudchanezzer was the king of Babylon.
He took a lot of gold, and he made an idol. 
He told everybody:
“When you hear the music
"Of the coronet and the flute and the harp,
"You must bow down and worship the idol!” 
But the children of Israel would not bow down.
You couldn't fool them with no golden idol.  
So the king put the children in the fiery furnace.
He heaped on coal and the red-hot brimstone,
Seven times times hotter than it ought to be. 
It burned up the soldiers that the king had put there.
But the Lord sent an angel
With snowy-white wings
Down in the middle of the furnace --
Walking and talking
With the children about the Gospel.  
The fire didn't even burn a hair on the head
Of Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego --
Walking and talking While the fire was burning around. 
Now, old Nebudchanezzer called,"Hey there!"
When he saw the power of the Lord.  
And they had a big time In the house of Babylon --
Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego. 
The Fiery Furnace
in the Book of Daniel
The African-American slaves understood and enjoyed this song because they loved The Book of Daniel and loved to tell this story from that beloved book. The Jewish captives in Babylon refused to bow down and adore the wealth of the Babylonian king and his aristocracy. The Jewish captives in Babylon could be protected from the most terrible punishments by an angel, sent down to Earth by their own true God. The African-American slaves in the USA's slave states understood those Jewish captives in Babylon as being their model for resistance, perseverance and salvation.

Chapters 10 through 12 of The Book of Daniel tells a story that explicitly names the Archangel Michael. This is one of only three Bible passages that names Michael. (The other two are in Jude and Revelations. Neither of these other two passages could be associated with the Michael song.)

This story recounts a vision that was seen and interpreted by Daniel, a clever Jewish captive in Babylonia. Daniel saw this vision after he had been fasting for three weeks, so he was extremely hungry. In his vision, Daniel was standing by the Tigris River, which was a major river in Babylon. Daniel looked up and saw a radiant angel. Daniel immediately fainted and fell to the ground, unconscious. The angel woke Daniel up and explained to him that he, the angel, had been trying for three weeks to come in response to Daniel's fasting and praying, but that the angel's path to Daniel had been blocked by an evil spirit that ruled the Kingdom of Persia. (Essentially, Babylonia is Iraq, and Persia is Iran, and the two realms were separated by the Tigris River)

Eventually, however, the Archangel Michael intervened to help the angel pass through Persia and cross the Tigris River in order to advise Daniel in Babylonia. The angel then advised Daniel to remain strong and brave, because God loved and therefore would help Daniel.

The angel then foretold to Daniel that there would be a huge war that would include Persia, Babylonia, Greece, Syria and Egypt. Israel would be overrun by foreign soldiers. A foreign king would send a brutal tax-collector into Israel. He would be succeeded by a tyrant who would take over Israel by means of flattery, intrigue and deceit.

Eventually the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the site would become a desolate place predominated by some abomination. All of humanity would suffer in the chaos, and the Jews still living in their homeland would be dispersed far abroad.

Three and a half years later, however, the Archangel Michael would appear on Earth and would rally and re-assemble the dispersed Jews and lead them back to their homeland. Many of the Jews who had died and were buried in the ground would raise up alive from their graves. Then the Jews would re-establish their own righteous kingdom and live in freedom and prosperity forever after.


This story from The Book of Daniel includes two moments that involve the Archangel Michael and a river.

The first such moment was when the angel who wanted to advise Daniel was trying to evade the blockade that had been set up by Persia's evil spirit. Daniel was waiting on the Babylonian side of the Tigris River, and the angel tried unsuccessfully for three weeks to pass through Persia and cross the Tigris River to reach Daniel. Only when the Archangel Michael came to help did the angel finally cross the Tigris River and reach Daniel and advise him. Daniel does not explain how Archangel Michael helped the angel in this evasion, but an obvious explanation would be that Michael rowed the angel across the Tigris River in some secret manner that the Persian evil spirit did not notice.

 We can suppose that this moment in Daniel captured the imagination of the African-American slaves who were held in slavery on St Helena Island. Any such slave who thought about escaping from the island in a rowboat would have prayed to the Archangel Michael for help in evading the White militias who guarded the waterway and captured escaping slaves and returned them to the plantations.

The second such moment was when Archangel Michael assembled the defeated, dispersed Jews and led them back across the Jordan River to re-conquer their homeland. Daniel does not describe this conquest in any detail, but it would be natural to suppose that this re-conquest would follow the model of the Jews' first conquest of Canaan. The first step would be to cross the Jordan River secretly, and the second step would be to destroy the major fort city on the River's west side, the city of Jericho. 

That first step evokes an image of the Archangel Michael leading a flotilla of rowboats crossing the Jordan River secretly during a dark night. The second step evokes the image of the Jewish armies surrounding the city of Jericho and then blowing through a large number of trumpets so loudly that Jericho's walls collapsed.

This is why the later concept of Jesus returning to Earth for Judgment Day includes the element of the Angel Gabriel starting that day by blowing his trumpet so loudly that all of humanity hears the sound and that even dead people in their graves wake and rise up. Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul mentioned that an angel would play a trumpet at the beginning of Judgment Day.

These stories from Daniel inspired within the island slaves a hopeful spirit that, with the help of Archangel Michael, they eventually might be able to escape, return and liberate the island, and then return to their own African homeland.

They had to conceal, however, this interpretation of the Bible's Book of Daniel from their White masters. The explanation that the song depicted only the passage of Christians into Heaven (not the escape of slaves from the island) was acceptable to the White masters.


 Below I offer comments about particular verses:

I wonder where my mother's there.
See my mother on the rock, going home! --
On the rock, going home in Jesus' name. 
The above verses could be read with at least three interpretations.

1) The more apparent interpretation is that the boat passenger's previously dead mother is standing on the rock and the mother is going home to Heaven.

 2) A less apparent interpretation is that the mother is alive and waiting on the shore for her escaping child to join her. Only the child (not the mother) is going home. The mother stayed on the mainland when her child was taken away to another plantation on the island. Now the child on the boat is returning secretly to the mainland, where he and his mother will live together again.

3)  Another less apparent interpretation is that a dead person begins the process of passing into Heaven by climbing to the top of a rock or hill. This interpretation would contradict the idea that a dead person begins that process by rowing a boat across a river.

The Michael boat is a music boat.
Gabriel, blow the trumpet horn. 
The above verse evokes the image of trumpets being smuggled secretly across the river. Once the boat has reached the destination shore, the Angel Gabriel will stand up in the boat and play music so loudly that the walls of the fortress city Jericho will collapse.

The concept of dead people crossing the River Styx into Hades or crossing some river into Heaven does not include any idea of a trumpet or any other music being played. The trumpet idea is associated with the defeat of the Jericho fortress and with the announcement of the return of the Messiah on Judgment Day.

Oh, you mind your boasting talk.
Boasting talk will sink your soul. 
The above verse expresses the concept that the crossing of the river must remain secret in order for the crossing to succeed. This concept does not fit with the depiction of individual dead people passing into an after-life. Such a passage did not require secrecy in order to succeed.

I wonder if my master's there.
My father's gone to an unknown land. 
The above verse might express a hope that some of the escaped slaves continued to evade the slavers on the mainland and then eventually managed to return all the way to their African homeland.

Brother, lend a helping hand.
Sister, help to trim that boat. 
The above verse indicates that an entire family of siblings is crossing the river. The mother and father already have crossed the river -- or else they always have remained on the mainland. The father apparently has left for a distant land. Now all their children are crossing the river to join the mother.

The crossing the river is not the trip of an individual person who has died. Rather, it is a trip of a group of siblings who are traveling together.

Oh, the Lord, he plants his garden there.
He raises the fruit for you to eat.
He that eats shall never die. 
The above verse appears to describe the crossing the river as a passage to Heaven, which made the song acceptable to the White slavers.

Only on second thought might the idea occur that the plantations on the island are not places governed by the Lord of Heaven. Only by leaving the island might a person move to a place where plantations are ruled by the Lord.


 After the Highwaymen broke up in 1964, only Dave Fisher continued to pursue a career in music. He moved to Hollywood and developed a career arranging songs for television and music. He occasionally toured to perform in nostalgia concerts, but usually with substitutes for the quintet's original members.(For example, one such substitute singer was Gil Robbins, the father of the actor Tim Robbins.)

 During his long career as a professional musician (he died in 2010), Fisher wrote about a thousand songs. He has remained famous mostly, however, because of one re-arrangement of a century-old Negro spiritual that he did when he was a college freshman.