November-December 2009

So how do you play music at a memorial service or a funeral?Well, if you were close to the departed, I'd say the best thing is to NOT playat the service. No matter how calm and cool you may think you are, the emotions following loss are such that the simplest item may remind you of a particular memory, and the emotions that follow are not easily controlled. I was blessed to have four friends play bluegrass gospel music at my dad's memorial. As it turned out, I think I could've joined in, but I was far more comfortable knowing that I did not have to try to keep a stiff upper lip, although that is a common bluegrass vocal style.

Material is also a big issue. If the departed wasn't affiliated with any particular religion or philosophy, then the old hymn book will be of little value. The best thing is to play something you think will be relevant. At one recent service, Beth Fitchet Wood (of the great band Honk) did a number by Danny Flowers called Ready to Cross Over and I can't imagine a better song for this type of gig. And although the lyrics are important, the music is important, too. There's something especially striking about vocal harmony. Perhaps it symbolizes the unity of our souls, but even the most simple harmony has the ability to raise "them little hairs on your neck"as my family used to say. At the same service, Beth and her cohorts in The Girls, Sue Bredice and Carolyn Miller, did Let It Be Me and their seamless, soaring harmonies ended the service on a positive, upbeat note.

And the music should fit. At a memorial a few months back,live music was provided by a string quartet, and was quite lovely. But in the22 years I had known my friend prior to his passing, I never heard him listen to anything other than hard drivin' 1960s rock. There was plenty of that at the reception that followed, and I suppose a full rock band version of a Doors number would not be appropriate at a service, but at least the string quartet could have done Love Her Madly or Roadhouse Blues. Also, the song choice may need an explanation. Ata service I attended a few years ago, a musician sat at the piano and played araucous, almost carnival like song, sung in a high keening voice in a languageI did not recognize. Most mourners looked a bit puzzled. Then the gentleman explained he was Hawaiian, and the deceased had been a dear friend who often visited his family in the Islands, and that she had grown to love Hawaiian music. He then translated the lyrics to explain a lovely sentiment of loss, longing and redemption. Totally fitting, if at least initially a bit baffling.

It would be odd to say that one should enjoy a memorial service or a funeral, but I think with the right spirit and feeling, services have a remarkable healing power, and music is a very important component. Go out and enjoy some live music, at any venue you find appropriate.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He's released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the new grassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced on stage as part of both Little Richard's and Paul Simon's revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


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