Saturday, October 17, 2015

Holding fast to what she taught me – in memory of Virginia Lowe

Special Report from Los Angeles, California, in honor of my mentor, Virginia Lowe: I talk a lot about heaven in our shows and listening to the obituaries on the radio with my great-grandmother, and funeral home tote bags. I know that part of the reason I do is because I grew up with a bunch of women – my grandmother and her sisters – who talked a lot about heaven in the course of just any ole thing like lunch or curling their hair. We once played a concert in Northern California to a mostly Chinese audience and I was never so conscious of how many times I say the word "Heaven" in the course of a show. Afterward, nearly every person in our audience came up and said hello, had a picture made with us, and one woman echoed several others when she said, "I like how you talk about heaven. It's very beautiful. I feel happy."

Virginia Lowe was buried on Friday morning. Some of you who have read my posts or our bio, will know that she was my musical mentor. I grew up listening to her sing and preach at the Friendly Chapel Church on Smith Ridge just across the road from Mawmaw's house.

Mawmaw's church is Pentecostal. When I was a child, people spoke in languages I didn’t understand, they believed in a fire that did not burn, they fell down in the floor with the spirit, and they sang. They sang loudly and passionately. Their singing got under my skin because it wasn’t for prettiness or show – they were hollering their story up to God with every ounce of their being. To me this is singing and this is songwriting – to shout the story of life as an urgent message to the beyond.

The person who embodied this entirely was Virginia Lowe. Her body literally shook and quavered as she sang. She was a short lady with narrow shoulders, but her voice sounded like it came straight from Moses' burning bush. Whether she was preaching or singing, and she went from one to the other constantly, she was like an instrument made of bone, flesh, and hair on which God strummed a mighty chord.

She had no artifice about her. She loved cakes. She was cagey about being recorded because she was suspicious of people making money from her singing, not because she thought her singing was wonderful, but because her singing was a record of the spirit being cut into the grooves of every heart in the congregation.

She was blind since childhood and so was her husband, Jim, who died two years ago. They went to school with Ronnie Milsap and you could hear those same country roots when she played the piano. She was very troubled after Jim's death and never seemed comfortable in the world without him.

Her death was not a shock to me. She had been sick more than she had been well since Jim passed over, but I feel a sadness nevertheless. I did switch on my voice recorder in the service once or twice and I can go back and hear her. But I will miss being in her physical presence because to be so was like being in front of the great riddle of life itself.

The songs she sang at the Friendly Chapel were the ones I distilled into the lyric for our song Made As New. When I sing, it is my aim to honor the fiercely honest way of singing that Virginia taught me. I don't sing to be admired, but to relay a message that I think must be delivered. Our songs are not created to glorify us, but to bring joy, warning, empathy, kindness, and respite to fellow travelers. If I fail at this, then I've no business doing this work and I best just stick to sewing. Life is short and it seems best do what matters and bring love to table.

When I was in school and read about the oracles in Greece or Yeats' mediums, I always thought of Virginia Lowe – a woman sitting with a braille Bible at her side, eating a second piece of cake, about to sing out an urgent message brought out of the mouth of God into a little mountain church to the few that would hear. Those that did hear will not soon forget the message or woman that spoke it.

If you would like to hear Virginia's powerful singing, I invite you to click this link.

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