Now are come the days of brown leaves
They fall from the trees, they flutter on the ground,
When the brown leaves flutter they are saying little things.
They talk with the wind.
I hear them tell of their borning days when they did come into the world as leaves. …
Today they were talking of the time before their borning days of this springtime.
They talked on and on and I did listen on to
What they were telling the wind and the earth in their whisperings.
They told how they were a part of earth and air before their tree-borning days.
And now they are going back.
In gray days of winter they go back to the earth again.
But they do not die.
From the diary of Opal Whiteley, age 6
Sung by Anne Hills, music by Michael Smith
We have clocks to remind us that time drives relentlessly forward, and the sun rises and sets on each day, bookended by dreams. But none of this has quite the impact of the year turning from summer to fall.
For some, the changing season kindles excitement. The cooler air brings them out of their summer torpor. They feel alive again, eager for the holidays ahead.
For me it elicits elegy. Autumn signals the dying of the life that burst forth so hopefully just six months ago.
Not everything I love is dying, however. On the evening of the autumnal equinox, Anne Hills performed in the Veterans Room of the Oak Park Public Library, a welcome reminder of how much I love folk music.
Musical genres maintain an uneasy relationship between words and tune. With rap, words are dominant. In opera, the lyrics seldom live up to the emotional exhilaration of an aria. With rock-and-roll, words often seem an afterthought. Musical theater establishes a better balance, but true fusion takes place in folk music, where melody, voice, and lyrics blend with equal value.
Folk songs capture the sacredness of the ordinary, chronicling the lives of the kind of folks Garrison Keillor used to read notes from during Prairie Home Companion. Folk songs — or as Hills calls them, storysongs — celebrate nature and the seasons and our ordinary/extraordinary lives. It feels like tonic.
Other genres have their place and claim on my affections. The previous Saturday, I spent a pleasant hour listening to Nikki Lane, the final act of the Oaktoberfest celebration in Downtown Oak Park. Louder, bluesier, accompanied and amplified in an outdoor setting, Lane’s forceful voice commanded attention. Very enjoyable.
Hills’ effortless contralto in the more intimate space at the library, meanwhile, was never overpowered by instrumentation (guitar alternating with banjo), and her content was more poetic, less driven by all that remains unresolved in the human heart. Rock-and-roll chronicles the internal storm; folk evokes the calm after. It has more in common with the poet’s solitary daily walk along the ocean, emotion recollected in tranquility (in Wordsworth’s words) and set to music.
And it captures my elegiac mood as each fall arrives, now intensified by age.
Hills’ appearance was one of a series of folk concerts made possible by Nancy Clark and her late husband Peter, a gift to the community with funding from the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library.
We’re not that different, one from another, the songs seem to say, though some of our lives are harder than others. The need to come together, to tell and hear stories through song, is ancient, and just as compelling as in our storied past. As our storysong-teller sings, she casts a spell, momentarily elevating our lives to the level of art and universality.
The coming holidays are meaningful partly because we know so many others, in some fashion, will celebrate them too. That’s also why it’s more meaningful to “go to” movies at a theater instead of watching at home alone. And storysongs have greater impact when we listen to them in a communal setting.
Life is richer when we raise our eyes from the sidewalk or from our smartphones and notice that our path has room for multitudes, possibly room for everyone.
The year is turning toward winter, the season of deep sleep mimicking death, buffered by autumn, the season of enlivening before the great surrender. The seasonal cycle of death and regeneration is reassuring in its predictability.
It’s the larger cycle, where our lives are stuck, that remains unresolved in the human heart — until some small hint makes us wonder if, or believe that, there might be a grander regeneration awaiting us on the far side of death.
Squirrels fattening up on nuts seem to believe. Sandhill cranes, flying south in November and north again in March, seem to believe. Leaves that burst into color then fall and fade, seem to believe. Roses, still flowering late into autumn, seem to believe.
Storysongs, or songstories, capture our borning days of springtime and whisper softly of regeneration yet to come as the year turns toward night.
This is an updated version of a column that first ran on Sept. 28, 2016.