various artists,
Before Their Time:
Memorial Songs & Music Vol. I

(Hospice VNH, 1999)

Before Their Time is dedicated to those who died young, and in an instance of poignant synchroneity, I received this CD only a few days after a friend and coworker died as the result of an aneurysm in her brain. Pat was only 45.

The album is intended to help console bereaved individuals as they work through the grieving process and features performers such as Priscilla Herdman, Jay Ungar, Tom Paxton, Eric Bogle and Gordon Bok, among others. This is a beautiful, deeply moving CD, exploring both the unique and the universal aspects of grief.

Priscilla Herdman begins with "The Water Lily," her arrangement of a poem by Australian poet Henry Lawson. The song is about a young mother who dreams of seeing the spirit of her dead child as a "beautiful child, with butterfly wings" but she wakes knowing that she cannot follow. It expresses eloquently the piercing anguish and longing of a parent who has lost a child, while offering the comfort of imagining the child happy and well in the spirit world.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason follow with "Ashokan Farewell." Ungar's haunting fiddle piece is forever associated with Ken Burns' documentary about the Civil War, particularly the moving letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island to his "very dear Sarah" on the eve of the first battle of Bull Run, where he died. This is a piece that will never grow old, and the strains resonate in the deepest part of memory, evoking both sorrow and joy.

Tom Paxton sings of the pain of unexpected death in "No Time to Say Goodbye." The pace of the song reflects the way the world rushes on, leaving not only no time for goodbyes, but little time to absorb the impact of a friend's death. Paxton also touches on the things we leave behind us -- seashells, rocks, postcards, photographs and drawings -- that remain as the only tangible connection.

"Unite" by Christina Tourin is an instrumental piece performed by Tourin on harp and Christine Allicot on flute, with Salina Briseno as an "angel voice." It is quiet and thoughtful, providing space for reflection. Eric Bogle's ballad "No Man's Land" is a reflection of another kind, addressing Private William McBride, one of the many casualties of World War I buried in France. According to the liner notes and Bogle, although Willie McBride is fictitious, some have claimed him as a real relative, so convincing is the portrait Bogle conveys.

Sweet Honey in the Rock lend their voices to "Patchwork Quilt," about the AIDS quilt. The tight a capella harmonies weave the words into a tapestry of many lives sewn into one and different people, living and dead, united with a common bond. Sydney Long's "Breck's Song," written as a response to the suicide of a friend's son, expresses the frustration and sense of inadequacy of not having been able to help: "I wish I could have held you / I wish I could have taken your hand / And kept you safe with my love / From your darkness."

"Angle of Light" by Anne Hills hits close to home with its recognition of how we are "Sure that we had time to kill." Gordon Bok paints a portrait of a friend struggling through a deep depression in "Turning Toward the Morning," a lovely song with a thread of hopefulness running through it. "Jane's Whistle" by Anne Dodson is an instrumental which memorializes Dodson's friend through a powerful, musical connection. In "Time to Learn," Tim O'Brien expresses the struggle to let go of a person when he or she dies.

"Language of the Heart," offered by Jim Stewart and Bernie Houlahan, is a memorial song which will speak to anyone who has suffered a loss. Russ Barenberg wrote "For JL" in response to John Lennon's death, but the cool sounds of acoustic guitar combine with viola and alto saxophone (among other instruments) in a gentle, repetitive calming melody. "Lux Aeterna" from John Rutter's Requiem finishes off the album beautifully.

The liner notes include all of the lyrics and notes on the music and lots more. There is information on Hospice VNH (Vermont and New Hampshire) and the New Hampshire Youth Suicide Prevention Association, both beneficiaries of the proceeds from the CD, as well as essays on grief, music and healing and an assortment of Web sites devoted to grieving, bereavement, and related issues.

When I told a good friend about Pat, he said "If she's someone to be missed, then she did something right." The music on Before Their Time, at once wonderfully soothing and cathartic, says much the same thing.

For more information, visit the web site.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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