Last year my boys and I spent an unplanned year abroad with my parents in Pennsylvania. We were displaced after the triple disaster in Northeast Japan, which happens to be our home. Due to the circumstances, we arrived with the clothes we were wearing and not much else. Over the course of 11 months, generous and kind folk provided us with all we needed and much, much more. That notwithstanding, I found myself at times missing some of my possessions back here. It was with great joy that I was reunited with my CD collection in February. Since I own neither an Ipod nor a smartphone nor any other device that allows me to download music, I had waited it out and borrowed from family in the interim.
One album I looked forward to hearing anew was Jawbone Hill’s Sackcloth and Sunshine. Doesn’t ring a bell? Jawbone Hill was a band comprised of my college housemate Dan and three of his friends, their album recorded in 1995. At the time Dan would have been 19 years old, and his bandmates about the same. I assume they put out the record on their own dime; the phone number listed for bookings on the CD is an area code local to our university, their address a P.O. box in Elverson, PA. About this time, you may be thinking, “Sounds awful.” And you’d be wrong. It was impressive back then, when we all bought copies and attended live shows. And the good news is that their music stands up. Dan’s vocals are mature, if at times a bit overwrought, and the guitar work is seriously groovy. The album has fourteen cuts, and there isn’t a lame one among them. No soundalikes, just good melodies that pack some punch. Lyrically, they take on faith, shame, responsibilty to their fellow man–lightweight fluff it is not. A solid effort worthy of pride, especially given this was an avocation rather than a full-time gig for them.
Dan is now a Facebook friend of mine, but we have never really kept in touch. I gather from his profile that he is playing with another band these days. As I listen and continue to enjoy his output from so long ago, I wonder how he now views his Jawbone Hill stuff. Does he give it a listen now and then and think, “We did good”? Or does he cringe at the remembrance and hope those CDs self-destruct, should they still be taking up space on someone’s shelf?
I ask this because of something my sister-in-law Laura said last month. We are blessed to have not one but two gifted artists in the family in my brother and his wife Laura. Their work graces the walls of my parents’ house, and our aunt remarked on it during a visit in August. How lucky we are to see your work on display when we come here, Mary Jo was saying. “Oh,” to paraphrase Laura’s response,” a lot of these were college class projects that became convenient Christmas gifts at the time. I hope they don’t feel obligated to keep them up forever.” It was a kind of verbal distancing from work produced in their younger days, an apology for foisting it on all of us.
Of course, we only admire what we ourselves could not reproduce, and further, could not find in your average art show. I want them to recognize that we are awed at the beauty of the work and appreciate the skill that formed it. In so doing I reflect on things I have written or otherwise created in the past. Perhaps what causes me to wince may still somehow ring true for another. I know that I have been guilty of writing something that was hurtful in the interest of telling the “whole story.” Never cool. But there may be redemption in the power of words to affect a mind one way today and another tomorrow, or not at all. Yesterday’s missives are probably outdated, trite, and naive, but that’s OK as long as they are not malevolent. Substance over style, in the end.
The name Jawbone Hill comes from the story of Samson, a judge of Israel. He killed one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, according to the Old Testament. He was a miracle child with superhuman strength, but in his youth he misused it often. He never fully lived up to the promise of his phenomenal gift. But at the end of his life he finally reigned in his impulses and accomplished his purpose, which was to rescue his nation from their enemies. A cautionary tale with a happy ending.
The missteps and embarrassments of our younger days are certainly nothing on the scale of Samson’s, whose had historical consequences. We can read all of them now, recorded for posterity. This is not a coincidence, but it IS a comfort. The trail of songs, stories, artworks, letters, and photographs we leave are just proof that we have been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.