The Crib in the Creche
(originally released on "You'll See a Much Brighter Day", and re-mastered
for release on "Christmas Eve on the
Poor Side of Town")
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-- Many people regard this as my best song,
or at least consider it their favorite. Here is the story:
Thirty years had passed but I never forgot the faces of
those two men. It was 1959 and I was a young child looking forward to a cup of Ovaltine and a warm house after playing outside in the streets of the Bronx,
which were covered with a still-white December snow. As I came to the top of the
stairs I heard my father's voice.
"Another one?" he said , the words emanating from the kitchen.
"I just couldn't let him go by without doing something"
came my mother's reply.
approached the kitchen with curiosity, I was greeted with a strange odor that
conjured up images of sweat and garbage. Turning the corner, I passed my father
leaving the kitchen and saw my mother standing there with a bologna sandwich. It
took me a moment to realize that the threadbare, tattered coat which had its
back to me was actually draped over a tall, thin stranger, standing there in the
kitchen. He turned around, and at that moment, for the first time in my 7 years,
I looked into the face of poverty, the eyes of homelessness, the soul of hunger.
In those eyes, showing through the emptiness, was a glow of gratitude.
Walking through the streets of the city, it was not
uncommon to see hungry and homeless people on the streets, but in truth, I had
never really noticed them, at least not as real people. They were part of the
city's background -- until now. My mother had seen this homeless man walking
past our house and had invited him in for some food. She gave him a sandwich,
packed another for him, and sent him on his way with her ever present smile.
A week later, my mother took me to
a church supper, in celebration of the holiday season. On this frigid night,
amidst the warmth of fellowship, someone brought in a homeless man whom they
found lying outside, shivering in the cold. The people
there, my mother in the midst of them, were quick to help, bringing hot cocoa,
food and a blanket. As the man sat, I looked past him and saw the large figures
of the creche scene which sat in the corner of the room. It almost looked like
the figures were surrounding the man, who smiled as best he could to show his
appreciation for the kindness being shown him. I saw that same look in his eyes
as in the face of the man my mother had fed in our kitchen. From then on, I
began to take notice of people's words and actions toward others who were less
fortunate than they.
thirty years -- It was early December 1989, and my 5-year old son had just come
in from playing in the still-white Connecticut snow.
"I have a new song", I told him. "It's for Grandma."
And I played it for him while he
had his cocoa. The intervening years had seen me become a songwriter, move to
Connecticut, and be inspired by the music and social conscience of
singer-songwriter Harry Chapin. For the last week, my mother had been hovering
near death in a New Jersey hospital. I reflected on her life, searching for
something to capture in song, that I would be able to keep with me forever, and
share with others after she was gone.
As I sorted through all the memories and experiences, I
kept coming back to that December in 1959. I hadn't consciously thought about it
since childhood, but I realize now how it provided a context for the rest of my
life; a backdrop against which all experiences and questions of right and wrong
were viewed. "The Crib in the Creche", the story-song of that homeless man
outside the church on a freezing December night, was written in two days, but in
truth, it took three decades to write.
My mother died two days before Christmas, 1989, never
having heard the song that she inspired. Since then, the song has been sung
every year in concerts and churches, with church choirs, with children, with
assorted ensembles, and recorded on two of my CD's.
David Crosby, the great singer-songwriter from Crosby,
Stills and Nash, said at a September 2003 concert as he presented a new song
he'd recently written, "the greatest thing for a songwriter is to be able to
play a new song for an audience and have them 'get it' " . That's an experience
my mother has given me many times. She couldn't sing a note and knew nothing of
writing songs, but she created symphonies of kindness with a life simply lived,
and she taught me two of the golden rules of songwriting -- One is "Show, don't
tell " -- My mother never preached or lectured or spoke much about what she did.
She just showed by her actions what she believed was right. And secondly, in
trying to write songs that are memorable and which touch people's hearts, the
songs that most affect life are the songs that most reflect life.
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