“When I begin the long work of rising”—A Tribute to David Fetcho

David Fetcho.

“So my expectations are modest: that for some folks unknown to me, my music and poetry might open a window–maybe just a little bit–and allow them to get a glimpse of the secrets of their own heart as it tries to make sense of this world.”

— David Fetcho

I last saw David Fetcho at a funeral one year ago. I had flown to California to preach at the requiem for Stephen O’Leary, a fellow shape note singer. At the reception afterward, David and his wife Susan joined me in singing “Farthest Field,” a parable of resurrection and reunion beyond this mortal life.

I know one day I’ll leave my home
Here in the valley and climb up to that field so fair
And when I’m called and counted in
That final tally, I know that I will see you there.
Oh, walk with me and we will see the mystery revealed
When one day we wend our way up to the farthest field. 

The three of us had worked out the harmonies years before, and we loved to sing that song whenever we met up. When David and Susan dropped me at the Oakland airport that evening, we had no idea we had sung together for the last time. A few days later, the pandemic began to enclose us in our respective bubbles, two states apart. Then, a week ago, David had a massive stroke. He died yesterday afternoon. 

I first met David and Susan at the California Shape Note Convention in January 2000. They introduced themselves at the lunch break. After hearing my opening prayer that morning, they suspected we were kindred spirits. We quickly discovered a multitude of common bonds, including creative liturgy, filmmaking, music, theater and dance, theology, and radical Christianity. We met for a long conversation the next day, sharing our dreams of provoking a renaissance of wonder among God’s friends. Most of our grand collaborative hopes never materialized, but our periodic exchanges of ideas and passions always nourished our own ongoing projects. We were like an ancient trading culture. I’d show a film they hadn’t seen. They’d read me a poet I didn’t know. Whenever we met, we’d find ourselves taking notes, exchanging the names of works or artists to explore. And when we did manage a collaboration—a creative liturgy, a workshop, a video production—it was always a joy, with a surplus of invention and a minimum of ego. 

David Fetcho, late 1973.

Music was at the heart of David’s many creative gifts. He sang Gregorian chant as a Catholic choir boy, and mastered the accordion in the polka culture of his native Pittsburgh. Coming of age in the 1960s, he breathed the experimental air of the psychedelic San Francisco sound and the “new music” avant garde. His influences ranged from Meredith Monk and David Byrne to late medieval Ars Nova, contemporary world music, and American Sacred Harp singing. In 1970 he got access to a sophisticated Moog synthesizer left over from a Jefferson Airplane project, and began a lifelong exploration of electronic music. But his embrace of complex synthesized music never eclipsed his love of acoustic simplicity. He recently called the alto recorder his primary instrument.

For many years, David collaborated with Susan, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, to create 14 dance productions, touring in Australia, New Zealand, Bali, the U.S. and Canada. He also composed scores for various dance and theater companies, as well as film and television productions. But after decades as a collaborator, David made the courageous decision, at age 67, to produce his first solo work, using the name of his Slovak grandparents before it was Americanized: Fečo. The resulting song cycle, Watch It Sparkle, is a deep river of sounds and rhythms carrying his distinctive vocals and haunting lyrics through an immense cognitive terrain. 

David resisted terms like “experimental” or “avant-garde” for his new venture. He preferred to call it “medieval folk music for the 21st century.” It’s not easy or casual listening, but the listener who consents to the journey will be richly rewarded, perhaps even transformed. Critic Brian Leak encourages us to take the plunge: “As thematically dark as some of the songs are, there’s still a joyful complexity holding it all together.” And Layla Marino writes, “dsfečo’s first solo album has it all: complex song composition, beautiful, emotive melodies, just the right amount of dissonance and well-placed syncopation and vocals which drive home the point of all this strange music.” 

The final song of the cycle, “Just Another Good Day,” celebrates the eternal Now where we can, even in this life, rest in the stillness of Being, where transcendence and immanence meet in the arrested moment. It was the first thing I put on when I heard the news of David’s death. 

I want to go with you
to the other side of the light
where we’ll see
what the shadow reveals
will be such a relief …

time in its disguises 
won’t fool us anymore …

Days tumble on with minds of their own
they breathe in our lives, and make them their own
and time, time disappears
like the wind from a sail …
and every good day will be 
just another good day
of eternal life. 

Susan and David Fetcho, May 2006 (Jim Friedrich)

“Time of Quarantine,” recorded in his basement in June 2020, knows no such lightness of being. The present moment is heavy with longing for the return of a lost world: “dearest friends may fall / and sorrow’s tide wash over all.” The unwavering close-up of David singing is powerfully intimate (especially so now that he’s gone), yet we see a certain inexpressiveness in his face (but not his voice!), as though another power is speaking through him. This is not a performance, but a message. And the message is hope: 

If there’s a meaning to be found, 
it’s that love can still abound 
in this time of quarantine … 

What is the meaning of this plague we see? 
Even in our shelters we are not alone: 
our hearts can bridge the distance 
although we stay at home. 

Oh where is the time and place 
when I can finally touch your face 
and hold you like I did before 
this time of quarantine? 

And when we look back upon these days, 
we’ll remember how it felt to say, 
“We’re all in this together. 
We’ll make it through together.”

All of David’s work was grounded in a deep faith, a questioning mind, and a compassionate heart. In the 1970s, he and Susan belonged to the Bartimaeus Community in Berkeley, a communal experiment of the Evangelical left which included influential theologian/activist Ched Myers. Over the years, the Fetchos have worked creatively with many different church bodies, but in the years I have known them they have never had a lasting church home. I suspect that their belief in the deep connection between art, faith and imagination has never quite found a satisfactory institutional shelter. As David wrote to me in 2015:

“I want to look for a future shape of the Church unbound from the arbitrary conventions and protocols of manufactured traditions, and converted back to the one deep and abiding tradition of God’s self-expression in the multi-sensual forms of the world, and through the expression of human creative imagination lifted into the prophetic dimension.”

But to some extent, David and Susan found their true “church” in the community of singers who gather regularly to make a joyful noise with the expressive choral tradition of American shape note music. As a faithful supporter of singings in the San Francisco Bay Area, David was known not only for his strong voice, but also for his warm and welcoming encouragement to novice singers.  

Shape noters from all over have been posting fond remembrances. A Bay Area singer wrote: “David’s resounding voice was one of the first that truly stirred me at a local singing. I matched his tone next to me, in the lower tenor octave, and discovered the full sound in my own chest that you all have heard roaring from the alto bench in years since. He has driven me to countless Healdsburg singings, when I haven’t taken the weekend to cycle to them, and soothed me with such a gentle presence, calm with grounded wisdom.” 

In the following video, David and Susan lead a 2013 Palo Alto gathering in singing Rainbow: “Thy ways abound with blessings still, / Thy goodness crowns the years.” David’s radiant joy was a familiar sight at so many singings. He will be dearly missed.  

At last Sunday’s annual Seattle Sacred Harp Convention (on Zoom), 75 singers sang “Christian’s Farewell” for David. The final verse ends, “When I am done, I will go home / Where Jesus is smiling and bids me to come.” Dante’s Commedia reaches a similar conclusion, envisioning “the whole universe alight with a single smile” (Par. xxvii.4-5). To connect two such diverse sources to find a shared meaning is the kind of intertextual play that David’s brilliant mind was always quick to produce. But now he no longer needs to conceive the smile. He can enjoy it face to face. 

The ladder between earth and heaven (Daniel Cooney)

The shocking suddenness of David’s physical absence is hard to accept. I will be a long time sounding his name into the silence. But a Mary Oliver poem he sent me years ago brings comfort: 

When death
carts me off to the bottomlands,
when I begin
the long work of rising—

Death, whoever and whatever you are, tallest king of
tall kings, grant me these wishes: unstring my bones;
let me be not one thing but all things, and wondrously
scattered; shake me free from my name. Let the wind, and
the wildflowers, and the catbird never know it. Let
time loosen me like the bead of a flower from its wrappings
of leaves. Let me begin the changes

Slowly
up the hill,
like a thicket of white flowers
forever
is coming.

This video, perhaps the last recording David made, was shot at sunset on January 18, 2021.

“Be known to us in the music we make”

Ted Mercer leads a song at the California Sacred Harp Convention.

I am the chaplain this weekend for the 30th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention, where over a hundred singers have gathered from a dozen states (along with a few enthusiasts from Europe) to sing about 190 shape note songs over the course of two days. It’s an intense immersion in a uniquely American repertoire––loud, raw, and deeply expressive. You can read about it in my post, A Musical Tsunami.

While the song texts mostly reflect images and themes from 18th and 19th century Christianity, a shape note gathering is not a community of religious consensus. Non-Christian people of faith and no faith are in the mix, and there is no discussion of verbal meanings. It’s all about the singing. And yet, there is a sense of “church” about these gatherings. We tap into a power beyond the self, form bonds of communion with one another, and are transported by a shared experience that can verge on the ecstatic.

By long tradition, each day of a singing convention opens and closes with prayer, composed or selected at the discretion of the chaplain. The following prayers are mostly my own. While seeking to honor and express the sacred dimension of a shape note singing, I tried to be inclusive, avoiding explicit sectarian language. But you may notice some Anglican phrasing––and theology––seeping through.

Saturday (Jan. 20)

Opening prayer

O divine Beloved, Maker of all things and Lover of souls, we are gathered here by your grace to sing the life that conquers death, the joy that dries all tears, the peace that passes understanding, the love that resists every evil.

Be known to us in the music we make and the songs we share.
To spend one day with Thee on earth exceeds a thousand days of mirth.

We are truly thankful for the generations of composers and singers who have entrusted us with the Sacred Harp, and we pray that our singing in this place will gladden the whole company of heaven with an awesome and holy sound.

Draw us together with the cords of friendship.
Let no one be a stranger here.
Lift up our hearts and make us one.

Now sanctify this hollow and hallowed square, that it may be for us not just a refuge from the storms of the world, but a tangible experience of our truest humanity, reflecting your glory in the harmonious beauty of our shared communion.

We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.

 

Grace for the mid-day meal

Blessed are you, O God, giver of breath and bread,
from whom all blessings flow.
We give you thanks for the abundance of this hour,
for the food and drink prepared from your bounty by human labor
and spread before us by generous hands.
Give us such an awareness of the sacredness of every feast,
that the sharing of this meal may manifest the connections between us,
and deepen our gratitude for life.
Blessed be your Name forever. Amen.

 

Closing prayer (by Brian Wren*)

May the Sending One sing in us,
may the Seeking One walk with us,
may the Greeting One stand by us,
in our gladness and in our grieving.

May the Gifted One relieve us,
may the Given One retrieve us,
may the Giving One receive us,
in our falling and our restoring.

May the Binding One unite us,
may the One Beloved invite us,
may the Loving One delight us,
in bliss both human and divine.

Now let us go forth in peace,
rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

* Brian Wren is an Anglican hymn writer in the UK.
The “in bliss” line is my own, while the final lines are
a eucharistic dismissal from the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Sunday (Jan. 21)

Opening prayer

Grace of melody be upon us
Grace of harmony be upon us
Grace of shapes be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of lyric be upon us
Grace of meter be upon us
Grace of fugues be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of praise be upon us
Grace of union be upon us
Grace of joy be upon us
This day and evermore. Amen.

 

Grace at the mid-day meal*

Holy God, giver of breath and bread,
it is with gratitude and joy that we receive the gift of this meal.
Into ourselves we take these changing forms of matter and light
through which we shall be changed:
other bodies becoming our bodies,
other lives becoming our life.

That there is but one body,
one life shared by all,
we vow to remember.

Now bless this food to our use, and us to your service,
and make us ever mindful of the needs and rights of others.
Let all the people say: Amen.

* Adapted from various sources. The first line is from Gerard Manley Hopkins, the last lines are at traditional grace, and the middle part I learned from a priest at a campfire on a kayaking retreat for clergy. I don’t know the source.

 

Closing prayer

Holy and gracious God, you are a mystery beyond all telling,
yet have we not heard your voice sounding in our midst this day?
You are beyond all seeing,
yet did we not glimpse your glory in the faces of one another?
You are beyond all knowing,
yet has not each of us heard a word spoken today––
a word of love or consolation,
a word of encouragement or mercy?

It has been such a blessing to join our voices with one another,
in union with the countless singers who have gone before us.
Our hearts are full, and we are deeply grateful.
Now send us forth in peace, guide us safely home,
and help us to carry the grace of these precious hours
into the rest of our lives,
that the world may resound
with the melody of compassion
and the harmony of justice,
and your blessing be known
through every land by every tongue.

Glory to you for ever and ever. Amen.

Related post: A Musical Tsunami