Culture > Music

What child is this, anyhow?

Music | Christian dulcimer artist makes "best-recordings-ever" list

Issue: "Lifelines: No little people," Dec. 14, 1996

In 1981, the hammered-dulcimer maker Jerry Read Smith recorded Strayaway Child, a sparkling collection of traditional Celtic melodies with "Over the Rainbow" and Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" included for good measure. Shortly afterward, the Black Mountain, N.C., craftsman sensed that his days as a low-profile builder of Appalachian instruments were--like his custom-made instruments themselves--numbered.

First, although Strayaway Child was not widely available, a copy found its way to Harry Pearson, the publisher of the audiophile journal The Absolute Sound. Charmed by the interplay of dulcimer, guitar, bouzouki, Irish flute, and fiddle that the album captured with ringing clarity, Mr. Pearson recommended it immediately. "He wrote a sterling review," Mr. Smith told WORLD. "And even though we'd simply recorded it on quarter-inch tape, analog, he put it on his best-recordings-ever list."

With such publicity, Mr. Smith came to realize that something besides audio excellence was drawing people to his music. "I'm not sure how it works or why it touches some people," he explained, "but there are people who have been deeply moved. I eventually realized that Strayaway Child was just the beginning of a story. I had no idea of what the outcome would be, but I awakened to it as I went along. In a nutshell, I look back upon that album now and see myself as the 'strayaway child.'"

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By the time he recorded the followup, Heartdance, in 1986, his straying had come to an end. "I realized not only that I'd been searching to find God and understand who he was but also that I would never find God on my own. When I realized that Jesus came to be the bridge for people like me who were trying to reach God, everything fell into perspective."

The power and beauty of Heartdance derive not only from Mr. Smith's conversion but also from the grief he experienced over the deaths of his best friend and his father ("I seriously considered changing the title to Heartbroken," he recalled). Instead of trying to imply spiritual intensity with the forced virtuosity and superficial flourishes common to, say, New Age music, Heartdance--like his other albums--grounds its evocation of spiritual and emotional depths in simply capturing the interaction of a small group of musicians intent on playing traditional melodies with accuracy and enthusiasm.

With the recording of Homecoming in 1992, Mr. Smith brought his trilogy full circle. Because Homecoming begins and ends with "What Child Is This?"--and also because it includes "St. Basil's Hymn" and "Christ Child Lullaby"--the album, and to some extent the trilogy as a whole, has come to be regarded as a Christmas collection. That explains in part why Brentwood Music, the Tennessee-based gospel label to which Mr. Smith has recently licensed the recordings, has chosen this time of year to reissue them.

"We play a lot of the songs at Christmas gatherings," Mr. Smith explained, "and they seem to work really well. And Homecoming has been sold as an album to help you focus on the significance of the season. But the reason 'What Child Is This?' is on there is that the whole trilogy represents a lifetime of experience and longing and discovery, and the discovery involves answering the question, 'What child is this anyhow?'"


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