Encores & Curtain Calls: A minstrel celebrates our beautiful world
“The world is a book, a continuing story
Of wise men and fools, of failure and glory
I shall write my lines as I live
My life is what I have to give”
— From “My Beautiful World,” a song by Mildred Kelly Fersh, mother of David Fersh
Should the proverbial “band of angels” come, chariot in tow, to take singer-songwriter David Fersh to his heavenly reward tonight, he should, by rights, leave this earth a man content. In his recent double-CD album, “Welcome to Western Massachusetts,” the Charlemont resident-bard has pulled off a major artistic feat, creating and recording lyrics and music for almost two dozen original songs, as well as looking through his ingenuous emotional lens to find two dozen-plus songs by others for a second CD titled “Under the Covers.”
With Fersh providing his own acoustic guitar, close at his side are a cluster of colleagues, friends and guest artists; foremost of whom is Gloria Miller on vocals, John Miller on bass and Sean Sibley on drums, plus occasional appearances by guests like guitarist Michael Nix, fiddler David Kaynor and harmonica player Gary Goleman. Whereas Miller comes across as a skilled professional, Fersh, even while well able to deliver a tune, clearly strikes one as a troubadour and an amateur in their best traditional senses: a traveling teller of stories in song and a true lover of things musical.
And he has possibly broken ground for a new genre, which, for want of a pre-existing pigeonhole, might best be described as “’New England Country-Folk” Fersh has not merely tossed off a CD full of standalone reflections in song, but painstakingly forged something approaching a personal spiritual diary in song.
He parts the curtains of his Theater of Self-Revelation by cobbling together a pastiche of classic Walt Whitman-like poetic proclamations into a single, seamless spoken introduction, informing us of just where his journey is soon to lead us:
“I hear America singing
The varied carols I hear
Poets to come
Singers, musicians to come
I celebrate my Self
I am satisfied
I sing, dance, laugh.”
With a humbler trajectory and less grandiose orbit than Whitman, Fersh launches out to share his celebration of “self” with “varied carols” of love of home, love of life, loves human and divine, love lost and hoped for and even love requited (phew!)
His first tune, “Welcome to Western Mass.,” chronicles his arrival in the region and is well seasoned with humorous irony throughout:
“Welcome to Western Massachusetts,
Where the wind howls and blows,
Where the road is probably closed,
You’ll love the snow and 30 below,
Where we go with the flow.”
There seems at times a certain dichotomy at work between the dynamic of the music and that of the lyrics: not infrequently, one finds that the music is intentionally or unintentionally of a much more ebullient spirit than the lyrics, so that, even though we may be hearing about the end of a relationship, we paradoxically find ourselves feeling just fine, wanting to smile and even to break into dance due to, say, some enthusiastic Latin rhythms at work below.
Happily, every syllable of these almost 50 songs comes through clear as a bell, a testament to Fersh’s wanting thoughts to be clearly heard and understood.
Fersh has a nice way with simply stated lyrics:
“People come and go
in and out our life
Some we know for years
Some for just one night
Love is just around the corner
Waiting underneath the Maple tree
When I’m with you
It’s easy to be me”
He can also convincingly deliver a low-down love — or perhaps, even lust — song:
Don’t need no whiskey,
Don’t need no beer,
’Long as I come home
And find her here,
“Don’t need no coffee
Don’t need no meat
’Long as she knocks me
Off my feet
“Don’t need no vacation
Sure don’t need no yacht
Don’t need no nothin’
But what she’s got,”
Now and then, an amusing narrative vignette like “Jitterbug,” creeps between the tracks:
(Played to hot jazz):
“The nervous musician
Moves up to the microphone stand
... Happy bugs fly around the floodlights
Some of them are swallowed up
By the singer’s ever-opened mouth ...”
(hot jazz fading out)
Particularly winning for me is Fersh’s soulful setting of his song “Something So Beautiful” against the irresistibly compelling Palchelbel’s famed Canon in D as arranged by Michael Nix, staggered with surprising but pleasing note collisions between guitars and keyboard:
“Palchelbel won’t mind if I take the time to
Sing with something so beautiful
Do I dare to sing with something so beautiful?
Is it fair to sing with something so beautiful?
Because I care to share in something so beautiful,
I say a prayer
And sing with something so beautiful ...”
Encoded in this co-opted classic is what very much feels to be a heartfelt homage to the glory of the great gems of the classical tradition. Fersh’s artistic humility lies in realizing that all he can do is to worship at its shrine and hitch his own musical star to that glory.
If only for the poignant gem of Fersh’s tender rendering of “My Beautiful World,” the resurrection of the only song known to be written by Fersh’s mother, Mildred Kelly Fersh, this double-CD album is well worth the price of admission. It is clear, at least in part, whence springs Fersh’s vulnerability to beauty.
And while there’s to much here to sift through all of “Welcome’s” delights, suffice it to say Fersh is no spring chicken and has a goodly amount of living under his hood. He brings a welcome familiarity not only with folk, rock and country, but also, apparently, with classical and show music, as well as the rich archive of the Great American Songbook, smatterings of which appear when least expected. Should you risk investing in the CDs, be sure to listen for them.
While we have never had an opportunity to meet — having spoken only by phone and through email — Fersh has been a consistent and kind source through the years, sharing his boyish enthusiasm, praise and encouragement throughout and sparing any censure, even at my sometimes tardy response. Gleaning both from and between his lines, one senses a soul smitten with the astonishment of being here, of being alive at all, and not about to let himself or the world overlook that miracle. He also seems a soul stricken, along the way, by all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that none of us escape for long. Yet, he is willing to embrace it all as part of the double-edged gift of life itself.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.