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Keeper of the Songs

Jerry Alfred redefined ideas of my history and my memory.

Published on:
July 22, 2019
Read time:
5 min.
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I was driving around one evening about a year ago and decided to pause whatever I was listening to and turn on a local radio station. I turned the dial to 90.1 and was struck by what I heard. The song was a product of late 80s-early 90s production style, which I’m a sucker for—especially if a harmonica solo is involved. Loud and reverberating drums, soaring and melodramatic piano chords, whooshing external percussion. Basically just lots of reverb. The instrumentation and melody of the song gave me the same inevitably earnest feeling I get when I’m driving down the highway listening to Springsteen or Petty—a kind of nostalgic thrust into the future, something that propels me down the road with a quickened heart rate, but also slows my thoughts and carries them to scenes and images from the past. 

At least, that’s what I felt for about twenty seconds. But then the vocals came in. The man singing sounded aged, which I hadn’t expected. His voice was tattered and strained, charged with longing. There was some odd disconnect between what was coming from his mouth and the musical landscape surrounding him. Most importantly, he wasn’t singing in English or any language I could discern. 

Alfred’s reason for revitalizing these songs surpasses personal passion. At birth, he was given a title he inherited from his father: “Keeper of the Songs”.

Once I was home I found that days playlist on the radio station’s website. The song I had just heard was “Generation Hand Down” by Jerry Alfred. To my delight, I found this song and many others by Alfred on Spotify. I was so excited I found the song that I decided to jump back into my truck and listen to it again. What I didn’t hear on the radio version is the song’s introduction, where Alfred, speaking in English, explains the meaning of the song as if he were doing so in an interview:

“‘Generation Hand Down’ is about information that, for generations, has been passed down. It’s trying to tell the younger generation that these were values that your great forefathers had lived by. And that you should carry those out into the future.”

Alfred is a native Canadian from the Yukon Territory who won a Juno Award (“Best Aboriginal Recording”) in 1996 for the album I was  listening to, Etsi Shon (Grandfather Song). Like “Generation Hand Down,” every other song on the album begins with this sort of spoken word explanation. That album and others by Alfred are comprised of traditional Northern Tutchone songs that he has updated with westernized melodies and instrumentation. Alfred’s reason for revitalizing these songs surpasses personal passion. At birth, he was given a title he inherited from his father: “Keeper of the Songs”.

Alfred took his title seriously enough to make a career out of updating his people’s songs for future generations. “Generation Hand Down” exemplifies Alfred’s mission to keep the collective history and values of his people alive. He knows that history and memory are shared experiences that help secure a community’s future, and are thus worth protecting. “Generation Hand Down” has become one of my most cherished songs. Anytime I listen to it, though I can’t understand a word, I feel myself caught up in the importance and beauty of shared stories, thanks to this Keeper of the Songs.

The Essential Shared-ness of All Things

I tend to think about memory and history in terms of my history or my memory. I am an individual person with a body that has a history, a history that, thanks in part to a steady proliferation of gray hairs, becomes more apparent every day. 

It’s not hard for me to be hyper-focused on my own history and memory because it’s not hard for me to be hyper-focused on my own body and how it is interacting with the world around it. This kind of individualism is a key feature of modern life, and it’s not all bad. And yet, I can’t help but feel a little ashamed when I listen to “Generation Hand Down.” The song is a sort of indictment of, to quote David Foster Wallace “. . . my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” It recognizes the shared history and humanity of a community as something worth preserving, something of greater value than individual sentiment and agenda. For all the individual bodies that make up Alfred’s people group, and for all the individual value they possess, he knows that he is one part of a whole. He knows that he has a responsibility to keep the songs for everyone. 

When Jesus offers his body to his disciples, he offers it as a vehicle of memory: “My body, broken for you. Take this in remembrance of me.”

There are many metaphors for community and shared humanity. A favorite of mine is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community” and his line from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” about our being in an “. . . inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Another is Wendell Berry’s “The Membership,” his shorthand for not just the fictional town about which he so often wrote, but his real-life description of what it means to be part of a collective, a system of reciprocity and belonging, of giving and receiving, and an image of the essential shared-ness of all things.

The New Testament uses this metaphor of membership, too, but under the umbrella metaphor of a body. In Romans 12:4–5, Paul offers this meditation on the identity of the church: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” If you are a Christian, the phrase “body of Christ” is a familiar one. One that can go in one ear and out the other like John 3:16 or the Lord’s Prayer. But members of one another? It is an image I can’t shake these days. It has explanatory power about what it means to be a body that is part of a body that raises all sorts of questions about how I view my life and my history and the memories I accumulate. It makes all the clichés I’ve ever heard about community and belonging and “getting by with a little help from my friends” seem much more weighty. It tells me my history and memories are not entirely, or even essentially, my own.

Have you ever noticed how the New Testament ties “memory” and “body” together? It’s a biblical feature that has helped jostle me out of a singular fixation on my own body and the history it accrues. What beauty and freedom might lie beyond it? Consider the words of Jesus during the last supper. When he offers his body to his disciples, he offers it as a vehicle of memory: “My body, broken for you. Take this in remembrance of me.” Jesus knew that the human body is a repository of remembrance. I’d like to think he also knew of my temptation to think of memory and history on my own terms. I’d like to think this is part of the reason he united us as one body around the memory of his crucified body. Over and over again, we are called to see our individual embodied narratives as unfolding within the drama of a collective and living memory: the memory of a body delivered for another body, a story meant to be handed down from generation to another as we look to an imperishable future.

I found myself in front of the mirror the other day, at the mercy of my neurosis, taking stock of my gray hair situation. I decided to check my face for lines. I’m not sure why I did this. I don’t think I’d ever done it before. I guess the gray hairs compelled me to note the other ways my mortality is showing. 

I want to leave no doubt that I carried the weight of other’s laughter and tears, as I hope they will carry mine.

I discovered that my habit as a chronic and unnecessary squinter (even with glasses) is beginning to take its toll. Subtle lines stretch across my forehead and things are starting to look a bit more weathered below and beside my eyes. History is beginning to reveal itself in small ways. It made me wonder, should I be given many more years to live, what the lines on my face will look like in the end, what story they will tell, and what memories will be codified into small canyons. It compelled me pray in hope for the gift to die with a lot of them. I want it to be obvious that I was one among many, that I was a body with membership to another body. I want to leave no doubt that I carried the weight of other’s laughter and tears, as I hope they will carry mine. I want it to be known that I needed others to help me keep the songs.

Davis Finley
Davis Finley is a lifelong resident of Kansas City, Missouri, where he spends a lot of time taking photos, selling records, making music with friends, and thinking about writing more. He would like to cook you something in a cast iron skillet and talk about books. He earned an M.Div. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2017.

Cover image by Dmitry Bayer

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