What Art Is For


About three years ago Ray found a bump on his leg. About three months ago he died. It was soft tissue sarcoma.

Ray was a formulating chemist by profession, but his passion was music. He played many instruments, most of them uncommon in this country, and wrote his own music. Every year for many years he'd throw a big outdoor party and invite all his friends, many of whom were also musicians -- some professional, some not -- and of course they set up a kind of stage and people got up and played music all day. He called it Summerjam.

Ray was Joe's best friend. Joe was with Ray in those last days when he was so weak the only movement he could manage was to wiggle his eyebrows. Joe is a computer programmer but, like Ray, his passion is also music. Joe is a fantastic singer and plays drums, along with the violin and who knows how many other things.

I know Joe from college. I consider him a very good friend, although honestly we don't see each other much. We mostly keep in touch over e-mail. Back when Ray and Joe were in various bands I used to drive down to see them in whatever dive bar they were playing that month. One time I even designed a poster for their gig. When they got together with a violinist, Helene, and produced a CD -- this was before anyone had heard of MP3s -- I proudly added it to my collection. Later, when I joined the MP3 world, I ripped my favorite track, on which Ray played the African mbira, and put it into regular rotation. So although Ray was never a close friend of mine, he was always nearby.

Joe decided to put together a memorial Summerjam. I hadn't been to one of Ray's parties in over a decade because I'm not a party person and I never much enjoyed standing around in the summer heat being eaten by mosquitos and drinking beer, even if Ray's home brew -- another one of his passions -- was very good. But Joe was working so hard, and I wanted to be part of something for Ray, so I volunteered to man the grill and cook for everyone so at least Joe would have one thing he didn't have to worry about.

So it was I spent last Saturday at Summerjam, our own sort of mini-Woodstock -- amusingly on the 40th anniversary of that legendary jam -- cooking hamburgers and hot dogs and chicken for the seventy-five or so people who gathered at this former farm to celebrate Ray's life and music. A stage was set up on the 18th-century farmhouse porch and various people got up and played as the day went on.

Late in the afternoon I sat on the lawn listening to one of the main bands Joe's belonged to, a folk band called Broadside Electric. I sat there listening to this band, on a 150-year-old stone porch, playing music about as old, folk songs mostly about how hard life is, folk songs created as a way of being the one bright, happy moment in hard lives, and I think I felt, finally, what art is for. Because as easy as life has gotten for us here at the height of Western Civilization, there are still a lot of hard patches, a lot of difficult things to get through. It was hard for Ray, these past few years, and it's hard for those who miss him, and coming together to sing songs and play music is one good thing.

So maybe that's it, maybe that's what art is for: It's the one bright spot, the one happy, fine moment. The one good thing.


well said, Chris Rywalt. ..and a great tribute to your friend.

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