Note by note, George Winston kept “holy” and “holiday” together
George Winston slipped away in early June. I didn’t discover he was gone until late summer; we had been away that week and the news hadn’t reached us. “December will sound very different this Christmas,” I wrote to our kids. And indeed it has.
In an age of synthetic sound, Winston played solo piano. In an era defined by musical celebrity, Winston honored the tradition of the troubadour. During his lifetime (he died at age seventy-four) he was among the two or three most listened to solo instrumentalists in the country.
Winston was most widely known for a style he termed “rural folk piano,” and the titles of his albums capture his sensibility and stance. There are the seasonal titles—Summer; Autumn; Winter into Spring—and the place titles—Montana: A Love Story; Plains; Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions. Other albums simply lure us out of doors: Forest; Restless Wind; Night. It was as if the whole crush of momentum that has, over these decades, thrust us indoors and in front of screens had found its counterpoint in the music of one unassuming man—a student of the music of others, a pianist who performed in jeans and stocking feet, a voice who bore witness to other voices, other longings and hopes.
We saw him once, in December of 1994. My wife, pregnant with our first child, was working as a temp at a short-term rehab center in York, Pennsylvania, where we had recently moved. Winston was in town for a weekend of concerts, and though we couldn’t afford tickets, we ended up with free seats—not at the Capitol Theatre, where he was performing, but in the rehab center, the afternoon before a show. In a large all-purpose room he played for the patients, and we sat off to the side, peering around wheelchairs, ears cocked, listening to him, to our surprise, on the slack-key guitar. We were on our way that evening to a holiday gathering, and Winston’s generosity recentered a season nearly defined, in our day, by the absence of proportion, gravity, shape.
Winston would win a Grammy for the album he had released that fall, Forest. But it was 1982’s December, with three million sales and counting, that had made him a name. In the fall of 1989 I was a year out of college and living with a friend named Rob in a creaky old log cabin just off the square of East Petersburg, Pennsylvania. Rob had a large record collection, with which we decorated what we called “the blue room,” album covers lining the walls. In that room Rob’s sound system and our guitars and amps held sway. We rocked to the rhythms of U2, the 77s, and other “alternative” bands.
But Winston was the real alternative. I discovered December in Rob’s collection and would, on quiet nights, set it on the turntable. The opening song was a prelude to the seasonal fare that followed, in which Winston interpreted the interplay between earth and culture, between time, people, and place. Called simply “Thanksgiving,” that song, with its spare, rising melody, brought me, a seasoned ingrate already, to a new place of thankfulness. The music that followed “Thanksgiving”—“Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head”; “Joy” (his buoyant rendering of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”); an urgent “Carol of the Bells”; “The Holly and the Ivy”—recast not only the landscape of Christmas for me but the landscape itself.
At some point in those years I took a summer ministry team of high schoolers to Philadelphia. We were in Kensington, a neighborhood in rapid post-industrial decline; on the previous year’s trip some kids from our church had come across a dead body. We were offering a vacation Bible school in collaboration with a local ministry and staying in its row-house headquarters. One night, when the neighborhood kids had gone, I was stunned to hear one of our leaders playing “Thanksgiving” on an old upright piano. I hadn’t known she played. She didn’t play as a wannabe virtuoso. She played as the true amateur, drawn by the love of a sound she was compelled to chase, note by note.
What did she—what did we—hear in George Winston? What balm for our generation’s needs and yearnings was he offering?
I believe it was reverence.
I don’t think we knew we needed reverence. But when we heard it, wherever we heard it—in, say, Bono’s famous confession, “I have run through the fields / only to be with you”—something made us stand alert and just as quickly melt, slain at the intersection of the beautiful and the holy, suddenly sensing just how absent these were in our lives and our world.
For all his reverence, Winston himself confessed a decided secularity. “The traditional pieces were chosen for their appropriateness as instrumental music for this album,” December’s liner notes read. “They are not meant to convey any personal religious beliefs.” When asked whether his music was ever “mislabeled,” he replied that the only generic categories he assented to for his music were “rural folk” and “New Orleans R&B.” “Any other labels, including anything having to do with anything philosophical, or spiritual, or any beliefs, are also not accurate, as I have no interest in those subjects. I just play the songs the best I can, inspired by the seasons and the topographies and regions, and, occasionally, by sociological elements, and try to improve as a player over time.”
Perhaps, paradoxically, this stringently secular stance only sharpened his reverence. One cannot read his liner notes or interviews without sensing the presence of another true amateur, a devoted lover of his art and the traditions that formed it. “My temperament is much more that of an interpreter than a composer,” he remarked, and his albums are swirling mosaics of homage to a long, distinguished hall of musicians, composers, and artists. His two albums of the music of Vince Guaraldi, one of his earliest inspirations, convey a reverence that cannot but leave the listener aware of his own debts and loves. The closing song of Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi is beautifully characteristic: In the middle of Guaraldi’s “Theme to Grace” Winston places, as he puts it, “a tribute to Vince,” and, hearing it, the listener knows, once more, how precious this life is, how precious all lives are.
For all his seeming secularity, Winston knew that particular cultures, each with their distinctive religious charge, matter. He knew—he had to have known—that December could never have come into being without generations of credal affirmation, December in and December out, inspiring rhyme and melody and rhythm and taste: these colors, these choruses, these quiet moments of pause—the very pauses so elemental in December, and in all of Winston’s music.
The music biz gave (and still gives) Winston one of the labels he disregarded. His Grammy was for “New Age.” That category—in music and in the culture at large—was a typically brassy, wrongheaded way to capture one key dimension of an extraordinary moment, when Christendom was collapsing and spirituality was yet hovering in the air, unmoored, looking for new vessels, seeking places to land. If the New Age was in the main unimpressive, it at least gave some—perhaps many—space to try to get to the bottom of things: to remember that deep pools exist, that the spirit longs to fly. In the open space of our late American democracy, a troubadour could yet wander along, bearing witness: Do you sense the silence of this night? Do you hear what I hear?
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.
Photo credit: the author