“Watch the ergonomics” might be the best way to summarize the messages in the music of Peter Mayer. It’s a practical message about avoiding the hand troubles he’s experienced, and it’s the spiritual message that comes through his music.
Mayer is back recording and touring after having to take a year off due to arthritis in the base of his left thumb and tendonitis running up the inside of his wrist and arm. When Mayer played in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, as part of the Wisconsin Singer/Songwriter Series, it was good to seem him back up there on stage, his passionate, percussive guitar style still intact.
In a phone interview, I asked him about his injury which he compensates for with a hand brace. Besides a brace, he also said he spends more time on stretching before playing, massaging his hands, and really watching the ergonomics. For years, it sounds like he developed a habit of playing at odd angles, just not being good to his hands or hands. He is trying to be more aware of this, and that’s his advice to young players as well: watch the ergonomics. Find a way to play that lets your body be more relaxed.
The second song of the set was “Christmas Morning” from the new Midwinter CD. Mayer had asked us to allow him the indulgence of playing one Christmas song—in February, and I was glad for him to do so, because the song showed that his guitar work was back at hand. Songs like “Rosa Parks” and “Astronaut Dreams” include Mayer’s guitar body percussion, and despite the hand brace, Mayer still plucks out the tune on the fret board while his right hand treats the guitar like a bongo.
So that’s the practical ergonomics in Mayer’s music, but spiritually, Mayer has always been about encouraging his listeners to watch the ergonomics as well.
After going to seminary and working in the Catholic Church as a music director, Mayer said he found himself evolving away from the Church. Eventually leaving his job to pursue a full-time music career, Mayer also came to find a spiritual home in the Unitarian Universalist church. (In fact, his song “Blue Boat Home” is included in Singing the Journey, the UU hymnal supplement, and his church’s choir joins him on a song on the Midwinter CD).
Mayer’s songs reveal him to be a student of the world, learning from the things around him, and this has meant he needs an ergonomic faith which he describes as “a faith structure that’s adaptable to knowledge as we acquire it.”
This appears in songs like the new “God is a River,” focusing on the idea that God flows rather than just being a rock. It’s there in the other new song “Where is the Light?” A winter solstice song that has a Gospel song like call and response (which Mayer taught the crowd and led us in), it ultimately points to many places to find the light in the world.
That adaptability requires a Christian to come to Mayer’s music with a “posture of discovery” (David Bazan’s phrase). “My Soul” is a song which speaks in terms that are rejected by Christianity, such as the idea of a pre-life for our souls, and without a posture of discovery, I would simply reject this song without hearing anything in it. However, the folk music experience is based on finding common group—even among disparate beliefs—and so a posture of discovery challenges a Christian to hear “My Soul” and see in it Mayer’s experience, how his experience shapes his view of Christianity, and where there might be a meeting of ideas.
I asked Mayer if he would be offended if I offered a Christian interpretation of his song “The Birthday Party.” He replied, “As a songwriter I enjoy leaving room for people to find their own kind of faith reflected in my songs. I often do try to focus on what people have in common—religious beliefs, shared citizenry of the world. [I want my songs to] bridge those barriers, so [“The Birthday Party” doesn’t] favor one theology.”
And indeed, as I listened again to this wonderful song written for the year 2000, an image of the world’s deities coming together to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, there’s a very clear sense that Mayer means this to be a song of universalism. However, in it, I can also hear it being a reflection of Paul’s words in Philippians 2:10-11, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (ESV). While this isn’t Mayer’s intent, like many artists, he allows room for other interpretations of his songs.
And that’s the kind of ergonomics that I need in order to come to Mayer’s music and find it speaking to my sense of the truth of the world. It would be easy enough to reject Mayer wholly on the basis of our different faith systems, but what would be lost in the process would be the music of a very talented musician, lyrics of conscience and second-guessing to my own beliefs, and the common ground of hope to spur people on to higher levels of action and belief.
If you’re one of my Christian readers, then, watch your ergonomics and take a listen to Peter Mayer. As he continues to wield an acoustic guitar in such a way as to remind you that a string instrument really can be part of the percussion family, you’ll find yourself asking important questions about your faith, how your faith is going to lead you in this world, and how you hold onto Jesus the Rock letting Him be your light while also still taking in the information you’re receiving everyday about what’s happening around you.
Mayer’s Cedarburg set also included what he calls his “stupid songs,” the fun songs which loosen up the crowd, set the beat jumping, and actually, despite his name for them, are just as poignant. A new one called “My Happy Place” is made of a rockabilly bass-string plucking and a folk guitar solo, and is about retreating inside one’s own head as a form of escapism. The crowd sang along with “Driving with My Knee” making it feel like a camp song. Elsewhere, he also helps us to have compassion for the “Poor Little Fake Plant,” which really isn’t so different from the masks we wear.
As the evening came to a close after two sets, Mayer played a two-song encore of “Gitchi Gummi” and “Looking for the Dove,” which unfortunately sent us into the evening like a lullaby. Mayer’s music can become too tender as to take away some of the urgency. When he rocks and pounds that guitar, there’s something more pressing on us, and too many of the tender songs sound like the way some James Taylor ballads have gotten airbrushed by years on light radio.
One other observation is that in imagery in the songs “John’s Garden” and “The Houses of Winter” with their personifications of jack-o-lanterns and homes respectively would make great children’s picture books. Mayer said that he has been approached by an artist who would like to do just that with these songs, as well as others. Hopefully, there will be a publisher who will take a chance on such a project, so as to unleash these beautiful stories as story/songbooks to help teach the young about watching their ergonomics.
Thank you to the Peter Mayer and Joe with the Wisconsin Singer/Songwriter Series.
© 2006 Benjamin C. Squires
American Folk: Peter Mayer in Concert, February 24, 2006, Cedarburg, Wisconsin