Taylor: Epitaph for a song writer

The world’s Joy Quotient declined a little on Sunday March 6, when Ian Macdonald died.

Ian was one of those rare people who never let his inner child get buried under the overburden of grown-up concerns. He took an almost wicked delight in wit. The prospect of trying something new and different—whether a children’s tale for adults, or Bible study through improv drama—brought out a crooked grin, a glint in his eye.

I’m told that I described him once as “insane—in the best possible way.”

Around 1980, Ian and his colleague Jim Urich were the ministry team at Augustine United Church in Winnipeg. To relax, they strummed their guitars together. A neighbouring Anglican priest, Gordon Light, dropped in. Gordon also played guitar—and had a guitar case full of songs that he had written but had never had the nerve to share with anyone.

Out of that meeting—with the later addition of a third United Church minister, Bob Wallace—came the vocal group known as the Common Cup Company.

For 35 years, the Common Cup produced albums and CDs of contemporary church music. It wasn’t traditional hymns, though at least a dozen of their songs have been included in denominational hymnaries. It wasn’t folk music, although it was certainly influenced by the passion for justice of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. It wasn’t the “praise choruses” popular among evangelical churches, but it was clearly religious.

Ian and Gordon did most of the writing. In a surprising reversal, Gordon, coming from a liturgical church, wrote mostly about life experiences; Ian, from the liberal United Church, tended to focus on the significance of traditional sacraments.

One of my favourites is Ian’s celebration of marriage vows:

“Love is gentle, love is kind,

Most surprising thing to find,

Healing and revealing every gift of heart and mind.

And love keeps no score of wrongs,

But keeps singing out new songs…”

But it was rare for Ian to stay serious for long. After the Mulroney conservatives were almost eliminated in 1993, Ian penned a short-lived song suggesting that the only thing rarer than a Rocky Mountain lobster (think about it!) was a Conservative politician.

When fellow Winnipegger Fred McNally staffed the United Church’s national worship desk in Toronto, Ian and friends dropped in. Feeling that Fred’s cramped cubicle didn’t match his responsibilities, they moved the office walls while Fred’s neighbours were at lunch.

As a child at heart, Ian loved parables. He sang of dolphins and eagles, of ponies and bones and rivers. And of dragonflies. One song told of bugs in a pond, climbing reeds to the surface and turning into shimmering dragonflies. But of course, they couldn’t go back to tell of their transformation.

“We sang him to sleep,” said Ian’s son Rory. The last song Ian heard would have been his Celtic Prayer, with its haunting refrain: “Bless Thou to me my life…”

But when I heard that Ian had died, I thought first of the song he wrote for Ralph Donnelly, a beloved mentor in Winnipeg. It begins, “Come away, my own dear ones, so softly I’m fading…”

Ian too faded away, as progressive dementia sapped his spirit and eventually his life. So for me, the song written for someone else becomes the epitaph for the song writer.

Fly free, dear dragonfly.

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