John Whelan: The Age Of Wonder

“Just a closer walk with thee,

Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,

Daily walking close to thee.

Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.”


We live in the age of wonder with so many resources as close as our computer. In this case I am referring to all that is available to us on YouTube. A great number of my musical favorites have died and most of the rest are no longer able to perform at the level they once could. But the extensive library of film clips offered by YouTube makes it possible for us to view them at their best. Oh, I recognize it is not the same as a live concert, but it does give the viewer a sense of the unique talents of the singer.

One of my favorite YouTube clips is of the all-time great black gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1964. Ms. Jackson is accompanied only by a piano and an organ in the style of many gospel singers. She starts singing softly the well-known words of the hymn. She has a strong voice and incredible rhythm and, as in many black spirituals, the intensity builds up as the song goes on.

I find myself thinking about my visits to the New Orleans Jazz Festival and my hours spent in the Gospel Tent. For anyone who has never been to Jazzfest, the Gospel Tent is one of 10 musical venues spread around the Fairgrounds Racetrack. The Fairgrounds is massive and some of the venues are large outdoor sound stages and some are large tents. Two of the sound stages can accommodate crowds of 30,000 fans. Popular performers have, on occasion, attracted nearly 50,000 fans, but those in the further reaches have only a hint of just who is singing so far away. The tents are more intimate. The Gospel Tent probably seats about 3,000 people with others standing in the rear. The sound systems are terrific so hearing the music is never an issue. Every hour a different gospel singer or group brings their style of gospel to the stage. Over the years, I have discovered some favorites and I try to fit them into my daily schedule. Jazzfest is special since each of the 10 venues features six or seven performers every day. A real smorgasbord of many kinds of music, and you have to choose just who and what you want to hear. That means that close to 70 different musical performers do an hour and a half each day, and this goes on for seven days, spread over two weekends.

You may wonder just what all this has to do with Chatham. Well, a week or so ago there was a warm, breezy day about 70 degrees. I decided to visit one of my favorite places in Chatham, the beach shack south of Chatham Light. The shack is built of driftwood and other items found on the beach. The most prominent feature is a wooden two-seater outhouse believed to have drifted over from a now-lost camp on North Beach. Items are added and subtracted as time passes. The shack or “shrine” as some people refer to it, is very close to the water’s edge. I am always concerned about its survival when a storm is headed towards Chatham. The shack dates to 2015 and has survived hurricanes and nor’easters without much change to the basic structure.

The walk down took quite a long time since my dog, Monomoy, likes to sniff everything she finds on the beach. I sometimes have to explain that she is a “sniffer, not a walker.” I took my shoes off and walked barefooted in the warm sand. Upon reaching the water’s edge, I found a young man waist deep in the water throwing a ball for his golden retriever. They were having a wonderful time, and apparently either the ocean water has remained quite warm or the young man was oblivious to the cold. One or the other, because they played in the water for quite a long time.

A little further along I met a number of people returning from the shack. The footprints in the sand indicated that many people make the trek to the shack. I found everything in order, the one change being a plastic bottle of disinfectant, perhaps in homage to the pandemic. I usually linger a while, but Monomoy was anxious to discover new sniffs so we turned for home.

On the way back, I found myself singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” over and over. No idea why, except that the incredible natural beauty was overwhelming. The Chatham Lighthouse with bright red gale warning triangles flying against the bright blue sky was stunning. The beach grass shimmering in the stiff breeze and the warm sun in my face made it a special experience. I looked at the curving coast from the Lighthouse to Andrew Harding's Lane to Holway Street. Its survival is only a little less surprising than that of the beach shanty. I feel so privileged to live in Chatham with just so much natural beauty everywhere we look. When you have a little time, I encourage you to do two things: First, take a look at Mahalia Jackson and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and second, take a stroll down to the beach shack before winter comes. I believe you will enjoy both experiences.

One other thing I wanted to do this week was to draw reference to the wonderful cover on the Oct. 5 edition of the New Yorker magazine. The cover is black with a white neck collar like the one often worn by Ruth Bader Ginzburg. RBG died on Sept. 1 after a distinguished career on the Supreme Court. She stood just five foot, one inch, but had a giant impact at the court. Chatham’s Bob Staake drew that cover and, if one looks carefully, one will see that the design on the collar is a small depiction of the symbol for women. Bob is an artist and cartoonist and has done a number of New Yorker covers. The magazine is renowned for its covers and this one is among the best. I remember another Bob Staake cover after the fire that badly damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Bob painted the facade of Notre Dame with a bright red sky of fire behind it. It was a great cover and Bob captured the mood and the scene perfectly.

Congratulations, Bob.