By Sam Seligman
Years ago, I lived in New York City, where I'd share my songs on Monday evenings in Greenwich Village folk clubs.
Mondays were open mic nights, when amateurs signed up to perform. Nights in the summer were the busiest, when tourists and visitors from the suburbs ventured into the bohemian community to shop, eat, and visit the clubs.
One summer Monday, I had started a new job, selling ice cream cookie sandwiches on the streets, so I didn’t think I’d be able to get to the Folk City club in time for their 7 p.m. signups.
But two fellow church members, Suzanne and Diane, who also performed, volunteered to sign me up. When I returned to the Village from work, they told me they’d drawn a good number for me: I’d be singing between 8:30 and 9 p.m.
“We’ve been praying for you all day,” they added. “We asked the Lord to place angels beside each table (where the audience would be sitting).”
Before leaving Suzanne and her husband’s tiny flat on MacDougal Street, we joined in prayer, surrendering the evening to God.
Entering Folk City, I could feel it buzzing with energy. The three of us walked past the bar area, heading for the main room. We grabbed a table, sat down, and waited.
Musicians took the stage, performed, and departed. Heeding the numbers called, I prepared for my turn. Then, unexpectedly, the emcee introduced a “special guest” who emerged from the audience to a loud applause.
I’d never heard of the guy, but from the crowd’s reaction, I figured he was a local favorite or a celebrity.
After finishing his opening song, he shared a personal story. “I just hitch-hiked from San Francisco. Most of the cars that picked me up had their radios turned onto a Gospel station. They’re all talking about Jesus.
“I wish someone would write an anti-Jesus song,” he half-jested before stopping himself. But it was too late.
The audience jumped on his suggestion. Voices raised, they appeared to be pushing him to write one on the spot. The musician had committed himself, so he went ahead. Something must’ve taken over the guy; his impromptu lyrics were hitting on all cylinders. He was spewing out his share of derision, culminating with the words, “Stay on the cross, Jesus, we don’t need you.” The audience roared its approval.
I was incensed. “They think Christians walk around in white shoes, drinking milk," I thought. "I’ll give them something different.”
My mind flipped through a song list, thinking of lyrics about judgment.
Then, out of nowhere, I remembered the words I'd heard at a neighborhood park during a church picnic. The pastor had given a brief sermon, from which this question returned to me: “In everything you do, are you doing it to glorify the Lord, or glorify yourself?”
Clearly, an internal conversation was taking place.
“You know I want to glorify you,” I sighed in my thoughts. “What do you want me to sing?”
The impression of one song resonated. It was about the Holy City, described in the biblical book of Revelation. I didn't know the song's name, but I’d learned it at a church in Colorado on a hitch-hiking journey. I'd been singing it a lot of late, twice in three weeks at Folk City. I also thought of fresher material. Yet, I couldn’t shake that song about the Holy City.
“They don’t want to hear this,” I reasoned. “Besides, the ‘Holy City’ song is gentle. How could I follow this guy on stage with that?”
“It’s your choice. But you asked me what I think you should sing.”
Turning to Suzanne, I asked, “What do you think I oughta sing?”
“How about that song from Revelation?” was her immediate response.
Well, that settled it.
Moments later, the musician finished his song and left the stage to a drunken applause. Without missing a beat, the emcee introduced me. “And now, here’s someone from the other side: Sam.”
Talk about a set-up. But I’d made my decision, and I was focused. When I got behind the microphone, I sat on a stool, which I rarely did, as I preferred standing. I kept my guitar pick in my denim pockets, choosing to strum with my fingers instead.
I started my set with a short tune I’d never shared before.
“Well how are you today?
Have you got some things on your mind?
“Have you lost your way?
Is it hard to keep it inside?
“Well, you can have your friends
Give you all their advice.
“And they will tell you again
What is wrong, and what is right.
“But only you will know.
And then again, you may not.”
I stopped, placed my guitar on my lap, and looked out toward the audience. I couldn’t see their faces, but the club was full and I could sense they were listening. I didn’t have a speech planned. I simply spoke and the words flowed out.
“You know,” I began, “there’s a lot of musicians seated here. We’ve been given a gift, and we can use our music to heal or to hurt others. And many of us have the gift of words. We can use our words to lead people to the truth or (looking in the direction of the musician who’d left the room) lead others to ignorance.
“There’s a book I read, and I’m sure you know which one. I’m not here to preach. I just want to share a few words from that book.”
And then I began singing that tune I’d learned in Colorado: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God.”
I don’t know who composed the song, but I added my own ending to it, also based on the hopeful promises at the end of Revelation.
“He will wipe away every tear from your eyes
And there will be no crying and no pain
“Yes, He will wipe every tear from your sight
When you are made new again.
“And He who sits upon the throne says, 'Behold,
I make all things new'…”
As I was singing, I began looking down on a young man dressed in denim, wearing sandals, playing a guitar.
I was astonished: that was me!
For a moment, I saw my mouth open and close. Words must've tumbled out, though I didn’t hear them.
The song reaches these final words:
“He gives water without price
From the fountain of life
“When you conquer you shall have all these things.
“For you will be his child
As He is now my Lord:
Behold the King of kings.”
When the song ended, the place erupted with applause. I thought, “Their souls are responding. This has nothing to do with me.”
If there was any acknowledgment in my direction, it was simply to say "Thanks. We needed that."
Sam Seligman is a writer-folksinger. He is writing a memoir on his road experiences.