Thankful for this one from Joseph McSpadden.

I have been rescued by music on more than one occasion. Several times the Comforter has used a song as a way to open me up, and bring healing. This is one story of how He showed up in melodies when I felt most abandoned.

My father was away at sea for much of the first five years of my life. A submariner, he served on a fast attack nuclear sub, the USS Skipjack, during the Cold War. We moved several times while he was in the Navy. My memories of him in those years are disjointed, like Polaroids in an old family album, lacking context.

When he left the Navy for a civilian job in 1963, he was home every night for dinner, which was strange. I had to learn to make conversation with him. He wasn’t really sure how to connect with my brother and I, and talks between us felt awkward at times.

For the first time I could remember, we stopped moving. We lived on Rockland Avenue for five years. And for the first time I had a best friend, Tommy Jackson. My extended family on both sides lived within minutes of our neighborhood. I had an ordered world, and I knew where I belonged in it.

At the end of my fifth grade year my father announced we were moving to New York State. I was devastated. No matter how much I protested, it was inevitable. We were there for one year and then moved again, this time to North Carolina.

For the second straight year I was the new kid in town, this time entering that special hell known as middle school. I was not prepared for the next two years of hazing, public humiliation, and loneliness. To make matters worse, my father was not the easiest man to talk to about things that really mattered. At times he could be a good listener, but other times he could be quite condescending. I felt early on that he wasn’t a safe place to land.

At that time he was deeply immersed in his new job. He tried to interest me in his hobbies, but never really seemed interested in mine. Thick novels and my growing love of music did not ping his radar. It was a time when I could have used some back up, some fatherly assurance of my value. As it was, I was left adrift to try and figure things out on my own. Sometimes, as Mississippi John Hurt used to sing, “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley all by yourself.” I spent seventh and eighth grade failing classes and fantasizing about ending my life. I was not yet a believer. It was grace alone that kept me from self-harm.

I wasn’t aware that I was absorbing music back then, but most of that influence came from my mother. I remember her singing “Ave Maria,” and “Moon River” in the kitchen. She loved Christmas carols, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and Nat King Cole. Easy listening stuff, nothing too dangerous.

One afternoon in 1971 I noticed a TV Guide listing for a program on PBS called The Midnight Special. Not the rock and roll show, this was a concert celebrating the railroad in the American songbook. I ran to my room and grabbed my Panasonic cassette recorder. I propped the mic in front of the television speaker, yanked a pillow off of the sofa, and flopped on the green and blue shag rug in front of the screen.

The show was a revelation. There, on a flatbed rail car on the Cass Mountain rail line in West Virginia, was a collection of fine musicians; Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Mike Seeger, Billy Edd Wheeler, and a left-leaning folkie named Oscar Brand. Also on the bill was an African American singer named Leon. Unfortunately I could not remember Leon’s last name. He sang only one song, but years later his performance was the only one I could recall.

Leon sang the old folk song “500 Miles.” It had been a hit record for Peter, Paul, and Mary. But Leon’s take was different. He didn’t sing it like a youth group campfire song. There was something in the restraint of his vocals that amplified the pain of separation and the longing for a place where he was known and valued. With Leon there were none of the vocal tricks of the current American Idol crowd. He sang the song straight, with a melancholy delivery that gave dignity to the pain. When I heard him sing I knew I was not alone. If others had made this journey, I could make it through. I hung onto the song for dear life.

I played that tape until it wore out. I never forgot the performance, or what it meant to me. If only I could have remembered Leon’s last name. When the Internet came along in the 90s I used it to search for music on CDNow, the precursor to Amazon. But back then there were no advanced algorithms to help me out. After a while I gave up trying to find Leon, but I never forgot him.

In 2008 I found myself in need of emotional rescue once again. The housing market crash destroyed my paint contracting business. Its meteoric rise was matched by an equally stunning descent. I lost the business, two vehicles, and a beautiful farmhouse on three acres, in a process that would play out over the next three years. I tried my hand at substitute teaching and various other jobs, attempting to hold on. My wife still had her well-paying job for the moment but that would disappear the following year. All this hit at a time when my marriage was in a rocky place. I had a lot of growing up to do, and quick.

One day I turned to the Internet for some music to help take my mind off of the wreckage around me. I had been hearing about a blues singer named Eric Bibb and decided to check him out. I clicked on a YouTube link of Eric performing “I Heard the Angels Singing,” written by the Rev. Gary Davis.

I felt like I had jacked straight into the power grid. The performance was ecstatic, the joy so overwhelming that my heart was resurrected. I had been thrown a lifeline. I began to hope that we would make it through this crisis. 

One evening, while sitting in my office, I listened to the song as it faded out. In the silence, a still, small voice dropped a thought into my heart. Leon. What if Leon, the man I had heard at 14, was Eric Bibb’s father? A quick web search confirmed it. I had rediscovered the father through his son.

In 2014 I began my foray into music writing, and this story connected me to Eric Bibb. Since then I have written about his career and interviewed him several times, most recently for The Village Night Owl podcast. Looking back, I saw a tapestry of grace.

I saw a thread, one that stretched nearly 40 years and 500 miles, connecting two heartbreaking moments in my life when I needed affirmation. It was my Comforter, revealing that He had been there all along. Although the valley was long and dark, I had not walked it alone.

It was a simple act of love from a Father to a son. Often we think that when God does something for us, it is meant to signal some sort of mission. Some work we need to do. Start a ministry, plant a church, or at the very least build a Bible college. But this was a tender, personal gift. He carried me when I could not see the path in the darkness. He spoke to me in song, a language I knew. It was my Father demonstrating His love to me, in a way that was intimate, that imparted the value he placed on me, and on our relationship. All I could do in that moment was receive it.