Monday, May 14, 2018

The Joys of A Greene Countrie Towne

When I stand on a corner in my neighborhood and look in any direction down almost any street I am met with the most wonderful explosions of color and shapes. It is almost May now, and Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and Mt Airy are bursting with trees, bushes and gardens showing off all their shades and shapes to the passers-by. I am in no way an arborist; I do not know the names of that many trees. But I am familiar with the ones that have taken root in the northwest section of the city and bring so much delight and joy to me each spring. Pink magnolias, white magnolias, dogwoods, ornamental cherries, Japanese and lacy leaf maples, weeping cherries, redbuds-the northwest is awash in these trees, and I love them. They are the final, visual proof that spring has really arrived and that our days will be long and pleasant ones. And as I move through these areas on my daily jaunts, I also see tons of people outside on hands and knees digging in the dirt-gardening. Planting pansies, daffodils, tulips and more, they help the lawns and streets come alive with more color and scents. Especially on sunny days these trees and gardens bring a smile to my soul, enliven my walking, and put me in a totally different place. It is spring in Philadelphia, and that is always a wonderful thing.
One of the many things I love about living in the city of Philadelphia is that many neighborhoods still hold to founder William Penn’s idea of a “greene countrie towne.” There are trees, gardens and green spaces in just about every neighborhood. Even the downtown still holds to Penn’s idea with four of his five original plazas. Rittenhouse, Franklin, Washington and Logan Squares still exist as green spaces. As the city expanded in all direction from between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, it has, for the most part, kept to Penn’s idea. We have an extraordinary amount of green space and trees even in some densely populated areas. Spring and fall really bring those things to the fore, and there is a profusion of shapes, smells and bright colors to be seen and experienced. Philly is a wonderfully walkable city, and just about anywhere one walks in the city one can easily see all the different trees, plants, and gardens. This makes the city attractive and manageable; it seems “human.” And if I am open and aware of these things, they can rescue me from getting too caught up in “life” and missing the quiet power of a tree lined street or a park or a garden. They can get me out of myself and connect me to larger, important things.
Philadelphians have always loved gardens and there are tons of lovely gardens all over the city. Many of them are public gardens; the Philly area, in fact, has the highest concentration of public gardens in the United States. Some of them were private spaces that were open to the paying public for festive occasions and entertainment. In fact the idea of “outdoor concerts” in Philadelphia seems to go back to colonial times with the “Cherry Garden” and “Spring Garden” sites in what is now Center City. As the years have gone by many wealthy garden owners have also opened their private estate gardens to the public and/or donated them to the city. Philadelphians seem to have always associated gardens with fun and good times, and we have many public gardens for people to enjoy.
Philadelphia is also widely known as a city of neighborhood gardens, and weather such as we have had recently has been getting entire communities out and into the dirt. This brings neighborhoods together, and it also beautifies them. These gardens also do an important job in providing fresh and nutritious food in urban food deserts. Community gardens in sections of North Philly and Southwest Philly have been doing that for years, but there is some concern about the future of these gardens. The rapid growth of the city and the press for development seems to be threatening the existence of some of them. Fortunately, there are some forces working on behalf of the gardeners and the gardens. I am hopeful that they can be maintained and continue to play the important roles they are playing in their communities. They are an important part of the “Philadelphia story” and we need them. (
This week will bring more great May weather, and I hope you can all make some time to get out to walk, stroll, plant, or just look and admire. We are very fortunate to be in or around this greene countrie towne” and I hope you can take advantage of it. It is one of the quiet joys of being a resident of this city.
(If you are interested in Philadelphia gardens, the role of gardens in communities, or anything else about the social history of Philadelphia I recommend the website, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. It is a wonderful site about all the things that make Philadelphia Philadelphia, written by folks who know about and care about the city: )
Some Special Gigs featuring John
Friday, June 1 Johnny Never & John Colgan-Davis at Jamey’s House of Music, 32 S. Landsdowne Ave; Landsdowne, PA; 8-10:30PM $15 advance; $18 door;
I started playing harp in coffee houses with folk musicians back in the 1960s, and while I normally play in band settings now, I still love playing good old country blues with a great guitarist. Johnny Never is such a guitarist, a master of Delta and other early blues styles. Great slide and finger picking work, a wonderful voice and a great repertoire make playing with Johnny fun and exciting for me. Jamey’s is a wonderfully intimate club which seats 60, has a great sound system and is the perfect place for this gig. Come out and hear some Son House, Robert Johnson and more as done by Johnny Never and John Colgan-Davis
Saturday, June 16; The Blues Social Club at Jocelyn’s for the Media Blues Stroll;109 W. State Street; Media, PA.
Bert Harris, bass player with Philly Gumbo and one of the best bassists in the area, put together a group last year with the great Delaware guitarist Roger Girke, myself, and a couple of other folks to play a concert for the Rose Tree Park Summer Concert Series. It was so much fun we decided to do it again as part of the Media Blues Stroll. The Blues Social Club is the band and we do a variety of genres from Chicago Blues to New Orleans to soul to rockabilly. We have a great and fun time and you can too. Come catch us that Saturday evening at Joclyn’s

Mother's Day


   Sunday was Mother’s Day, one of the most widely observed and celebrated holidays in our culture. People of all ethnic groups, colors, and even religious denominations observe it; among Christians it is the day with the 3rd highest church attendance after only Christmas and Easter. As a major holiday it is all over our popular culture. TV shows have plots that revolve around it. There are songs about both the day and the person known as “Mother” in just about every genre, and radio stations play many of them in the week leading up to the holiday.  Comedians tell endless “mom” jokes. Even politicians refer to it in political ads, thanking their own moms and trying to appeal to the moms of voters. And as it is a major holiday, it is very commercialized and has a huge economic impact. It is one of the biggest days in any given year for the sales of flowers, candy, and greeting cards. More long distance calls are made on Mother’s Day than on any other day. Restaurants make a lot of money on the day, especially on breakfasts and brunches. It is truly a big deal in our culture. But where did this day come from? How did it come to be? Why does it exist?

    The idea of honoring “mothers” is not just an American idea, and it is not really recent. Ancient peoples in many parts of the world had a variety of observances that paid tribute to the idea of fertility, birth, and mothering. The ancient Greeks and Romans had festivals that celebrated Mother Goddesses such as Rhea and Cybele, who gave birth to various gods and represented the power of divine fertility. These were important, powerful ideas, and the celebrations of these holidays lasted for days in the ancient world.

    Roman, Greek and many other polytheistic religions were eventually eclipsed by monotheistic ones. But many of these important ideas found ways of being expressed in monotheistic beliefs. While there is no “Mother’s Day” in Islam, children are regularly instructed to pay honor to their mothers. Some Jews honor Rachel, Jacob’s most beloved wife, on the eleventh day of Cheshvan as the symbolic “mother” of the Israeli household and nation. Some early Christians took to celebrating the Virgin Mary during Lent as a way of honoring a divine mother-the mother of Jesus. The idea of “birth” and “mother,” then, are important human concerns. These need to be accounted for and recognized in every religion.   

    In 16th century England that recognition turned into something called, “Mothering Sunday.” Initially a day to honor the Mother Church and the Virgin Mary, it eventually came to include children being told to pick wild flowers to give to and pay tribute to their own earthly mothers. This represented an expansion of focus; not only divine mothers were looked at with honor. Earthly mothers came to be seen as representatives of the divine order, and they could be acknowledged also.  The American idea of Mother’s Day draws most directly from this.

     Two women, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, are considered the "mothers" of our present celebration of Mother’s Day. Howe, an activist on many social issues and the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wanted a day for women to be listened to as a way to establish peace. Women gave birth to all the men who died in wars on either side, she argued, so they had a special need to both be active and be listened to as a way of ending war. In her famous “Mother’s Day Proclamation” (1870) she argued for and later established a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated each year. The idea caught on and was observed in several parts of the United States. But it did not grow to be a national holiday. Perhaps it was too political.

   Anna Jarvis, born in West Virginia, had a beloved mother who was deeply religious and involved in social issues via her church. Ann Reeves Jarvis had worked as a nurse during the Civil War, and like Howe, she believed in peace. She once spoke about wishing for a day when the work and contributions of mothers to humanity would be recognized and celebrated. Anna remembered this, and it inspired her. In 1908, 3 years after her mother’s death, she sponsored a memorial service in the town of Grafton, West Virginia for her mom and all the moms who attended the service. She also provided white carnations, now the symbol of Mother’s Day, for all the mothers who attended the service. Her mother’s words had become a mission for Anna; mothers needed to be recognized. After the memorial service she began to organize nationally. She called on people to write legislators and influential people to encourage them to lobby for a day to honor all mothers. And somehow, state by state, it began to happen. By 1911 most states in the country had some type of yearly holiday recognizing mothers. She and her supporters then turned their attention to the national stage. Again, it worked. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day throughout the nation. Anne Reeve Jarvis’ wish had become reality.

    Mother’s Day is a major part of US culture now, and it is firmly established. Ironically, Jarvis came to dislike Mother’s Day, or more specifically, the way it came to be celebrated. The commercialization of the day, first by the greeting card industry and then florists and candy manufacturers, angered her. She spoke out against this regularly, and even considered trying to rescind the holiday.  A further irony was that as she aged, Jarvis needed hospital care. It was people connected to the greeting card and florist industries who paid for her hospital stays in West Chester, PA. She died in 1948 and is buried locally in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

   Regardless of what one thinks about how the day is observed these days, Mother’s Day has become an important day in our culture and in the lives of many people. And it resonate with the same reasons the ancients celebrated all those centuries ago. We all begin with a birth; that is how we start. Yes, sperm and egg need to unite to bring that birth about. And there are many ways the uniting of those two can happen. But when you come down to it, we are all ultimately the result of a mother carrying and delivering us. It has been that way for centuries and centuries. While we may understand a lot about the mechanics of how it happens, it is nonetheless wondrous. It is both ordinary and worthy of being honored. I hope Mother’s Day, however you observed it, was good for you. And thanks to all of you who are mothers.