Writing an objective review of Dan Berggren’s new CD — “Tongues in Trees” — is impossible for me. I’m too close to the situation.
You see, Dan was my radio professor at SUNY Fredonia from 1988 to 1991. Being Adirondack Mountain men, so to speak — Dan’s from Minerva and I’m from Tupper Lake — we hit it off. He lent me a banjo for a year and taught me how to play. I delivered his mail while working for the Fredonia Post Office; yes, he and his Newton Street Irregulars did actually live on the odd side of the street. And his music — particularly the song “Mountain Air” — made me homesick and taught me to appreciate my hometown more than I had when I left for college. He inspired me to move back to the Adirondacks.
Since graduation, Dan and I have kept in touch, especially now that he’s retired and lives in Ballston Spa. We’ve worked professionally, even performing together at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts for an Adirondack Museum program; he played music and I read stories from my “Adirondack Attic” book series. Dan’s instrumental “Clearing Out the Monkey Thoughts” from his “North River, North Woods” album is the theme song for my “Adirondack Attic” show on North Country Public Radio.
So I’m too close to the situation to be objective about “Tongues in Trees,” especially since he mentioned me by name in his liner notes on the CD’s packaging. He wrote the third track on the CD — “The Attic” — for our LPCA performance and debuted it there in Lake Placid in 2008. Then it was titled, “Adirondack Attic.” By taking out the word “Adirondack,” he made it more universal, and it certainly works. No surprise, it’s my favorite song out of the 14 on the CD. You can hear Dan’s original version on his website as Bits & Pieces 01.
My second favorite track on the CD is “Birch Are Soprano.” It takes me back to the time I worked for the Adirondack Park Agency Visitor Interpretive Centers at Paul Smiths and Newcomb. I was the PR guy. It was the best place to work, surrounded by woods and water, with live animals, not the ones you see locked up in zoos or stuffed in natural history museums. While in Paul Smiths, I could literally see those “Geese Over St. Regis,” an instrumental from Dan’s 1989 “Mountain Air” CD. So this poem, “Birch Are Soprano,” set to a waltz, took me back to the forest, a place I find peace in this crazy world. Here’s the first stanza:
"Birch are soprano
Balsam are alto
Cedar sing tenor
With white pine on bass"
Anyone who receives Dan’s email newsletters, many times including poetry, would appreciate this song.
“Birch Are Soprano” is just one instance that takes me back to the radio production classroom with Dan. He encouraged us to walk around and listen, tuning our senses to sound rather than sight.
“Back in Audio 1, when I would invite students to take a listening walk, for years I made the comment about, ‘The wind makes no sound,’” Dan said in a phone interview. “And then asked, after some thought, people in the classroom for people to agree or disagree with that. And eventually we came to the realization that the wind itself doesn’t make a sound; it vibrates other things. And that you can tell the difference between the wind vibrating the needles in a white pine versus vibrating the leaves in a maple.”
One summer Dan was listening to the wind blowing through the trees on the side of a mountain and decided to put those observations down on paper in a poem. That poem became “Birch Are Sopranos,” and it was placed in a drawer until this past winter when he was working on the “Tongues in Trees” album.
“I just happened to come upon that poem and decided, ‘You know, I ought to just put a tune to it, even though it’s short,’” he said, “which I did the same day and recorded it the same day.”
Another track on the album that takes me back to the classroom is “Where is My Father,” a soundpoem of memories and voices — including recordings of his parents, Dorothy and Walter Berggren, and the sound of the wind blowing through the pine trees his mother planted with her father, Harry Wilson, on the homestead in Olmstedville in the 1920s.
My question was, “What are you trying to say with this soundpoem?”
“Life and death are different sides of the same coin,” Dan said. “There is no life without death, and there is no death without life. So altogether, it’s one big mystery that we’re all trying to make our way through and enjoy as much as we can and help other people as much as we can. So when a person goes out of your life, you know the physicality of it ... And you don’t have to believe in different religious things, heaven or hell or an afterlife or not. Whether you believe that or not, it’s the stories that someone tells and the stories that you tell about them that keeps that person alive in your mind and your memory.”
The title, “Tongues in Trees,” comes from the comedy “As You Like It,” by William Shakespeare:
"And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything."
I was looking for something critical when writing this review, as I rationalized that a negative thought or two could somehow balance my subjectivity. Then I thought, what if Dan never speaks to me again?
If I really wanted to, I could say there’s no catchy, upbeat tune on this CD, no pop tune that kept me humming or singing all day long like a hit single from The Jackson 5 or The Monkees. But does every CD really need Michael Jackson or Davy Jones? Definitely not.
On the upside, “The Attic” has a catchy refrain, as does the song “Proud of You”:
"I’m proud of you
So proud of you
I may be late in saying it but it’s true I’m proud of you
Always been proud of you
And it’s time I said it out loud, I’m proud"
“Proud of You” will probably make you cry a little, whether you’re thinking of your children, your parents, your students, or someone close in your life. Dan dedicated this song to his daughter and son-in-law, Jenny and Jim, and all his former students. My wife cried when thinking of her mother, wishing she would hear that more often.
“‘Proud of You’ is a parent saying that he or she is proud of a child but also as a teacher who has many connections to former students,” Dan said. “I feel that I don’t have the opportunity that often to say ‘I’m proud of you’ whether someone has gone on to broadcasting or not.”
Over the past 40 years, Dan’s had plenty of stories to tell. Since he wrote his first song while stationed in Germany in the early 1970s until today, he’s been sharing his life with us through music, the lives of people who have inspired him, and his adventures and experiences. “Tongues in Trees” is simply a collection of Dan’s music from the latest chapter in his life.
“For me, songs pop up here and there,” Dan said. “And so they represent different parts of my life and different stages of my life. I’m not always serious, and I’m not always trying to be funny.”
Dan has recorded the chapters of his life on 15 CDs since 1985. His latest will be released at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2 at the Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls. It will be followed by two more local release concerts:
•Saranac Lake, Friday, May 3, BluSeed Studios, 7:30 p.m.;
•and Long Lake, Saturday, May 4, Long Lake Library, 7 p.m.
I could go on and on, but that would take time away from you listening to “Tongues in Trees.” Learn more about this CD online at http://berggrenfolk.com.
By the way, Dan, it may hurt my objectivity here, but I’m proud of you, too. Looking forward to CD No. 16.