All New Materials
Happy New Year to all. And welcome to my new subscribers. In 2024, I will be doing two things in my letters. Each month, I’ll write an essay about something that takes my fancy which could be anything from thinking about one of my songs to my great-grandmother’s quilts. My best loves are songwriting, my Appalachian family history, and making things. If you’re new to my letters, you can read about me here.
Each month, for my New Song Club (what Substack calls paid subscribers), I will also present an previously unreleased or newly written song and talk about how I wrote it and its story.
That’s the plan. For folks here who got to know me when I toured the USA, UK, and Canada for nine months of every year for ten years or so, I say a special hello! I miss seeing everyone hither and yon and I’m working out how I can best tour in the future given visas, health, and environmental impact. So, that’s to be continued. Thank you for traveling along with me in the meantime through my letters and posts.
ALL NEW MATERIALS
On Thursday, I began writing a story which featured an octopus toy and, on Friday, I saw two octopus toys in my walks around London! Surely this was the universe saying to keep going with my story. On the way home, I started dreaming up an octopus toy with a sad face on one side and a happy face on the other. I think I had a toy when I was a kid with opposite feelings on opposite sides. Now, whether to sew my octopus or to knit her?
Did anyone else here have a toy that had a sad or grumpy face on one side and a happy face on the other? I also had a Little Red Ridinghood rag doll and when you turned her over, under her skirt, there was a grandmother doll. If you pulled grandmother’s nightcap from the back of her head over her face, there was the wolf’s face! It was a very inventive toy all made from cloth. Sometimes, I think about making something similar.
Another thing that fascinated me when I was a little girl was that some of the tags sewn into the seams of my teddy bears or dolls said, “ALL NEW MATERIALS.” I’ve looked into this and apparently it was a toy-making law in some northeastern states in the USA.
Because I also went to a charismatic Bible-based church in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, “ALL NEW MATERIALS” reminded me of things that my Uncle Jerry would say in his sermons about becoming a new person when you accepted Jesus. He would say, “Made new in the Lord.” And we had a hymn – one of my favorites because of the imagery – which said, “Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”
So, when I read the tag from my teddy bear’s seam and it said, “ALL NEW MATERIALS,” I conflated that in my mind with the altar call at the Friendly Chapel Church. My bear seemed holy and I thought I should be very careful with her.
Many years later, I was talking with my friend Kim about her grandmother who was also from the south, from Kentucky, and her grandmother, like mine, talked about being “made new” in Heaven. Suddenly, all of the imagery and Bible readings from my childhood welled up in me and I wrote the lyrics to “Made As New” – a gospel song which closes the 2014 Jeni & Billy album Picnic in the Sky. Saul on the road to Damascus is in there. The golden city of Revelation is in there. Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus and my old favorite hymn about the blood of the lamb found their places, too.
I felt that so much had come full circle for me in the writing of that song. I spent my childhood between hearing my Dad give beautifully constructed sermons at Scottish Presbyterian Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the school year, and listening to my Uncle Jerry give extemporaneous impassioned sermons at my grandmother’s Pentecostal church in the summers. A lot had gone into my very curious and various childhood brain and I painted it all on the canvas of this gospel song.
Here is Made as New.
|LISTEN NOW · 4:03
New Year is also a time when we think of re-making ourselves. I used to be very determined to keep a journal only to see it flag most years. I would determine to lose weight or do some particular thing each day like write 1000 words or make a sketch every day. But, this year, I dispensed with all of that. Partly, that’s to do with unpredictable health and another part of me just wants to celebrate each day as its own party of possibilities.
I’ve also come to accept that I am not made of “ALL NEW MATERIALS” just because the calendar year turns. I am an accumulation of everything gone before, even before I was born. Because of that history, I could write a gospel song which had been growing in me for thirty years. I’m more like a bear that I recently found at the reuse shop. He was very dirty and stuffed with all recycled materials, even funny foam from swimming pool toys or insulators. I unstuffed him, washed him, washed his stuffing, recycled the foam, and now I hope he’s feeling better. But he’s mostly the same bear he always was and he is lovable.
I am the same bear, too, and today I hope to be doing some knitting and working on a new song. My stitches and my words will come from “incidents and accidents, hints and allegations,” as Paul Simon describes them in “You Can Call Me Al.” Synapses will fire, memories will emerge, favorite words and images will assert themselves, muscle memory will take hold, and I will be making something new from something old – something old and beloved inside of me.
I’m sending you hugs and friendship. I hope you find something old and wonderful in yourself from which you can create something new and beloved.
If you’d like receive a new or previously unreleased song from me each month this year, click below to sign up as a paid subscriber and join the New Song Club.
P.S. For the curious: for the last 18 months the Englishman and I have been renovating a 300 year old house in Lancashire. I learned so much. I definitely learned that I’m unlikely to renovate another house unless I plan to live in it because it’s a lot of work. I also missed the others things I love to do. But it’s up for sale now and we feel proud of its charming little self. Perhaps, you'd like to live there?
P.P.S. Please understand that I am distressed and saddened by violent world events. I don’t address them in my letters because I feel I have no special wisdom and really no ability to articulate my thoughts. I wish I could sit with my friends who are also troubled and hold hands and give hugs.
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