It's amazing, really, how often in life we do things with never a thought that someday we will be asked to explain ourselves. Case in point - "Clearing". In the 1970s, our little trio - Joan, Sarah and Jeff - performed throughout New England at a large variety of venues - often in Unitarian churches for Sunday services and other gatherings.
We had a sense that the terrible inequities and cruelties of the world could somehow be reduced, explained and addressed at the most basic level of person-to-person relationships - how we related as individuals to the environment and world at large. That was our message, and our medium was poetry and song. It all seems rather naive and childlike in our brave new post-trauma world, and of course anything that bears the taint of "hippyness" is fair game for derision and ridicule. Recognizing ourselves in the marvelous satire "A Mighty Wind" gave even us a sense of smug satisfaction. But there is much from the 60's and 70'sthat is worth remembering and perhaps even relearning.
For one thing, we could live very differently. In the early 70's, Joan and I were living in a large somewhat decrepit mansion outside of Boston with our large extended family of 16 who had gathered from across the country. The mortgage and expenses were tiny, and we bought food collectively, ate together and shared the household work . Our population ebbed and swelled as friends and relatives came to stay for days, weeks, or months at a time. Living was incredibly cheap. Sometimes we would have jobs, and often not. People thought we were a commune, but we knew that we were just a big messy family.
The crusty old neighbors were particularly suspicious, since the house had previously been occupied by Timothy Leary. They expected more acid tripping and hanging out naked on the front lawn. We never did that, but we did do plenty else, particularly music. It seemed like it was music all the time. Fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, piano, drums, harmonica, jews harp, pots and pans - whatever. We were mostly musicians, and those that weren't sang harmony. Some of us played in outside groups - bluegrass, country, rock - and sometimes we just formed groups amongst ourselves. And we always just played and sang together. In the midst of all this musical activity was Clearing.
Clearing began with a request from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1971. Their 1964 hymnal - "Songs for the Celebration of Life" - was designed to be less solemn than usual, with quite a few beautiful poems set to less traditional music. With interest in promoting this new approach to church music, they were seeking musicians who could present the songs in an informal "folk" style. Joan and I had performed at UUA functions, so we came to mind, and they introduced us to Sara Benson who also had UUA connections. Sara was a remarkable person with a deep spiritual core and a centered focus that made her an island of calm in the midst of any turmoil. We loved her immediately.
After years of rigid musical training on the flute, she had spent agonizing additional years freeing herself until she was a totally natural improviser with a remarkable talent. Sara brought poetry and beauty and light to everything she did. She was the soul of Clearing. The album "Who Is In My Temple" was our first collaboration. This collection of songs from the hymnal was recorded at Ace Recording Studios in Boston, a cavernous old establishment with a cold and professional atmosphere. The record was well received in UUA circles, and we immediately had offers to sing at Unitarian services and events.
By 1973 we had expanded our interests and repertoire to the point where we wanted to make another record - of our own material - to be called simply "Clearing". We hadn't really enjoyed the "Ace Recording" experience, and besides we were low on cash, so we decided to record this one on our own. We managed to find some war-surplus recording equipment, and by this time Joan and I were living in the big house with its giant library room - perfect as an ad-hoc studio. Most of the recording took place there, with our friend Tom Rothschild at the rudimentary controls. It was an unlikely setting - with people coming and going and pauses as airplanes flew overhead - but we had the advantages of ignorance, enthusiasm and naivete. Some cuts were done at other locations - notably at a church we found in Waltham that had fantastic acoustics.
For a very reasonable fee, we got to use it for a couple of evenings, late enough to avoid serious traffic noises. In the spirit of the times, we invited several friends and family members to participate on this record, as noted on the track list. The album had a pressing of 2000, most of which were sold at performances and through the UUA. Clearing continued on until about 1976.
After Clearing, we pursued various interests. Joan Faber had a long career as a singer-pianist performing standards in various nightclubs in the Boston-Cambridge area. She is currently the head of the sheet music Department of Johnson String Instrument in Newton. Jeff Brewer developed an interest in rock climbing in the 1980s, and invented a treadmill-like machine for climbing called the Treadwall. He is currently partners in the company that manufacturers this device. Joan and Jeff still live on the big-house property with members of their extended family. Sara Benson moved from the Boston area to Charlemont, a western-Massachusetts town with an active alternative life-style population. She became an important and much-loved member of that community. In 2008 Sara passed away. Her loss is sorely felt by her friends and family.
by Jeff Brewer, February, 2009
1. Morning Has Broken (Leon Maleson) - 2:28
2. Morning Light (Vici Frazer) - 4:02
3. Sunshine Man (Sara Benson) - 2:39
4. She's Leavin (Sara Benson) - 2:52
5. Greyhound Bus Song (Joan Minkoff) - 3:50
6. The First Time (Joan Minkoff) - 3:29
7. The Church Where We Got Married (Jeff Brewer) - 2:45
8. Eve (Jeff Brewer) - 2:46
9. Seth (Jeff Brewer) - 2:03
10. When I Was A Young Boy (Leeds Brewer) - 4:10
11. My Father (Sara Benson) - 3:45
12. Clearing (Joan Minkoff) - 4:43
*Sara Benson - Vocals, Flute
*Jeff Brewer - Cocals, Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin
*Joan Minkoff - Vocals, Piano, Harpsichord, Guitar, Dulcimer
*Leeds Brewer - Vocals, Guitar
*Vici Frazer - Vocals, Guitar
*David Levine - Guitar, Vocals
*Leo Maleson - Cello