Magazine article The American Organist

The Wayfaring Stranger

Magazine article The American Organist

The Wayfaring Stranger

Article excerpt

In this moment, I need to improvise. I need to impersonate someone who has it together. But in this moment I do not have it together. As I write these words, the date is November 3, 2016. This morning, my friend Harry Huff, one of America's greatest church musicians, died of a brain aneurysm.

I'm shaking my head. I don't have words to express my grief. I certainly don't have words to fill an article on the "techniques" of improvisation. But I want to tell you a story, through which I offer a melody for your improvisation.

Harry wasn't just a nice guy-he was a remarkably nice guy. The only thing more foreign to him than loud self-promotion was unmusicality. For to see the limit of his musical ability and versatility, a strong enough telescope has not yet been invented.

In 2010 I showed Harry my arrangements of two folks songs, "Barbara Allen" and "Shenandoah." He complimented them, adding, "Are you planning to publish a folk-song suite (a la George Shearing)? His gets played so often and I think yours would as well."1 I asked him if there was a folk melody that he particularly loved. He replied, "Poor Wayfaring Stranger."

As with any folksong, there are innumerable versions. I asked Harry which version he preferred. He replied, "Here's the song the way I know it and love it."2

I wrote the arrangement, and on December 5 of that year he played it! It's difficult to describe the honor I felt hearing Harry play the work on the sumptuous 1920 E.M. Skinner of Old South Church in Copley Square. Back in the 1980s- long before Harry arrived in Boston-Old South was the location of so many inspiring and unforgettable concerts, which I heard as a teenager. …

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