Heaven for Me
From the December, 2019 issue
Jay Stielstra jokes that his simple formula for writing 100 songs is to write two a year for fifty years. He's actually written more than 180 songs in the past fifty-some years--though "sometimes I made up ten songs in a year and sometimes none." Along the way, Stielstra, eighty-five, also wrote seven plays, including the much-loved North Country Opera, built around his music.
Now fifty-two of his songs have been collected in a book, Heaven for Me. It's the brainchild of his longtime friend, Nada Rakic, who years ago directed one of Stielstra's plays, A Better Way to Die.
Stielstra's wife, Barbara Schmid, helped convince him to agree to the project, and she and Rakic edited the book. They recruited Judy Banker, who has played guitar and sung with Stielstra for years, as music editor. Musicians Chris Buhalis and Dick Siegel, former Ark director Dave Siglin, and environmentalist Lana Pollack contributed introductions.
The four sections of the book showcase the major themes of Stielstra's songs; love of nature, and particularly of Michigan's north country; love songs; reflections on aging and the ephemeral nature of life; and protest songs about war, the environment, and social justice.
Heaven for Me provides lead sheets--words and melody, plus guitar chords--for each song, but also displays the lyrics on separate pages. Consistent with Stielstra's unassuming nature, only about a fifth of the photographs, paintings, and drawings in the book are of him. Reflecting the subjects of Stielstra's songs, the rest are nature scenes.
At a recent gathering at Johnny's Speakeasy to celebrate the release of the songbook, local musicians sang Stielstra's songs and talked about what the man and his music have meant to them. When one singer blanked on a line, voices from the audience supplied the missing lyric. The $30 book is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Originally published in December, 2019.]
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