How the Stars Aligned Over the River Jordan

By Andy Burd

Andy Burd wrote and performed the opening song in "Pope Michael": "It's Cool Down There by The River Jordan", which is available on the "Pope Michael" Soundtrack.

This is an extended version of Andy's story. The abridged version can be found here.

When Adam Fairholm asked to use my banjo pickin' and singin' of my song "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan" in Pope Michael, I felt that the stars had finally aligned for me. You see, a key part of my fantasy life had been leading up to this shining moment, starting with being born in Oklahoma in 1940.

That's when and where I first heard old-time southern gospel music - "sacred songs" - when my grandparents Lon Isaac and Ella Mae Burd took me to their Baptist Church some Sunday mornings.

Andy Burd with his paternal grandparents

That music seeped into my soul. In fact, I've told my wife Mary that, if "The Old Rugged Cross" is not sung at my funeral like it was at my grandfather's and father's funerals, I'll come back to haunt her and her new husband.

When I was around 10, I heard Hank Williams moaning about "The Wild Side of Life", Hank Snow nasally warning his lover he was "Movin' On", and Lefty Frizzell wailing his commitment to "Mama and Daddy." Country music - simple, down-home country music. Hooked again.

A few years later, I heard Bill Monroe's "high lonesome" tenor trace "her little Footsteps In The Snow", accompanied by his own hard-driving mandolin in collaboration with Earl Scruggs' innovative three-finger banjo pickin'. The Bluegrass Boys band had created a new music genre of the same first name. The hook of Americana roots music sank even deeper into my heart, driven by Scruggs' syncopated five-string pickin'. And I was starting to wonder if I could be a musician.

Andy Burd with the Fade Away Trio

In 1955, two buddies and I decided to take a shot at fame, at least on our high school stage. We performed as The Fade Aways, taking our name from our signature song: "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly. It felt cool - I was cool - as John Jarboe strummed guitar and sang backup, I sang lead and Mike Fleming sang backup. This got me hankering to play an instrument too. That'd make me even cooler. To my mother's displeasure, it was the sound of the five-string banjo that rang my daydream of being a picker. After all, as cartoonist and banjo aficionado Charles M. Schulz has Linus say in one of his Peanuts strips:


"The way I see it, as soon as a baby is born, he should be issued a banjo." No longer a wee babe, I had to wait for my first banjo until just after the beginning of the "Folk Scare", which first broke onto the popular music scene through the protest songs of of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger album cover

Around 1957 I heard Pete Seeger energizing the The Weavers with his long-neck banjo, which he invented by having legendary luthier John D'Angelico add three frets/spaces toward the peg head. This enabled Pete to sing in his favorite keys - Bb minor and E - without putting a capo extremely low on the neck.

In 1958 I went north to the University of Notre Dame, and that fall in the campus field house, I saw the Kingston Trio, with Dave Guard playing a newly-minted Vega brand Peter Seeger signature model long-neck banjo.

The Kingston Trio at Notre Dame

Dave was cool, really cool. I had to have a Seeger, but they were $300 - a fortune for a guy making 75 cents an hour serving gruel in the ND dining hall. So I thumbed a ride to Chicago and bought my first banjo in a pawn shop: $25. This banjo was nearly unplayable, but appropriate: I couldn't play.

Four Winds at ND's LaFortune Student Center

It became my prop, however, while singing with The Four Winds, the folk group that three other sophomores and I formed in 1959 while over-serving ourselves Bullfrog beer. The prop worked magic. We not only became hits on campus, Mary Catherine Whealan Burd finally told me a few years ago that the first time she saw me I was singing with The Four Winds at ND, and she knew then that I was the guy she'd marry. So the line in an Alabama song is true: "...the young girls fall in love with the boys in the band." The Four Winds got gigs. In 1961 we even opened for the late folk legend Bob Gibson at a coffee house in South Bend, Indiana.

Cover of Seeger's 'How To' book

His banjo: a Vega Pete Seeger. Bob let me try it, and with his encouragement, I bought Seeger's book "How To Play The Five-String Banjo."

It worked, as long as I worked at it. Learning Pete's basic up-picking strum, with its engaging "bum-ditty" rhythm, also spurred my growing fantasy of someday being a star.

That day came closer fourteen years later. In 1975, just for the helluvit, I wandered into a little music store in Evanston, Illinois. Hanging on the wall: a you know what.

One of the earliest made. In 1957, in Vega' workshop in Boston, wood dowel-stick. Serial number 99500. Obviously heavily used, reputedly by Ed and Fred Holstein who were part of the Chicago folk scene with Steve Goodman and John Prine. In spite of its many dings and checked finish, this beauty rang with the ear-grabbing, heart-tugging, rounded sound that only a Vega with its Tubaphone tone-ring puts out.

Andy with his family and his mother

So, in spite of having next-to-no money in the bank and a wife and four little kids living in a home with a mortgage we could barely afford, a mother who still disapproved of banjo players and my own young business that was struggling, I wrote the check for $600 - one-fifth what it would easily bring today.

Andy's Vega Seeger in its hardshell case

And remember, more than a good financial investment, this Vega was obviously a key to realizing my destiny. After all, could it possibly have been mere coincidence that Vega is also the name of one of the brightest stars in our galaxy? This Vega is, of course, the banjo I play on "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan." But it took almost 35 years after that purchase to develop my original gospel song and minimalist banjo pickin' ability.

Andy's VW with 'Burd is 40' painted on it

Going into the 80's, the Vega mostly stayed in closets while I concentrated on marriage, co-raising children, and trying to make a buck writing, directing and producing business films and shows as Andy Burd Creative Works. Thanks to blue chip clients such as John Deere, Steelcase, IBM and McDonald's, my business worked. My banjo fixation even worked into one project. When I had to have a phone conversation with Steve Martin to determine whether or not he'd approve me as the writer of a short comedic film featuring him alone, it may have been our discussion of the merits of different banjos that swayed him to go along with me and my idea rather than his. (As I write this, Steve is touring and promoting his CD "Crow", with him playing virtuoso-level bluegrass banjo of his original songs. And, yes, it is gratifying that he's still using my line in response to audience applause: "Thank you, thank you very much.")

In 1985 the stars resumed alignment. With our last child off to college, Mary and I moved from a woodsy Chicago suburb to a glass box condo in the Windy City's Lincoln Park - within walking distance of the Old Town School of Folk Music. Out came the Vega and off we went for some lessons with still-going-strong-today "folk-singers'-folk-singer" and all-around-good-guy Mark Dvorak.

Mark Dvorak

One story. At my first school-wide recital, I was delighted when I saw that the banjo student performing right before me would be a pudgy, nerdy looking little kid. I was only in Banjo Level One, I had learned the frailing technique - a.k.a. clawhammer - and therefore figured I would easily blow this kid off the stage. That's what he did to me. His name: Noam Pilkelney - today considered one of the best five-string players in the world.

Punch Brothers band, Noam Pikelney with banjo

Now he's pickin' his progressive bluegrass all over the world with the red hot Punch Brothers newgrass band, including this very day, August 1, 2010, at the Newport Folk Festival. And besides all those achievements, Noam can say that he once opened for me.

It was while practicing my Old Town School lessons that I fell into writing "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan." I was supposed to be learning "Little Maggie" and "Wayfaring Stranger", both of which use chords I hadn't learned before: Em and D, in open G tuning. As I was noodling around with just those two chords, I fell into making up and humming a melody that reminded me of my Baptist days - gospel-y, kinda haunting. I liked it. And it was probably because I'd been thinking about working up an old gospel song, "River Jordan", that I soon fell into singing those two words in various contexts. But being rather anal compulsive, I forced myself to get back to practicing the assigned songs. Still, over the months I kept coming back to noodling the two chords and two words. Finally, the song clicked when the chorus just flowed out of my mouth: "It's cool down there by the River Jordan, and my Lord's gonna meet me there." I liked it, wrote it down, then quickly and effortlessly wrote the two verses that are almost verbatim as in Adam's film. When I performed the song at an Old Town School open mic, it went over well.

The ToadSuckers playing at the Old Town School

Doing it with me as The Toadsuckers: my sons Chris and Matt on guitars. (That event, I have been told - and even though it was held in the school's smaller facility - still holds the school's record for beer sales. Due, no doubt, to my wife's Irish family and my sons' early twenties friends.)

In the '90's, the Vega - and my growing collection of banjos - pretty much went into closets, as I was super busy with business, attending my children's weddings, becoming a grandfather, and building a cabin on a little lake in central Michigan. Then in 1996, Mary and I sold both our cabin and our condo. We moved to our dream house that was going up in Forest Beach near New Buffalo, Michigan.

Banjos in Andy's office

When I set up my new office in the basement, I pulled my banjos out of their cases and hung all of them except one on two walls. I put my Vega on a floor stand, in easy reach behind my desk chair. Occasionally I would turn around and pluck around.

In 1997, the River Jordan came back into play during Mary's and my vacation - "It's a pilgrimage", she kept reminding me - to the Holy Land. Donning a pure white garment over my swimming trunks, I joined other believers wading into and being fully immersed in the waters of the River Jordan, where my long-ago baptism was reconfirmed by our tour leader and spiritual director, Rev. Bob Colaresi, O. Carm. Amen, it truly was cool down there. And except for the pedestrian docks with handrails and stairs into the water, souvenir sellers, fifteen tour buses idling diesel smoke, and "the water looks dirty" that kept Mary from wading in, the place is exactly the same as when Jesus was baptized there nearly 2000 years ago.

The stars were certainly now telling me something about my one and only original song, but I still didn't catch on. More years went by and the Vega's strings grew rust.

Something else, though, did ring my chimes in 2005: the possibility of pursuing another long-standing dream: to teach at my favorite place, the University of Notre Dame, now just 34 miles from my home. While making a film for the University's capital campaign, I followed up on a department chairman's idea for me to teach a course that I had in mind. In the fall of 2006, I started facilitating - I prefer that method to teaching - Forming and Nurturing The Creative Habit, a seminar with 15 students. The course was in the Film, Television and Theater Department. In my class: Adam Fairholm.

FANTCH-1 class with Fr. Hesburgh

As part of my be-different-stichx, I brought a different banjo to each class, stood it in an empty chair in our circle, but said nothing about it. The idea was to peak the students' curiosity, then answer their questions by dramatically demonstrating the criticality of one of the creative habits: you gotta continually develop and practice the skills required in order to be outstanding and productive in your creative field - in order to achieve your dream. My inability to play the banjo well would prove vividly why I had not and could not achieve my dream of being a musical star. It took four classes and four different banjos until a student asked what the deal was with them, and at that, Adam Fairholm waited until after class.

Adam and I got to talking, and I learned that he played guitar, designed Web sites, created the comic strip Croissant in ND's daily newspaper, co-founded NDTV, and for his senior project was making a documentary film about a middle-aged guy in rural Kansas who truly believes that he is the one-and-only duly elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church. What impressed me most was not the quantity of creative projects that Adam had on his plate, but rather the quality of his commitment: that "Pope Michael" be purely observational - absolutely void of narrative commentary and editorial slanting - characteristics that I, as a maker for 45 years of intentionally manipulative marketing and fund-raising communications, would find well nigh impossible to do.

Adam did it. That next semester, his 10-minute "Pope Michael" documentary was the stunner of the 2007 Notre Dame Student Film Festival.

A couple of months later, Adam graduated, went to work for a film production company in Chicago, then left there to co-found a Web site design company and to make more trips to Kansas to film events that would expand "Pope Michael" to theatrical length.

I taught again during the fall of 2007, then decided to take the number-one-advice I'd been emphasizing to my students: Do what you love and the wealth will follow, in whatever forms the wealth may take. I quit my ND gig and went back to concentrating on finishing a documentary film that I'd shot the summer before about a mission in Haiti.

With my film finished and not much else going on except Adam and me making a Web site for Haitian Support Ministries, I found myself more and more reaching around to the Vega on the stand behind my desk chair. Finally, I decided I was going to learn how to play that sucker. I googled "five string banjo instructions."

Cover of Pete Wernick's 'Beginning Bluegrass Banjo' DVD

The Web listing that jumped out was Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, on a DVD taught by Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick, a PhD who in his early 20's left teaching at Columbia University to pursue what he loved most: playing five-string. His pedagogy (a term that I learned as an ND adjunct prof that I should use instead of "teaching method") was so clear and concise, and his motivating spirit so encouraging, that within two hours he had me doing the basic bluegrass forward-roll. That roll is mainly what I use on "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan."

Hot damn! The stars were now almost completely aligned. My lifelong journey accelerated. In a local newspaper I read about an open mic called Pastiche that would be starting on Tuesday nights at the Acorn Theater, n superb venue just twelve miles away in Three Oaks, Michigan. Dr. Banjo taught me more bluegrass rolls. And I practiced, practiced, practiced. When I visited the Acorn to scope the vibe of the open mic, I found it warm, fun, welcoming and kind. The open mic's producer, Mike Kennedy, encouraged me to sign up. Two weeks later, I took the leap.

Andy performing with my Vega at the Acorn Theater

In the three-song set that I premiered on March 24, 2009: my original gospel number. A college student, Joe Hinman, who was in the audience, told me I sounded "authentic" and asked me to be on his radio show on WRHC - Radio Harbor Country, broadcasting with 100 watts over a 10-mile radius from downtown Three Oaks. Joe interviewed me and of the four songs I did on-air, one was using my Vega. Even though the station's recording conditions were - hmmm ... funky - Joe was a good recording engineer. I thought I sounded okay. I sent a CD of my 15 minutes of radio fame to Adam. He called me right away. Told me he really liked my pickin' and singin', and so did his brother Derek. He asked me if they could use "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan" in "Pope Michael."

My instantaneous response was verbatim The Onion satirical newspaper's headline about 9/11. I will not in good taste type it here, so you'll have to do what your parents told you to do: "Look it up."

As Derek got into creating his own music for the film, he asked me to re-record my song in a high-end studio, using a click-track to keep the rhythm steady. That way, he could add other instruments later. The folks at Resolution Studios, a very high-end studio in Chicago, generously donated the session. What a kick, wearing headphones and doing about 23 takes, under the direction of a true pro, Bryen Hensley. Only problem was, Derek and Adam gently told me, I sounded "stiff and forced." They'd go with the "relaxed" one-take recording done months earlier, and Derek would not back me up with other instruments. Okay by me - that's all the earliest down-home country singers such as Jimmy Rogers and Ralph Stanley had to do it.

As if my song about to be in Adam's film weren't glory enough, a few months later I attended the screening of a documentary film in which the renown banjo guru Bela Fleck traces in Africa the origin and evolution of banjos and their music. After the screening, the host told us that Bela would be a bit late getting to the theater for the scheduled Q&A and mini-concert. A few minutes later, I was approached by an Acorn compatriot, Jim Harvey. He handed me his clunker five-string that he'd brought for Bela to autograph, and asked me to vamp on-stage until Bela arrived. When Bela walked in, I was up-picking and singing Woody Guthrie's "Hard Ain't It Hard", the first song I'd learned from Pete Seeger's book. As Bela and I crossed paths walking-off/on stage, he stopped me and whispered, "That sounded good." Bela's heart is much bigger than his ears.

Andy performing at Acorn with Jim Harvey and a fiddle player

Stars in perfect alignment! 70 years after 1940, I am a banjo-pickin'-twangy-singin' real musician, with a song in a movie and for sale on Amazon and iTunes. What's more, I've learned that one of my favorite singer/songwriters Tom T. Hall was dead-on when he wrote about a guitar picker named "Clayton Delaney" and the music business: "There ain't no money in it, it'll lead you to an early grave."

Life is good, and I have Adam and Derek Fairholm to thank for making my dream come true. As I believe "Pope Michael" himself would say to you two lads: Pax vobiscum.

That Latin wish was going to be the ending of my story, but as I was reading the New York Times this morning, I saw a Ken Burns' quote in a review of his documentary about the painter and spiritual teacher William Segal. After the reviewer's explanation that the observational style of Burns' new film is radically different from the narrative style of his earlier films, Burns states: "We just connected stuff, but in that simplicity something comes through. What comes through is that he comes through. That's all we ever wanted, was to not interpose ourselves between Mr. Segal and what he had to say."

Try this: in that quote replace Burns with Fairholm and Mr. Segal with Pope Michael. If I heard that statement and spirit one time - and in virtually the same words - from Adam Fairholm while he was making "Pope Michael", I heard it a hundred times. It's called creative integrity, and Adam and his work glow with it.

Andy Burd
August 1, 2010