Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

My lyric or yours? A Review of “Random Play” Hosted by Alan Neal

Every day, as I settle into my car, put on my seat belt, adjust the mirrors my hand naturally finds its way to the radio dial where the soothing voices of the CBC await.


All in a Day is my “relax after class” show. On air from 3-6 every week day, the host Alan Neal has a way about his voice, that draws the listener in turning any topic into one of interest. The moment I saw Neal’s name on the Writer’s Fest Spring line up, I knew I had to attend.


The Knox Presbyterian Church was brimming with people and chatter as I took my seat, pen and notebook in hand. As Neal took the stage, he introduced the topic of the evening -“Random Play.” Prior to the event, Neal played his iPod on “random” and proceeded to select the first 10 songs played. Neal then attempted to find out every last detail about each of these songs- from who composed them, to what inspired them, to the meaning of the lyrics that define them. These 10 songs came from an array of artists, both local and international, from the modern day to eras past, allowing for an eclectic mix of musical tastes, themes and contexts. Neal used his creative insights to explain each song, going so far as to reach out to the widows of the composers, thus imbuing each song with meaning beyond its basic value. Following his description and individual interpretation and research conducted for each song, the song would then be performed by either the artists themselves or the by a local artist on behalf of an artist passed or too distant to join us for the evening.


Proceeding in “coffee house style,” artists took the stage to perform the songs previously described by Neal. The local artists were quite impressive, interacting with the audience and playing along with Neal’s casual approach to the evening. From Halifax’s Jenn Grant, to Ottawa based Kelly Lee Evans – the music was beautiful and intriguing. For example, for one of Jenn Grant’s songs about “being born in a lion’s mouth,” Neal sought the advice of professors of mythology, which of course added humour and insight to the lyrics themselves. While each songs’ description maintained its own quirks, and garnered its own “ah-ha” moments and giggles from the audience, there is one interpretation presented by Neal that I would like to focus on.


Like many of the previous songs of the evening, the fifth song was one that I had never heard before. Titled “Captain Finch,” it was written by Ottawa singer-song writer Jim Bryson in 2003. In and amongst the witty and often times funny explanations of the 10 songs selected and their meanings, it was Neal’s description of his journey to find meaning in the song that was most powerful.


After being unsuccessful in his attempt at finding a Captain Finch in the Canadian Armed Forces, Neal moved his search south to our US neighbor, where he discovered a “real, live” Captain Finch with whom he shared Bryson’s song.


As a Navy Chaplain for the United States Army, Captain Finch approached the song from a different angle than Jim Bryson could ever have fathomed.


On 9/11 Captain Finch had been called to Manhattan to provide people with comfort on that tragic and traumatic day. When listening to lyrics of Bryson’s song, which read “Captain Finch, would find a friend?,” the real Captain Finch was reminded of that very day. In his recorded interview with Neal, Captain Finch recalled that on 9/11, in the midst of the horror, he was “simply there to be a friend,” to those whose friends and family were never found.


Bryson was astounded to hear Captain Finch’s interpretation of his words, and was moved. Bryson explained to the audience that he wrote the lyrics when his friend were going away to school – a completely different concept from the one that Captain Finch had interpreted. This difference in the interpretation of the song provided by Neal through his research and the “expert advice” he garnered, and that of the song’s original composer is embodied by the story of Captain Finch. This discrepancy between interpretations, as they are influenced by life experience was, to my mind, the most fascinating component of the evening. How a song can take on a different meaning than what was intended by the composer, is just one of the many magical components of music.


As a fellow graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), I would be remiss to mention the performance by Andy Conte and Ethan Kraus, fellow NPSIANs who took one line from each of the 10 songs selected and created a comprehensive song. As the winners of the song competition, they were granted the opportunity to perform live. Their song was fun, and had the audience clapping! While it was a tad bit lengthy, overall Neal’s interpretation of song and accompanying case of performers, made for a light, fun and enjoyable evening.