The Dallas Morning News

Let us bow our heads in poetry

- By ELIZABETH HAMILTON Special Contributo­r

Amonth into his new job as music director of All Saints Dallas, an Anglican church in Oak Lawn, Ryan Flanigan received an email from a parishione­r with the subject “Request.” At first, he did not want to open it. “If you’ve ever been in church leadership, you don’t like getting emails that say, ‘request,’ ” jokes Flanigan.

But the email did not contain any demands. Instead, it contained a poem written by a retired Anglican priest named Nelson Koscheski. Flanigan dutifully read it. “It was gorgeous,” he says.

He picked up his guitar, set the poem to a short folk tune, and sent the song to an astonished Koscheski. “I was tickled pink,” says Koscheski. “This guy can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!”

So began Liturgical Folk, a music project that centers around Koscheski’s religious poems set to Flanigan’s folk tunes. Since writing that first hymn in early 2015, Liturgical Folk has gained the support of producer Isaac Wardell, who has worked with many spirituall­y minded songwriter­s, including Sufjan Stevens, Sandra McCracken and Josh Garrels. Wardell produced Liturgical Folk’s first two albums, which debut Feb. 1.

The hymns range from mournful lamenta-

tions to spirited carols. Many include language influenced by Koscheski’s childhood spent on Texas ranches. Most wrestle with substantia­l themes such as sorrow and hope. The collaborat­ion of Flanigan, 37, and Koscheski, 75, is also a unique crossgener­ational pairing of two men united by a belief that when music is honest and refined it can be a credible, positive witness for the church.

Not only has Liturgical Folk caught the eye of influentia­l people in the music industry such as Wardell, but the project also gained the support of the Anglican Mission in the Americas, a missionary organizati­on based in Dallas that plants churches across North America and is partly financing the otherwise self-financed project. While Flanigan started by playing Liturgical Folk songs in small house concerts across Dallas, in December he and several other local musicians performed the hymns, and Koscheski read more of his poems at Canterbury House at Southern Methodist University.

Neither Flanigan nor Koscheski thought the creative work would evolve into a project larger than their original collaborat­ions by email.

“I have written poetry all my life,” says Koscheski, “but I was loath, embarrasse­d, to share it.”

Koscheski, the son of an Air Force officer, grew up traveling between his father’s posts abroad and his family’s home in the Texas Panhandle. As a boy, he loved poetry, but his father encouraged him to participat­e in manlier activities, like fighting in the Golden Gloves, he says. When Koscheski received a National Merit Scholarshi­p, he told his father he wanted to study poetry. In response, his father called him a fool. Koscheski studied engineerin­g at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy instead.

Still, Koscheski continued to write poetry while serving as an engineer in the Coast Guard and a priest at several institutio­ns, including the U.S. Military Academy and Church of the Incarnatio­n in Dallas before he retired recently.

“My heart is not in good shape,” he says. “So I draw, I paint icons and I write poetry.”

Koscheski says many of his poems originate in prayer. When he sits in silence, questions emerge, like: “There’s a billion people in China and they’ve never asked my opinion once. … If half the world’s population gets by without consulting you, who are you?”

Poetry is a way to address questions about meaning, which science and reason cannot always answer adequately, says Koscheski. As an example, he points to a poem he wrote for his grandson, who asked him how a good God could allow evil.

“Of course, there’s no rational answer,” says Koscheski. “There’s a cute little way of saying, ‘Well, God knows. It will all come out in the end.’ And that’s true. But it’s not very meaningful.” In “How Long, O Lord?” Koscheski reiterates his grandson’s question in a lyrical lament:

“‘How long, O Lord?’ your Martyrs ask / Beneath your altar stone. / While victory is clear in heav’n, / Here evil claims the throne.”

Koscheski is quick to attribute the formation of Liturgical Folk to Flanigan. “This is Ryan’s creation,” he says.

Flanigan began writing music in middle school while growing up in Illinois. He first wrote instrument­al piano music, then moved on to writing Christian worship songs in high school. After graduation, he worked as a music director for two churches in the Midwest, all while hoping to write a hit worship song.

When Flanigan began attending seminary at Trinity Evangelica­l Divinity School in Chicago, however, he took a class from the theologian Robert Webber, who exposed Flanigan to historical folk music and African-American spiritual songs. These struck him as more honest about the joys and sorrows of the human condition than anything he’d heard before, says Flanigan, and he began writing melodic hymns instead.

In 2015, Flanigan moved to Dallas with his wife, Melissa, and their three young children. Around that time, he also began attending songwritin­g camps in Nashville, where he eventually met Malcolm du Plessis, a music consultant from South Africa.

When du Plessis heard Flanigan’s music, he was captivated.

“Ryan’s an elegant artist,” says du Plessis in a call from Nashville. “He’s thoughtful. He’s musical.” There aren’t many great songwriter­s in the world, he says, but Flanigan is one of them.

Du Plessis introduced Flanigan to Wardell because he thought the two shared aesthetic tastes. After hearing a sample of Flanigan and Koscheski’s hymns, Wardell immediatel­y asked when they were available to record.

Wardell was drawn to the language, sound and intergener­ational element of Liturgical Folk, he says.

“One of the things we’ve lost in the last 30 or 40 years of art is multigener­ational collaborat­ion,” says Wardell in a call from Charlottes­ville, Va.

This has impoverish­ed both the younger and older generation­s, who no longer offer each other wisdom and energy, he says.

In October, Koscheski, Flanigan and Melissa, who often sings with her husband, met Wardell at a studio in Charlottes­ville to record Volumes One and Two of Liturgical Folk. The first volume is a series of historic prayers set to folk tunes; the second, Koscheski and Flanigan’s hymns. If the albums are well-received, they plan to record more.

Flanigan and Koscheski have a razor-sharp vision for their hymns.

“Liturgical Folk exists to make believable and beautiful sacred folk music for the sake of the world,” says Flanigan.

Indeed, Flanigan sees Liturgical Folk as a communal project.

It was one of his parishione­rs who originally suggested that he and Koscheski create an album. Musicians of all ages, including the Flanigans’ own children, recorded the hymns. He and Melissa raised money and awareness for the project by performing small concerts in living rooms and a chapel in Dallas. The melodic choices are influenced by African-American spiritual songs, an element that Flanigan hopes will set Liturgical Folk on a trajectory toward racial reconcilia­tion.

When Flanigan sings Koscheski’s poems, he notices that men and women of all generation­s sit up straighter, smile and nod along.

“People are drawn to Liturgical Folk because it’s a new sound for people who are tired of the same old thing,” he says. “Liturgical Folk is the music in the bones.”

Elizabeth Hamilton is a freelance writer in Dallas. She blogs at elizabetha­nne hamilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @hamiltonel­iz and Instagram @elizabetha­milton.

 ?? Photos by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photograph­er ?? Justin Brooks, Tiffany Taylor Brooks and Flanigan performed at Southern Methodist University’s Canterbury House in early December.
Photos by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photograph­er Justin Brooks, Tiffany Taylor Brooks and Flanigan performed at Southern Methodist University’s Canterbury House in early December.
 ??  ?? Liturgical Folk, with Ryan Flanigan (left) and Nelson Koscheski, began when Koscheski asked Flanigan to set a poem to music.
Liturgical Folk, with Ryan Flanigan (left) and Nelson Koscheski, began when Koscheski asked Flanigan to set a poem to music.
 ?? Photos by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photograph­er ?? Justin Brooks (from left), Tiffany Taylor Brooks, Melissa Flanigan and Ryan Flanigan performed at Southern Methodist University last month. Liturgical Folk has caught the eye of influentia­l people in the music industry.
Photos by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photograph­er Justin Brooks (from left), Tiffany Taylor Brooks, Melissa Flanigan and Ryan Flanigan performed at Southern Methodist University last month. Liturgical Folk has caught the eye of influentia­l people in the music industry.
 ??  ?? “Liturgical Folk exists to make believable and beautiful sacred folk music,” Flanigan says.
“Liturgical Folk exists to make believable and beautiful sacred folk music,” Flanigan says.
 ??  ?? A woman in the audience reads a poem by Nelson Koscheski. “I have written poetry all my life,” he says, “but I was loath, embarrasse­d, to share it.”
A woman in the audience reads a poem by Nelson Koscheski. “I have written poetry all my life,” he says, “but I was loath, embarrasse­d, to share it.”

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