Nanci Griffith, Julie Gold, and a Stuck Osprey « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Nanci Griffith, Julie Gold, and a Stuck Osprey

What’s Up?

On Thursday, I took a day off from swimming. I came across a tame adult Osprey that let me approach in my vehicle to within 15 feet. Image and story below after the music. (Tip: if you click on the Watch On > YouTube button the video will play in a new window and you can listen in the background while reading the blog.) On Friday, I took a day off from photography. In this post, I share some really good music with you. If Southbound Train or the wonderfully inspiring article by Julie Gold below does not garner a few tears, you might want to see about getting a heart transplant.

Today is Saturday 16 December 2023. The forecasts is for cloudy skies with the very strong northeast winds continuing. I will likely be heading down to the lake each weekend morning, probably with the 400mm f/2.8. Wherever you are and whatever you choose to do, I hope that you too have a great day.

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Southbound Train

Years ago my younger daughter Alissa gave me a Nanci Griffith CD for my birthday. I listened to Flyer often and fell in love with several of the tracks. My very favorite is Southbound Train. Griffith’s voice has been described as “gorgeously graceful and distinctive, simply spellbinding.” To that I would add, “hauntingly beautiful.”

For many years after my wife Elaine’s death (of breast cancer in 1994), I felt a lot like the lady on the Southbound Train (even though our losses might have been different). The lyrics are pure poetry. And of course, heartrending.

Nanci Griffith died in the summer of 2021 of undisclosed causes. There is a wonderful article about her here on The Irish Times website. It is entitled “Nanci Griffith’s Irish hit, cancer history and ‘really dysfunctional’ family” and was written by Adam Sweeting.

Written by Julie Gold

I’m sitting on a southbound train
Staring at the sky
I’m thinking of my childhood
And I’m trying not to cry
While a stranger sleeps against me
And it feels like I’m his wife
The towns and cities flutter past
Like the pages of my life

My heart is on the baggage rack
It’s heavy as can be
I wish that I could find someone
Who would carry it for me
Just to pay it some attention
And to handle it with care
Because it has been dropped and
Is in need of some repair

Some things I know
Some things I guess
Some things I wish I could learn
To express
Like the way that I feel
As I stare at the sky
And I remember your voice
And the sound of goodbye

Nanci Griffith and Julie Gold

While YouTube surfing on Thursday evening, I came across the video above. Much as I did when I found John Prine, I asked, “Who is Julie Gold?” Julie Gold is an American singer-songwriter best known for her musical composition “From a Distance,” which became a huge hit for Bette Midler and won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1991. Additional searching brought me to the moving article here (and below) on the Performing Songwriter website.

The story behind the Grammy-award winning “From A Distance” and the miracles a song can bring, as told by the writer, Julie Gold.

In 1978, at the age of 22, I came to New York in pursuit of my dream of being a songwriter. And while dreams are essential, they don’t pay the rent. For years, I worked various temp jobs while gigging at night and sending songs out whenever possible. I demonstrated vacuum cleaners, Mr. Coffees, and toaster ovens. I worked the flea markets, as a proofreader, for a dentist, and at a venetian blinds factory.

It was a struggle. No health benefits. No money for recreational purposes. Desperation. Self doubt. Fear. We all know what that’s like. But, all the while, I clung to my dream like a life preserver. I knew why I was born, and no one could discourage me from reaching my mountaintop. I was willing to die trying. Honest, I was. I finally gave in to taking a full-time job as a secretary at HBO in 1984. It was a smart move. Ah, the magic of a steady paycheck. In my spare time and evening hours, I was of course still gigging, writing songs and dreaming my big dream. Now, however, I didn’t have that horrible daily struggle of keeping my head above water financially.

In 1985, just before my 30th birthday, my parents sent me the piano I grew up playing. I had just served as a juror on an emotionally trying case, my brother had just married, and I was questioning my life to date, wondering what my future could possibly hold. I took the day off work to be home when my piano arrived, and I remember how it glistened in the sun as the movers lowered it off the truck. My piano. My truest love and friend. My confidante. Back together again after all these years.

It came into my little, one room apartment and fit just where I hoped it would. The movers told me that it had been on the truck for 24 hours, so I had to give it a chance to settle. They said I couldn’t play it for a full day. So there we were in the same room, unable to make music. I remember hugging it and polishing it. Then I went to bed. My bed was a high loft bed, and I looked down on my piano all night to make sure it was really there. The next day I sat down and “From a Distance” just poured out of me. On one hand, it took me two hours to write. On the other hand, it took me 30 years. Pick whichever hand makes you happy. I love them both.

I sent “From a Distance” around to all my contacts. As usual, most did not even reply. Those who did found fault with my song. My friend and fellow songwriter Christine Lavin loved it and requested copies to send around to her friends and contacts. Within two weeks, my scratchy demo was getting radio play thanks to Christine. Then I came home one day to a flashing message on my answering machine. There was a gentle, unknown voice identifying herself as Nanci Griffith. Christine had sent her the song, she loved it, and was asking to record it. Nanci recorded “From a Distance” on her first album for MCA. I remember sitting at The Bottom Line the first time I saw her perform it live and observing her audience sing along. That’s when I realized that my life would never be the same.

Nanci sang that song all over the world, and I was still very much a secretary. She would call me at work from Belfast and tell me how the song was affecting people around the world. She took me out on the road with her several times, just so I could play the piano as she sang that one song. What incredible moments we shared. Me, away from my day job and in the spotlight with a beloved world-class talent. Me, getting love and honor from total strangers all because of one little song. Me, basking in the light of my life-long dream.

On June 16, 1988, I played Carnegie Hall with Nanci. All my relatives came up from Philadelphia to share the miracle. Most of them, including my mother, are immigrants. In many ways, I am their American Dream. What an amazing dream it is. As I write this, I can’t even believe it’s true. But it is. It really is.

Even with all this glory, however, I was still a secretary. I still lived in one little dark room. I still barely made enough money to survive. Believe it or not, I was depressed and despondent. I remember crying on the phone to both my parents (who, incidentally, were never anything short of supportive, encouraging and fully loving with regard to my dream). On this occasion, I remember my desperation and how they tried to console me with a stereo pep talk. It didn’t work. Finally, they asked what they do to help me feel better. For the first and only time in my life, I asked them to please pay my rent for six months. They agreed, and July 7, 1989 was my last day of work at HBO. I walked down Sixth Avenue, crying all the way. Free at last.

They were the best six months of my life. Finally a musician full-time. I made my hours. I wrote my songs. I called. I mailed. I pitched. I played. I prayed. I sent songs to every singer in the world. I walked tall. I felt good. I received my first royalty check from Nanci’s foreign performances of “From a Distance,” and that bought me another six months of freedom.

During this time, I received a call from Marc Shaiman, who identified himself as Bette Midler’s musical director. She was making a new record, and, in their search for songs, they called Stephen Holden at the New York Times for suggestions. Stephen told Marc about “From a Distance,” Marc called me, I sent the scratchy demo, and Bette recorded it.

People seemed to love it, and I won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1991. Here I was still living in one dark room, no money, uncertain of my future, and yet my song was on the radio and I had won a Grammy. If that isn’t a dream come true, what is?

I am now 55. I live in a beautiful condo with air, light and a view of my beloved New York, the city of dreams. I earn my living as a songwriter. I have hugged Burt Bacharach. I have dined with Lamont Dozier. I have met Paul McCartney. I have chatted with Carole Bayer Sager. I have laughed with Cyndi Lauper. I have heard “From a Distance” in many languages. I have felt it in Braille. I have heard it on music boxes and in elevators. I have read it on greeting cards and in children’s books. And it has been played for astronauts in space. It is nothing short of a miracle, and I am never anything but amazed and grateful that the miracle happened to me.

My Comments

Roger Tory Peterson first field guide, A Field Guide to the Birds, was rejected by more thirty publishers before he convinced Houghton Mifflin to go with it. They had modest hopes for the new title, publishing 2,000 copies in its first print run. It famously sold out in one week. Since then, various editions have sold more than 7 million copies, one of the bestselling nature books of all time. I have a copy of the fourth edition of Eastern Birds, signed by Roger with a red Flair pen as was his style. It was a gift from my good friend and great photographer Anita North.

Many of Gold’s comments should strike a chord with anyone struggling to reach a goal, especially nature photographers. Paraphrasing a bit:

“In 1994, at the age of 47, I retired from teaching elementary school in New York City in pursuit of my dream of being a full time professional nature photographer. And while dreams are essential, they don’t pay the rent.”

I am often asked, ‘How long did it take to make that photo?’ I always reply, “Either 1/1000 of a second or 47 years, depending on how you look at it.”

“I sent my images around to all my contacts. As usual, most did not even reply. Those who did, found fault with the photos.”

None-the-less, I stayed the course, even after losing my beloved Elaine in 1994. The result? I have had a wonderfully blessed life doing what I love and teaching others to do the same.

This image was created on 14 December 2023 down by the lake near my home at Indian Lake Estates, FL. Working from the driver’s seat of my SUV, I used the BLUBB-supported Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS lens, the Sony FE 2.0x Teleconverter, and The One, the Sony Alpha 1 Mirrorless Digital Camera). The exposure was determined via Zebra technology with ISO on the thumb dial. ISO 1600. 1/400 sec. at f/10 (stopped down 2/3-stop) in Manual mode. When evaluated in RawDigger, the raw file exposure was determined to be dead-solid perfect. AWB at 8:59:52am on a cloudy morning.

Tracking: Expand Spot/AF-C with Bird Face/Eye detection enabled performed perfectly (even at 1200mm). Be sure to click on the image to enjoy a high-res version.

Image #1: Osprey — head portrait of adult on grass

Very Strange Behavior

Turning left, I spotted what I thought might have been a large bird on the ground some distance down Banyan Drive. As I got closer, I saw that it was an adult Osprey. As it is much more efficient to shoot out of the driver’s side than the passenger’s side, I drove past the bird at about five miles per hour without slowing down in hopes of not scaring it off. I went a good ways down the block, made a u-turn, put the BLUBB on the window frame, made sure that the Direct Manual Focus switched was set to off, and placed and balanced the 1200mm rig on the BLUBB.

I drove into position very slowly and was surprised that the bird did not fly away as they almost always do even when I approach only to a far greater distance. I was even able to change my position at will for slightly better perspectives and to get even closer.

Over a span of about 12 minutes, I created more than 400 head shots and realized that though the bird appeared healthy, there must be something wrong with it. As the bird turned a bit, the riddle of the too-tame Osprey was solved; a treble hook from a yellow, 5″ fishing lure, a diving swimmer, was embedded in what looked like the back of its left foot. Poor guy.

I know that it has been notoriously difficult to get help for injured wild birds in Central Florida so I came up with a plan. I grabbed a heavy blanket from the back seat. If the bird did not fly, I would throw the blanket over it, pick it up safely, and bring it home to grab a pair of pliers and remove the hook.

The bird, however, had other plans. As soon as I opened the car door, it flew without a problem to the top of a nearby telephone pole. If I see it again, I will get in touch with the bird rescue folks at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland.

The Image Optimization

Huge thanks to Steve Kaluski of Bird Photographer’s.Net who first turned me on to the new Remove Tool in Photoshop. It made cleaning the bill in today’s featured image incredibly easy. I used the new Luminance Targeted Adjustment Tool (L-TAT) along with Tim Grey Dodge and Burn to lighten the Osprey’s yellow iris. The difference is huge and brought the image to life. You can learn all about may current digital workflow in the Digital Basics III Video Series.

The Digital Basics III Video Series

The Digital Basics III Video Series

I realized about a year ago that my digital workflow had changed significantly and was toying with the idea of writing a Digital Basics III. More recently, I have learned and begun working with two great new Photoshop Tools, the Remove Tool and the Luminance Targeted Adjustment Tool. The former is like a smarter Spot Healing Brush Tool on steroids and the latter is a huge step up from the fabulous Color Mixer Tool. During that same time frame, I came up with a new and improved 2-step noise reduction technique. I still use Divide and Conquer, Quick Masks, Layer Masks, an expanded array of personalized keyboard shortcuts, and tons of other stuff from both versions of Digital Basics.

As soon as I realized that I did not want to take on another large writing project, I realized that by creating a series of videos I could much more easily share all the details of my current digital workflow and much more easily incorporate additional new tips, techniques, and tools as I went. And so, The Digital Basics III Video Series was born. You can check out Volume I/#1 here and Volume I/#2 here.

You might opt to purchase single videos or to subscribe to Volume I and save $26 by ordering the first five videos in one fell swoop. You can purchase the five videos in Volume I by clicking here. The videos will be most valuable for folks using the latest version of Photoshop (2024) or Lightroom along with Topaz DeNoise AI and Topaz Sharpen AI. I will be working on Volume I/#3 this weekend.


With all blog posts, feel free to e-mail or to leave a comment regarding any typos or errors.

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