Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
~ Victor Hugo
I had a reputation as a youngster that enshrouded me like cigar smoke hovering over Churchill on a still summer evening. I sang pretty well. I sang because my church sang a capella and everyone sang. If you stole our hymnals we would sing, because we knew the words and music by heart.
We sang during chapel at Harding University for an entire semester sans songbooks when a guy I know but won’t incriminate hid 3,000 hymnals in an obscure corner of a storage area near the Benson Auditorium. The books were discovered by the Secret Service detachment of former President Gerald Ford as they did their standard facility search. It didn’t stop the Christians at Harding University from singing in chapel in the days before Powerpoint. We sang from memory. We had no choice. If we didn’t sing, the rocks and the pews would burst forth in song. And so we sang using only the song leaders pitch-pipe as a mechanical helper, although there were some who viewed that instrument with suspicion along with pianos.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ww1LLr4NM Our National Anthem at Harding University and everyone is singing!
That reputation for singing brought with it expectations, responsibilities, and pressure. Because of the reputation my church esteemed for singing simply and beautifully, those who knew us well, believed singing must be passed along to each congregant like holy elixir. This wasn’t true. Our church sang with a common passion but with a diversity of talent, like the host surrounding Jesus in the manger. Donkeys bellowed, cows mooed, chickens squawked. But while the barnyard animals made a loud noise, many of our church sang like angels hovering over baby Jesus, beautiful, surreal. And most of us were painted with the same reputational brush, “Hey, those Church of Christ folks can sing.”
My music teach knew this about me, this reputation for hanging out with the church of unadorned singing. I was loitering in the hall outside Mrs. McDonald’s 7th grade music class at Central Junior High, waiting for my 4th hour class while 3rd hour was still in session. Suddenly the door opened and Mrs. McDonald pointed a crooked finger at me. She said, “Come in here, I want you to sing.” I sheepishly shuffled into the room and stood beside her piano. Her music was open to an Irving Berlin song, “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”, and she jauntily began playing as I sang for the 3rd hour students. I finished and walked back out into the hallway. I was shy but never felt uncomfortable during the impromptu exhibition, perhaps because singing is easier than talking to a beautiful cheerleader. My heart seemed bigger when I sang, my mind calmer, my feet no longer mired in clay.
There is something evocative in the way our souls mournfully waltz to music when we bury our dead and stand taller when we sing the Star Spangled Banner. Our souls burn to the beat of rebellion and the disharmony of revolution when we are stupidly young, our souls soar sublimely as we sing to our children. Music gives voice to the broken, courage to our warriors, and megaphones to our injustices. And all of this articulated in tones which softens the calloused and awakens the indifferent.
Music strums and hums and changes us in keys that sound more reasonable and beautiful than words alone. Music is the stuff that comes out of us when we can’t speak, notes shaped like the essence of our unspoken emotions.
Music does something that logic cannot, it changes me, softens the edges, and raises my hackles. My creative nature affirms the lyrics of Chris Martin singing “The Scientist”…”I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart, questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart.”
Holy Scriptures also affirm this in Ephesians 5:19, “…speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”
Ray Charles speaks of music in the biological sense, that it was a body part, or perhaps an organ or one of his senses. “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.”
I wonder if music ever goes away? Do songs from our lives hang in the air forever, the shaped notes hanging in the ether? I still hear Sunrise, Sunset from our wedding day, and my wife singing Hush Little Baby Don’t You Cry to our mortally injured dog Cocoa just hours before we took her to the vet and said goodbye. I hear pastel smocked teens singing Up With People at the old Bartlesville Civic Center in the Sixties, and the screams of teenage girls on the Ed Sullivan show as The Beatles sang, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Like hot air balloons hovering over our world, musical memory shapes and influences our thoughts, our legacy, our souls.
My earliest musical memory came from furniture. My parents RCA stereo console doubled as fine furniture and music savant. I cut my teeth and the living room rug on Al Hirt’s Fancy Pants and Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s in Love, which led me to a love of big brass and Chicago’s Beginnings.
I remember walking down the aisle between scarred metal chairs at Green Valley Bible Camp to the strains of voices singing Just As I Am before I was baptized in the camp swimming pool. I hear Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run driving west on Highway 60, travelling to a junior high golf tournament in Ponca City. The next year in Norman at the state high school golf tournament, I played the worst round of my competitive career, 88, and trudged down the seventeenth fairway, head down, distraught. From the open window of an apartment near the fairway, the Beach Boys soothed my sagging competitive soul with the soaring Help Me Rhonda.
And I sang when my daughter Lauren was born, alone in my car on a pastoral New Jersey highway, driving home from the hospital on a December night, “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody, the way I love you.” I sang with the Bee Gees as I drove and thought about how happy I was to be a father, serendipitous happiness, like I had found a secret door to Heaven. So I sang, although the sentiment with which I sang wasn’t what the Bee Gees sang about. I didn’t care, that’s how I felt, like nobody understood the joy of having a daughter like I did in that moment, so I sang like Pavarotti in the shower.
I have a good friend and old college roommate from Harding University who can’t sing but does anyway. He drove a white 1970 Dodge Charger and called it The General. We sang Jimmy Buffett’s, Son of a Son of a Sailor, while driving in The General and sang Marshall Tucker Band’s, Can’t You See What That Woman is Doin’ to Me, on Friday nights in our living room when we had no female companionship.
And when we attended ball games, we sang only the last line of the Star Spangled Banner, …’and the home of the (Atlanta) Brave.’ It was funny that Ralph loved music. He didn’t seem the type to love music, but I often thought of Ralph later in life when I sang to my kids before I put them to bed. I sang An American Trilogy: Dixie, All My Trials and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a trio of songs arranged by Mickey Newbury which originated as American folk songs from the 19th century and popularized by Elvis in the seventies.
I thought of the stories Ralph told me about being young and hearing about the Confederacy from his Mom and listening to songs about the South before bed. I was from the Great Plains and thought all Americans were like me, and yet one of my best friends still spoke of the South, and he spoke of the War of Aggression Against the Southern States and he laughed when he said it but I knew the truth buried in the humor was complex and textured and layered with pain, heartache, pride and honor.
And of course I married a beautiful Yankee from New Jersey. And so I sang that Trilogy of songs to my kids and thought about how great our country was and is and how we are all different, yet the same, and how many have died for that ideal. And that Ralph and I are friends despite being cut from different bolts of geo-political-cultural cloth.
We are unique, we are the same, and I sense that every time I hear An American Trilogy and every time I see the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze while singing our National Anthem, which Ralph and I now sing with a different understanding, with the correct ending, standing older, but taller, more proud and respectful, and grateful.
Grateful that many have died fighting for the principle of freedom and liberty and the United States of America. And grateful that floating out there somewhere in our memory ether is a jukebox of music carved from our voices, hovering around us like Winston Churchill’s ubiquitous stogie smoke that magically never blows away.