When the Music Died – Song of the Angels
When I was a child I used to love to sing. I would sing to myself all the time. Sitting in the corner, playing with my toys – I would chirp and croon and sing like a happy little bird rejoicing in his young life and the world around him. There was a song in my soul all the time.
And the world – I remember the world of days gone by. It seems like there were more sunny skies crowned with azure blue crowns and dotted with white diamonds; the greens seemed more vibrant; the flowers brighter; the world more innocent, full of wonder – alive. In a way those days seemed like springtime year around (except when it got stormy), full of the song of life. Or maybe it was that I was more innocent; that made it more alive . . . not so constricted by the jaded cynicism of society and the narrow views of man.
We went to church back then; it was an Episcopalian one. I remember the Father; a tall preacher, lean and thin, cloaked in black with a tuck of white around his neck – his angular smiling face – even then it seemed quite young and I wanted to be a lot like him; wanted to be a preacher for some time. But I was only four years old; maybe going on five.
I remember the drive – her warning me that I gotta do good; that I am going to sing for a position in the choir. I really don’t understand what all this means; only that I must sing, and if I get it right – I get to stand up in that balcony that overhangs the back of the room – a position coveted by me. The idea of being in the back of the church – unseen, but seeing everything – being able to more studiously observe, fascinates me.
We arrive at the church and they take me aside in one of the community rooms. It is a bright and early morning, probably about ten, and probably even on a Saturday. Standing in my dress up clothes and my too tight shoes before these two old ladies – both of them large in all directions – and them bending over; then squatting before me while my mother stood behind. And they told me to sing, softly encouraging me, the suddenly small shy and squirming boy.
As they were large and fluffy – and I could feel my mom’s hand on my shoulder tightening, encouraging me – I sang. And I must have sang quite well, for the ladies seemed impressed; they nodded and smiled broad smiles, encouraging my hesitant attempts, and then one of them turns to my mom and passionately says:
“He’s got the voice of an angel.”
And I ‘got in’. I hadn’t known exactly what I was doing, or what they had me sing – I still haven’t a clue, I was just a young boy standing there, singing my heart out to my heart’s content – but had I known . . .
I would have done the same thing.
For, it turned out, I loved being up in the balcony, me just a small boy. I think I was the only child ‘up there’ – up in the coveted balcony in the back of the church, overlooking the church floor – the pews in their dark lines, the fence across the alter – the alter where ‘he’ stood. I could see everything – and sometimes the religious procedure and pomp was so fascinating that I forgot even to sing, just watching what was going on. I would stand up there with my book in hand (not that I could read) – dressed in my white frock and smock, surrounded by all these huge men and women – all of them strangers in my mind. They always had me stand back a row or two – I guess there were some fears about me falling over the rail – but I’ll never forget being up there – singing, sometimes not – discretely watching, and seeing everything. Studying, observing the audience, observing the man up front – the alter boys crossing, the candles being lit – everything. I was a curious child with a curious mind – curious about it all.
People sometimes tell me I have a wonderful voice – like a radio personality or something. I guess it resonates some – especially if I make the effort. The black ladies out at work used to love my voice when I get on the P.A. System, testing it out – as well as out on the floor. “You have such a rich, nice voice!” they’d say (and I still get this sometimes). “You sound like a black man! You should be on TV or a radio host or something.” I just snort.
But the truth is: I have several voices and a number of dialects. Most are typically ‘Southern’, including a few ‘black’ ones. My favorite is an old time Southern farmer – boy! – are those guys hard to understand. “mumbly-mumble-mumble (something) mumbling mumble on . . .” with half of the hard consonants missing. And yeah: I can throw a real rich baritone out there; even a deep bass when I want to. Or a hard Marine Corps “command” – barked consonantly (with hard vowels as well). And I used to sing . . . sing so well when I was but a little child . . . where did the music go? What happened to change me into such a strangely silent child sometimes; what tore out my song?
I remember one time – I was maybe six years old or so – and we were traveling on a long trip cross-country.
Now these trips were nothing to sneeze at – long meaning thousands of miles (sometimes, but definitely if you were counting both ways) – in an un-airconditioned station wagon going across the western plains; hot, and in the middle of summer; sometimes hauling our dog along; sometimes not. And I used to sit in the back seat and sing . . . singing to myself while I played with my hands; played games in my mind . . . watching the small stitches going in and out of the vinyl seat; watching the sun play on the dog’s snot across the glass . . .
and I was singing to myself . . . chirping and perhaps crooning wordlessly; sometimes with words; sometimes with songs I knew (and I knew some; not many – just a few. Music was rarely played . . . ever). Rich was snoozing in the corner; the dog passed out behind (we kept him on tranquilizers during many a trip; otherwise he’d be throwing up all over us all of the way). There was nothing to do so I sang . . . playing with my hands (something I had often done) . . . and singing.
And then my parents started making fun of me. They kept on – ‘encouraging me’ – and then laughing . . .
and I became ashamed and just quit doing it.
Forever and until the end.
This is not to say I have lived an unmusical life. My mom sacrificed a lot to buy me a piano, and then to get tuned and fixed (how well I remember ALL of that!) – and then had me take lessons from a lady who lived across the road. Later on I joined a band – in sixth or seventh grade, I reckon; both orchestra and marching. My instrument of choice? The Sousaphone – a massive thing, capable of those bass notes I always longed to be reaching. I wish I’d chosen trumpet; violin – something much more portable. Maybe a harmonica; that’d be a good (and cheap) place to begin . . .
But music? When I was a little boy was “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” (“to see what he could see”) was my favorite song of all, ever. And it fits so well! (“Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”, on the other hand, was just an embarrassment, as was “Billy Boy” to my brother). Strange how songs containing your name can be an embarrassment – and stranger, odder, and funnier still is that my very first ‘favorite’ song still describes me so well – the desire to ramble and roam, poke into and see; travel . . . see what’s beyond the next bend or over the next hill. Or mountain. It’s something I have had in me for so long; forever, in fact, it seems. . . this drive to wander, wonder, and explore . . .
“Sometimes,” I tell my wife, “It’s curiosity which keeps me going. Wondering about what will happen in the next day, or year. Not to me, necessarily, but all mankind. What new wonders ‘they’ will find; what kind of ‘progress’ will they make; what kind of world are ‘they’ building versus my expectations (and theirs) of a ‘better one’.”
Curiosity drives me. This last summer I found myself singing again – albeit softly, and usually to myself. And inside – inside I could hear the angels sing – a chorus of billions singing with one voice; one note making them whole . . .
and hopefully I can sing again. Perhaps wordlessly with those words that go without saying; wordlessly words that sing of hope and love and pain; of the future and the past; of loss and beauty and grief and friends we have known . . . all of it. And hope I find I can hear the songs (albeit in our hearts of hearts, and perhaps without a sound) – of a small child, singing once again . . . for spring, for hope, for life . . . because it opens our eyes to the beauty, the beauty of all . . .