I played the oboe as a girl. When I practiced, our family’s miniature dachshund would howl. I shut him in the kitchen at the opposite end of the house, but even then I occasionally heard him. I don’t know how my family stood the racket.
I didn’t even have to play: all I had to do was stand in front of the dog and put the reed near my lips, and he’d throw back his head and wail. I figured he was protesting the sound that hurt his ears, but sometimes it seemed we were harmonizing.
Decades later, my father gave me an audiotape he had secretly made of me practicing in my bedroom: held notes, then scales, then arpeggios for an entire half-hour. I was about to throw away the tape when I heard, faintly in the background, my beloved pet, singing with his entire body from across the house.
My first few weeks in jail were traumatic. Young and pregnant, I had trouble acclimating to the loud, raucous environment. The other inmates’ habits of sleeping during the day and talking all night didn’t help. Due to my high-risk pregnancy, I had my own cell, but the bars did nothing to keep out the yelling, laughing, and name-calling.
Driven to tears by lack of sleep, I decided to sing softly to my unborn baby. I’d filched a hymnal from the church room, and when the lights went out and the noise started up, I began to sing a song I’d heard as a child in my grandfather’s country Baptist church. After a while I realized the noise had died down to a whisper. I panicked, thinking the other inmates were waiting for me to stop so they could make fun of my voice or my choice of church hymns instead of pop tunes. I sang the last notes of the song and paused.
After a few moments came a plaintive request: “Just one more?”
I met Murad in the summer of 2010, in Svaneti, a region of the Republic of Georgia. He and the other singers in the choir Ensemble Riho lived in villages at the base of the Caucasus Mountains, miles of snowcapped peaks that separated them from Russia. I was there with two other Americans to make recordings of some of the oldest folk songs in the area.
I hardly ever spoke directly to Murad, but he conveyed a feeling, a way of existing in the world. Even if he had tried to explain his music to me, I wouldn’t have understood; we didn’t speak each other’s language.
Foreigners who had come before us had given Murad a nickname: the “Rock Splitter,” for the volume of his singing. I expected a large, hairy-chested man, but he was slight and nimble, with ruddy cheeks and silvery eyes. Between recording takes at our makeshift studio, he would stare pensively into the distance. A farmer, he spent his days under the sun, and I got the sense that he was unaccustomed to being inside.
When Murad opened his mouth to sing, his neck veins bulged, and his stomach grew taut. His voice was loud but also remarkably graceful. Something other than sheer volume gave his music its strength. After several days of watching him and his fellow choir members sing thousand-year-old chants and centuries-old tales of war and survival, I decided Murad’s power lay in his ability to embody and transmit history. He was not singing about himself; he was transforming his body into a vessel for the music, for the past, for the many people who had sung before him. That widening of the neck, those big breaths, that steady stream of immense sound were all a negation of the self.
At its best, singing is a selfless act.
Providence, Rhode Island
Most days my father kept to himself, quietly shuffling through our house, lost in thought, never looking up long enough to see me. By age ten I’d learned that the best way to make him smile was to sing a song in Farsi, especially in front of friends and family. Eyeing the expectant faces of my dad and his brothers, I’d take a deep breath and belt out “Daybaahlal.” The song’s lyrics were the only Farsi I knew. I was insecure and didn’t enjoy singing, but I did it so my dad, my baba, would be happy. When Baba was happy, a light seemed to spill from him, illuminating everyone.
Just as I’d sung the last note, Baba would beam and say, “See? There’s no accent. Can you believe it?” Then he would call me “ashenghem” — my dear — before slipping back into his thoughts.
When my father had first come to the United States, he’d been spit on as a foreigner. It wasn’t my singing that delighted him; it was hearing the language of our ancestors on my lips, untarnished by an American accent.
Sitting in my office cubicle on the afternoon of my twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, I wondered whether the next call on my phone would be my husband, hinting at his plans for the evening.
Most of my co-workers were in their twenties and thirties. In my bulge-hiding clothes, I felt awkward and invisible around these perky, short-skirted women. As five o’clock approached, they discussed their after-work plans with excitement, but my husband still hadn’t called.
Suddenly I heard the pluck of a steel string, and my handsome husband, guitar in hand, rounded the corner. In a baritone as rich as melted chocolate, he serenaded me with Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” while my co-workers gathered around us.
After that, my younger office mates looked at me differently, knowing I was loveable.
When I was in eighth grade, I tried out for the school talent show with Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” It was a disaster, and my younger sister, who witnessed the performance, has never let me forget it. But I still love to sing.
When I was pregnant in 2009, I went into early labor and had to spend three weeks in the hospital on bed rest. When I was feeling scared for my unborn daughter, I’d sing myself to sleep. The song that calmed me most, and also stopped her from kicking at 3 AM, was Ani DiFranco’s “Joyful Girl.”
Rhiannon was born at twenty-six weeks, weighing one pound, fifteen ounces, and was immediately taken to the neonatal intensive-care unit. Lying awake, painfully aware of the emptiness in my belly, I decided to walk down the hall to see her. The night nurse told me to spend as much time as I needed at my daughter’s bedside and gave me some pointers on calming and comforting a preemie.
Over the next two hours, I talked to Rhiannon and touched her. At one point I could tell she was crying, though I couldn’t hear a sound because of the ventilator down her throat. I cradled her head and feet, as the nurse had instructed, and sang “Joyful Girl.” Her tears subsided, and she finally settled down. That’s when I started to cry.
Allen Park, Michigan
I’m visiting my sister in the small northern town where she lives, trying to reconcile with her after a long period in which we each pretended not to have a sister. In the movies the two estranged siblings run into each other’s arms and cry, and all is forgiven. We are discovering that in real life it’s much harder.
My sister takes me into the hills in her truck to show me the flora and let me smell the air and listen to the birds and the sound of our footsteps. We talk and talk, desperately trying to meet each other on common ground but never quite succeeding, always talking under and around what we really mean.
I am here on the weekend of the town’s summer celebration, and we go to check out the festivities, which include a lip-syncing competition. Giggling like girls, my sister and I carefully select a song to perform together: Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.”
Our father, dead for several years now, loved Tammy Wynette. As girls we would laugh and call her “Tammy Whine-ette” and compare her voice to the sound of a cat with its tail caught in the door. “Just you wait,” he would say. “There will come a day when you appreciate this music.” This only made us laugh harder.
Now we sit together on a stool made for one and vie for space, hips pushing against each other. When the music starts, we don’t just move our lips; we sing as loud as we can. My chest opens, and my voice comes out clear and strong.
I sing for my father. I sing for the yearning I have felt on this visit to understand my sister. I sing for the moments when we have connected: Me lying on her couch with a headache, and her bringing me a cold cloth and saying, “I worry about how hard you take things.” Her showing me how to shoot a gun, circling my shoulder with her body, holding my arm steady, telling me I did fine even though I never actually pulled the trigger.
And now this: the two of us singing about standing by our man — the father who made us laugh — and standing by each other enough, at least, to try to heal old wounds. When the song ends, I don’t want it to be over.
Victoria, British Columbia
While other fathers put on suits and ties and went to work in offices, my father slept off his hangover from the previous night’s gig. He was a nightclub singer who accompanied himself on the piano. Completely self-taught, he couldn’t read a single note of sheet music. “That fly shit,” he called it. He’d been playing professionally since he was twenty and had scarcely held a day job in his life.
When I was nineteen, I started singing with my father. I’d been trained in classical flute, and it was difficult to break away from the rigid confines of Mozart, but I tried to let go and just feel the music. My father and I played gigs together, and I would sometimes sit in with his friends’ bands, but I never felt comfortable. When people told me I was good, I assumed they were saying it only because I was Bobby’s daughter. I’d heard the musicians ragging on others who sat in, and I imagined they talked the same way about me behind my back. So I returned to the orderly world of classical music, and my dad kept playing nightclub gigs and drinking. Years later, at the age of sixty-two, he died of liver cancer and cirrhosis.
If I could wish for anything, it would be this: to sit in a dark, smoky club, sipping a cocktail and listening to my father sing. I would ask for “St. James Infirmary” and “It Was a Very Good Year,” and maybe I would get up and perform “Unforgettable” with him, or he’d accompany me on piano while I sang “My Funny Valentine.” Maybe this time I would relax and enjoy myself.
The day after my seventeenth birthday, in December 1971, I was on a troop-transport plane flying to Tachikawa Air Force Base in Japan. Nine other female Brigham Young University students and I had been hired to sing and dance for troops stationed at remote military bases. We had designed and sewn our own costumes: polyester bell-bottomed pantsuits in pastel colors, with high collars and sleeves down to our wrists. The Pentagon wanted us to project an image of the “girl next door.”
We were the only females on a plane filled with hundreds of young men in uniform, all battling for seats near us. During the flight, we performed an impromptu concert in the aisles of the plane: a couple of Carole King hits, some easy-listening standards, and even a few sterilized rock songs.
The other girls had suggested that I, the youngest in the group, locate the highest-ranking enlisted man in the crowd, sit coyly on his lap, and sing the Peter, Paul and Mary tune “If I Had My Way” — about Delilah’s seduction of Samson — while running my fingers through his regulation crew cut. I did, and it brought down the house, on the plane and at all our performances, from Japan to Iwo Jima. I basked in the adoring applause of homesick boys easily enchanted by an inexperienced chanteuse.
Nina Wyatt Harrington
South Burlington, Vermont
In 1969 I was thirteen and barely past my obsession with Nancy Drew mysteries and the Monkees (I had a crush on Davy Jones and practiced kissing his picture in teen magazines) when I met Ricky, a fifteen-year-old with sideburns and a guitar. He introduced me to rock-and-roll.
I was a shy outcast, a wannabe anything. Ricky was well informed about antiwar protests, peace and love, and the wonders of psychedelics. He exposed me to Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar. One night his dad drove us to the movies to see Monterey Pop, a documentary about the 1967 rock-music festival.
Ricky and I were making out in the dark when a scorching, squealing guitar caught my attention, and I looked up at the screen. The spotlight caught a woman’s legs in tight, bell-bottomed pants, shaking, jerking, and vibrating with an insistence, an assertion, a sensual power.
I had never seen or heard Janis Joplin before. Until that moment, I hadn’t known a woman could be that real. The hair flying; the woe all over her face (I’d thought emotions had to be hidden); the unchoreographed gyrations; the throbbing, sultry music — it felt like a rite of passage. This was not Nancy Drew.
I didn’t go out and start wearing feathers in my hair the next day. It was probably six months before I even had one of Janis’s albums. But as I sat there in that theater, I felt soul and passion poke their first cautious shoots up through the dirt of my crippling self-consciousness. I now knew there was a way to express pain, love, and sorrow, and that it was OK to be all of yourself, even the darker and more powerful parts.
Over the years since, I haven’t always lived true to what I learned from Janis, but whenever I’m confronted with life’s cruel mysteries or unexpected joys, I still hear her sing, “Tryyyy just a little bit harder.”
Karen V. Garrison
Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, I traveled to Eastern Europe to see for myself what had become of the place. I had certain expectations from my reading: endemic poverty, grim winters, terrible wars, genocide, brutal occupations, and political repression. But what I hadn’t expected was the singing. People sang everywhere, it seemed. They sang fearlessly, unashamedly, needing no encouragement, only the barest excuse or no excuse at all. Drinkers in a pub would break into spontaneous, full-throated song. Schoolchildren sang on the bus. Even the most destitute bums, degraded by a lifetime of alcoholism, cradled their bottles of vodka and crooned to themselves.
This could not have been more different from the culture in which I’d grown up. In our suburb in upstate New York casual, untrained singing was unheard of. No one hummed while doing dishes or homework. No one sang in the shower or bathtub. I walked to school every day and rode a two-mile paper route for three years, and not once did I hear singing. When people drank, they got mean, or lachrymose, or first one, then the other. The Catholic school I attended once tried to hire a music teacher, but she lost her temper when my fellow six-graders and I refused to sing (ironically enough) Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”
There was one exception: my sister. Siblings in large families tend to have one outcast, and she was ours, the butt of all our jokes, the recipient of the cruelest nicknames, the target of our unconcealed scorn and derision. She was also the most sensitive, the most unable to hide her feelings. That singing came to her naturally was in our eyes a sign that she was a hopeless weirdo. She only ever sang behind the closed door of her room, but she did so exuberantly, gloriously, without restraint and with enormous soul. And, as if following the example displayed on every wall of our house in portraits of the bleeding Jesus, we crucified her for it.
In later years we realized our mistake and tried to encourage her. Too late. The damage had been done. The rest of us have all left our dump of a hometown, but she still lives there, middle-aged, obese, and alone.
In Madagascar you don’t just hop in the car and drive to your destination; you take a bush taxi: an old twelve-passenger van carrying twenty-five people — with baskets, chickens, goats, and bananas strapped to the top — or a large diesel truck spewing black smoke and hauling loads of rice, peanuts, fish, and upwards of forty passengers sitting or standing where they can.
It was on one of the trucks that I returned from a weekend trip visiting a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. It seemed the entire village was trying to squeeze into a vehicle big enough for twenty. Just when it seemed impossible to cram another living soul on board, a few more would pile in. As a kindness to me, a foreigner, they allowed me to sit up front with the driver — and four other people. I uncomfortably straddled the stick shift as we set out.
The truck broke down shortly after our departure. Some passengers happily jumped out to make a quick repair, and in no time we were on our way again. Then the truck’s engine groaned and creaked, and we came to a lurching halt. The repairs were slower this time, but no one really seemed to care whether it took ten minutes or ten hours. Children entertained themselves staring at me or scribbling in the sand.
As the sun began to set, we once again climbed into the vehicle and crawled farther down the road — until someone called out that we had a flat tire. Everyone poured out, and while a few worked on the tire, a group of men formed a circle under a tree and began singing and clapping, their faces beaming.
I sat in the grass nearby, tears of happiness welling up in my eyes. If this had happened in the States, would people be joyful? Would there be singing?
Vanessa Rae Many
For a few years after college, a group of childhood friends and I gathered regularly to eat burritos, watch a ballgame or play poker, and talk late into the night. Our discussions often centered on the mysterious customs of women or uncertainty about our futures.
In late August, just before two of us went off to graduate school, the group gathered one last time. Heading out the door at the end of the evening, we noticed a full moon above, and I felt strangely compelled to sing an old Irish song about wishing friends the best of luck before parting down different paths. So I did. It was a little awkward, but no one said anything.
Over the years each friend who was there that night has made a point of mentioning that song to me. A couple have asked for the lyrics, and one even requested I sing it for him over the phone. I kept wondering, What’s the big deal? Then it hit me: that had been the first time any of us had expressed loving feelings toward the others. As males we didn’t know how to show each other affection. My friends wanted to relive the moment we’d had as young men standing awkwardly under a full moon.
Morro Bay, California
Sister Mary was a portly, asthmatic nun who could not have been more than four foot ten. Her face had a pinched appearance, as if it had been wedged into her habit, and her high-pitched, squeaking voice communicated nothing but menace. If you closed your eyes, you would swear she was a witch.
When it was time to practice our hymns, we all stood, and Sister Mary blew into a pitch pipe, raised her hand like a conductor, and signaled for us to begin. A couple of bars into the first hymn, the sister clapped her hands and shouted, “Stop! Someone in here is singing off-key.”
She blew into the pitch pipe and we began to sing again, but now she was pacing the room, tilting her head from side to side, listening intently for the offending ten-year-old.
She stopped us again, divided us into six groups, and had us form our desks into circles. We were to sing into the space in the middle. As we did, she went from one circle to the next, poking her head in. When she came to my group, she pointed at me and said, “You! Just move your lips.”
In my thirties, after years of not attending Mass, I found a Catholic church that made an honest effort to capture the spirit of Christ in the liturgy. It also had an active music program. Naturally I was reluctant to participate, but after many months of just mouthing the words, there came a day when I was so moved by the spirit of the congregation that I let myself sing.
After services that day, a woman who had been sitting in front of me asked, “Were you ever in the seminary?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Your voice is so lovely,” she replied, “I thought you must have trained.”
Thomas H. Mallouk
Over Christmas break in 1955 I attended an international Christian-student conference at Ohio University. Foreign-exchange students from all over the world came to meet with their American counterparts.
Less than a month earlier the Montgomery bus boycott had put the civil-rights movement in the news. On our first day there, while a crowd of hundreds waited for the auditorium doors to open, some students from the South began loudly singing “Dixie.” African students appeared concerned, and African American students looked downright unhappy. The song ended with a few rebel yells, followed by silence.
Then, from somewhere in the crowd, a deep voice started to sing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Others joined in, until nearly everyone was singing, erasing any doubt about where that conference would stand on the question of equal rights for all.
Frederick E. Jessett
I run a local talent night at a hundred-year-old tavern in a tiny cowboy town in the mountains of northern California. When there’s not enough music talent, I get up and sing. Patrons often think the songs I pick are too weird, not country-western enough. In recent years, however, through the music of Carla Bozulich, I’ve discovered Willie Nelson.
Carla once covered Willie’s entire 1975 release Red Headed Stranger. I bought his CD and listened to it side by side with hers, and I found that I love Willie Nelson. He is just so sparsely perfect, and the quaver in his voice so hauntingly exact. But I also love Carla, who sings every word like a scream and a warning. I decided to learn the entire album and tried to incorporate both their styles in my renditions.
The songs on Red Headed Stranger are full of longing, loyalty, and death: A man is done wrong by his wife, who leaves him for her lost love. So the man hunts her down on horseback and kills her and her lover. Then he wanders Blue Rock, Montana, with his stallion and his murdered love’s bay pony. When I sing these songs, I feel more American.
At the tavern one night I decided to perform the title song from the record.
There’s something about the few cowboys left in town. They seem confused about how to walk around with a cellphone and spurs, as if they were looking for a way to bridge the Wild West with the present. They know me as a liberal: the kind of woman who wants to tamper with their clearcut-forest lifestyle and test the water where their cattle have shit. But that night when I sang, “The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset / The stranger went free, of course / For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman / Who’s tryin’ to steal your horse,” the cowboys went wild. They called the bartender over to fix me up with enough drinks for two weeks. I’d hit something in that shaky line. It didn’t matter who we’d been before. In that moment we were all in it together.
Margaret Elysia Garcia
Crescent Mills, California
My wedding was an intimate affair with just a few close friends and family. Everything went smoothly during the ceremony and after, despite my father’s comment to me at dinner: “I hope you don’t feel as bad as you look.” I attributed it to his overindulgence in the wine.
At the reception my husband, who has an excellent voice, asked the piano player to accompany him while he sang. I lack singing ability, but that night I wanted to join him. My wedding dress brushed my ankles as I strode across the room to stand beside my new spouse at the baby-grand piano and sing. I didn’t even try to keep my voice lower than his.
As the piano player paused to look for a new piece of music, my father marched over and grabbed my forearm. “Shut up,” he said. “Can’t you see that no one is listening to you?” I just smiled and turned away. He came back a second time and told me, “You can’t sing.”
“I know,” I said, and I went on singing.
St. Louis, Missouri
I had always liked to sing. In my years of travel, I would join choirs wherever I went. Some were church choirs, which I wouldn’t stay with for long. It just didn’t seem right to sing with them and not believe in their dogma. One of the best I sang with was a nondenominational community choir in Atlanta, Georgia.
I discovered them quite by accident. I was a licensed master plumber, and one day a customer heard me humming a classical tune while I worked. He was very knowledgeable about music — far more so than I — and told me he had just helped organize a community choir with the intent of performing some Easter concerts. He invited me to come to the next rehearsal, and I went.
It was a group of about thirty men and women, all of them gay. This did not bother me, and my being straight wasn’t a problem for them. All I cared about was proving that I might be good enough to sing with them.
I was. Barely. They carried me for the most part.
Over the next few months I made some new friends at rehearsals and even got a couple of jobs when my fellow choir members found out what I did for a living. During Easter season we performed several concerts. The last, at a historic church near the Emory University campus, was attended by the old-money upper crust, including an influential plumbing contractor, the very man who had trained me years earlier to get my license. Once he saw me performing in a gay chorus, my reputation was tarnished. Within a few months I was out of work and had to leave Atlanta.
But I still like to sing.
Stephen D. Shearer
While traveling on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, I rented a Subaru Forester to get around and sleep in. On this island wild roosters, hens, and chicks could be seen and heard everywhere.
One night it was still dark when I heard a rooster’s crow. Shut up, I thought. I want to sleep. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, I heard it again. “Shut up!” I said out loud, but of course the crowing continued. I had no choice but to listen.
After a while, I noticed a crow from another direction, then another one from farther away, adding up to seven different voices.
It’s not so bad, I thought. They are just greeting the new day. They’re happy the sun’s come back! I suddenly remembered a tune of my childhood: “Wake up, wake up, the rooster has crowed / The sun has set out on its path of gold.” It was a canon we’d sung at school, divided into three groups. Another song of sunrise bubbled up from deep down, as if the roosters’ cries were fishing rods, pulling up melodies and words of long ago from a dark pond. I hummed the verses of that song, hearing us girls in sixth grade sing it in the classroom, our young teacher directing us. More and more songs arose in me — of dawn and night; of seasons, weather, and hiking — and I suddenly felt great gratitude to the roosters whose crowing had triggered these melodies and memories, to the teacher who had taught me, to the composers who had made the tunes, and to the poets who had written the words.
Santa Cruz, California
I make my living as a singer-songwriter, and I once opened for Livingston Taylor at a small dinner club in Pawling, New York.
Half an hour before the sold-out show began, I went to the dressing room and changed into a skimpy dress that clung to my body. As I put on my tights, I heard that awful crackling sound elastic makes when it is too old to be called “elastic” anymore. There was no time to buy a new pair, and since I hadn’t shaved my legs, going onstage without dark stockings wasn’t an option.
My tights began to descend on the short walk from dressing room to stage. With each song that I sang, I could feel them drifting farther down my waist. It was only a matter of time before the crotch would fall below the hem of my dress.
Unable to ignore it any longer, I placed my guitar on the stand and told the audience what was going on. They laughed and cheered as I clumsily hiked my tights back up. When I finished my set, they gave me a standing ovation.
Woodstock, New York
I met Bobbie at a summer camp where we were both counselors. She took one look at my cowboy hat and said, “You think you could be a cowboy with that hat? I’ve seen more macho hats on ballet dancers!”
This made me laugh, and though I was normally shy, I could not help opening up to her. I called her “Tough Girl,” and she called me “Mr. Intensity.”
I had been playing guitar for a couple of years, and once the campers were in bed, the counselors would gather around the fire, and I would bring out my acoustic and start to play. I couldn’t sing very well, but every night Bobbie and I sang “Me And Bobby McGee” together. We were soon a couple.
After camp was over, I took Bobbie out several times to dinner or a movie or a concert. Then I had to go live with my mother for a few months, and we were apart. I wrote Bobbie every night. I also composed a song about her called “Bobbie’s Dream.” I meant to surprise her with it when we met back at camp again, but I couldn’t wait. I told her about it in my next letter. She wrote back to say she was breaking up with me.
“Sometimes you are too intense,” she said. “Right now I need to be away from you.”
I played her song all night long, drinking beer and weeping between — and sometimes during — verses.
The next summer, when I got to camp, there was Bobbie climbing off the bus.
I went and got my guitar and sat behind the cabin to avoid her, strumming and looking at the trees. Then I heard a soft cough. Bobbie stood there, arms crossed.
“OK,” she said. “Let’s hear this song you wrote about me.”
“You really want to hear it?”
“Nobody ever wrote a song about me before,” she said. “But I knew you were the one person who could do it.”
She smiled, and I picked the opening notes slowly. Then I began to sing.
St. Petersburg, Florida
The winter I was nine, my father decided to send cassette tapes of my family singing Christmas carols to his five Midwest siblings for presents. This was before the days of easy cassette duplication, so five tapes required five separate recording sessions. We sat in the living room around a cassette recorder, xeroxed song sheets in our hands. Again and again we sang the sappy carols, never quite harmonizing the way our father wanted. He’d rewind the tape and stab the red RECORD button with his index finger as though daring us to fail.
I imagined those tapes traveling through the postal system like a virus in a bloodstream and arriving in snow-covered mailboxes. I hoped my cousins would record Led Zeppelin songs over them. I couldn’t imagine anyone willingly listening to one.
Today I put my three-year-old son down for a nap, and after I’d left the room, he began to croon to his stuffed tiger. He sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” over and over, laughing between iterations. He sounded happier than I have ever felt. I stood outside his room, lips moving along with the words, not making a sound.
My mother was a diva in both senses: she was self-centered, vain, and demanding; and she had a good operatic voice. When I was a girl, she was in the chorus at church, performed in a production of The King and I, and sang along at home to her recording of Odetta Sings Dylan.
As my mother reached old age, her difficult nature was complicated by senility, and singing became her only way to connect to others. Through singing she could still say, Look at me! I’m special!
When she could no longer live on her own, my siblings and I moved her into an elder-care facility. For the first couple of months the staff and other residents complimented our mother on her beautiful voice. She would sing in any situation, appropriate or not, so long as there was a good crowd in attendance. Eventually complaints were made. The facility issued warnings and eventually gave us notice that she would be evicted if she didn’t stop singing.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say to my extravagant redheaded mother, “Could you please not sing.” It wouldn’t have worked anyway. For Christmas that year I gave her an illustration of a red-haired woman in a purple robe standing on a mountaintop, arms spread and mouth open wide. The caption read, “Don’t you DARE not sing.”
We moved her to a small group home, where the few other residents were mostly catatonic and not bothered by noises. Her audience gone, our mother sang less and less. Within months she became ill with a virus. She lingered for a week or two more, and before she died, she was unable to make a sound.
Greenwood Village, Colorado
Prisons are noisy. In the federal institution where I teach, the loudspeaker blares all day long with announcements. Keys rattle. People yell. Metal doors slam. I like to put on soft music in my classroom to mitigate the cacophony. We also sing, especially in history class. New students register shock the first time I suggest it. When I tell them that singing has always been part of the American story, they roll their eyes, look sideways, and generally appear bored with such nonsense. Then I say with a smile, “No singing, no credit!”
They get more comfortable after a song or two. We sing sea chanteys and work songs and folk songs and spirituals. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is often their favorite.
A few years ago I was able to organize a prison choir. The spots filled quickly. There were men willing to sacrifice their prison wages to sing. They officially met twice a week but soon added evening and weekend practices. One told me that singing was the only thing that helped him forget he was locked up.
These men from many backgrounds harmonized beautifully together. Those able to read music helped the others. I was nervous about having so many Christian songs in the repertoire, but no one complained. The men were all proud of their ability to sing “Ave verum corpus” in Latin. “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “We’re Brothers Forever” became their signature tunes.
The choir sang at church on Sundays and at all the graduations and ceremonies in the prison. One year, at the warden’s suggestion, they put together a Christmas program. In a room darkened except for twinkling Christmas lights, we stood to sing “Silent Night” — inmates, staff, and guests, all together.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
A tall, thin, painfully shy eleven-year-old girl, I stood in an empty auditorium before a panel of judges and sang “Caro Mio Ben,” a song chosen for me by my voice teacher, Mrs. Gurney.
“It’s a love song,” Mrs. Gurney had told me. “Sing it like you feel it in your heart!”
Standing alone on that wooden stage, I opened my mouth to sing, but my throat clenched tight, and the voice that emerged was reedy, wavery. When the song was over, the judges looked down at their papers and said thank you; I was free to go.
Twenty-five years later, I sat in my cluttered living room with an acoustic bass in my hands. Sitting across from me, our knees almost touching, was Caleb, who sang as sweetly as Paul Simon. He had responded to a flyer I’d posted at the music store, looking for other musicians to play in an old-time country band. I played a Carter Family song and did my best to show Caleb how to sing it in my thin, nervous voice: “Once again, dear, it’s rose time, it’s June time, / and the flowers they bloom as of you.”
When I was finished, Caleb said, “I think you should sing it.”
“Really?” I said. “But your voice is much nicer.”
“No, I think you should sing it.” That’s all he said.
A few months later we had a band: Caleb on lead vocals and guitar, Riley on banjo, Nancy on drums, and me on bass and backup vocals. My voice had grown stronger, but that was in the privacy of the practice space.
For our first gig we played at an old bar in town. We shared the bill with two other bands, and a big crowd had come out. I belted out the backup vocals for “Anchored in Love” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Then it was time for my feature: “I Found You among the Roses.” My voice got a little wobbly, and I sang like a small, nervous bird. But when I was finished, there was cheering and wild applause.
My rancher parents loved show tunes. Mom listened to them on her Stromberg-Carlson console stereo, our nicest piece of furniture: nine feet long with bass speakers the size of truck tires. You could hear it on the far side of the neighbor’s corrals. Dad sang his favorites from The King and I, South Pacific, and Carousel while working around the property. Forty years later I can hear him singing, “Don’t laugh at my jokes too much. / People will say we’re in love.”
In the early 1980s I was divorced from my first wife and living in Santa Monica, California. My old friend Alice had moved back to town and was temporarily staying in my second bedroom. She would come in late after an unsuccessful night at the bars, and we’d talk about how dire the dating situation was. We each agreed that the other was “a pretty good catch” — but, we quickly added, “not for me.”
Early one morning Alice and I decided to ride our bikes south through Venice Beach. We were in great spirits, pedaling hard and talking about everything and nothing. It turned out she shared my fondness for old Broadway hits.
“Sing me a show tune!” Alice demanded. I demurred, but she insisted.
What should I sing? “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”? “If I Were a Rich Man”? Instead, I spontaneously began singing a tune from My Fair Lady: “Let a woman in your life, / and your serenity is through. / She’ll redecorate your home, / from the cellar to the dome, / and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you!”
Alice almost fell off her bike, she laughed so hard. I sang her all the verses I could remember: “I’d be equally as willing / for a dentist to be drilling / than to ever let a woman in my life.”
In hindsight I realize there were other, more romantic songs I could have chosen: “Shall We Dance?” perhaps, or “Some Enchanted Evening.” But that My Fair Lady song charmed her.
Twenty-two years later we are still together. My home has been redecorated. I have been overhauled.
Manchester Barry Price
On New Year’s Eve 1959 my parents, my brother, and I were traveling a long stretch of highway in the family car and singing songs like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.” Then my brother and I grew sleepy, and the love songs started.
I must have fallen asleep, because our father roused us and said, “Right this very minute a new decade is being born.”
My brother and I sat up and gazed out the windows of the Pontiac. I expected fireworks, bright neon colors in the sky, something. But the only light on that dark two-lane highway came from our headlights.
I was saying my private goodbye to the decade when my parents began to sing again: “I’ll be loving you, always. / With a love that’s true, always.” This was “their” song.
Our father died of pneumonia at the age of eighty. As the machines were disconnected and the monitor tracked his slowing heartbeat, we stood in a circle around his bed, bereft. My throat was too tight to speak.
Our mother held his hands and said, “It’s been a great trip.” Then she began to sing, her voice remarkably strong: “I’ll be loving you, always. / With a love that’s true, always.”
Attracted by the sound of my mother’s voice, the nurses came and stood with us until the lines on the monitor went flat.
San Antonio, Texas