Friday, September 25, 2015
A Legacy of Song (and a set of strings)
I can't remember a time when music wasn't a part of my life. I remember my grandmother playing her old, upright piano when I was young, her soft, pale hands seeming to float over the keys, barely touching them. Sometimes she would put a heavy record on the record player and we grandkids would march around her living room to the straight beats of Sousa marches, pretending to direct the band.
My mom played us slowly sweet love songs from the war years; singing those bittersweet tunes in her pure, clear voice. She and I played piano duets together often and had a grand time. My brothers and sister and I were all in the band, so music was constantly leaking out from under closed bedroom doors while we worked on memorizing songs for the field shows. My sister spent many hours a day at the baby grand, practicing Bach, Mozart and Chopin, mastering scales and arpeggios. John Gary and Al Hirt records played in the back room and we sang along with Mitch. Music layered upon music, woven into the minutes of every day, ironed into our shirts.
When I was 18 years old I picked up a guitar and fell in love; it became a part of who I was from that day to this. I sang at Wesley Foundation lunches, worship services and retreats while I was in college. I sang at the Baptist Student Union and in christian coffee houses. I sang at churches all over Tulsa. I gave up any thoughts of going to medical school; I was hooked on music. My friend Jenny and I practiced our harmonies nightly in our dorm rooms in preparation for going on the road and making it to the big time. (That didn't happen). I spent a year or two playing to churches around Tulsa in a gospel guitar trio with close, exquisite harmony. I played for all my friends' weddings as well as way too many funerals. It was while singing and playing for a funeral of a relative that I landed my first job teaching music in the schools. There I sang for classes, concerts, assemblies and plays, I gave lessons after school, I made up songs for my children.
During that time I also joined a folk group and sang for the Folk Mass at the Catholic church for the next fifteen years. We went into the recording studio and made a couple of tapes. Music was the way I connected to everything Holy. All three of my children took turns singing and playing with the folk group as well. Thinking back, I realize that all of my dearest friends are people with whom I have made music in one way or another.
I lead choirs, made up choreography, wrote plays, taught ballroom dance to fifth graders, played for hundreds of instrumental and vocal solos at contests, taught thousands of children how to play the ukelele, the recorder, the piano, their voice. Through all of that, my guitar was there with me, in the classroom and out of it. Here is my favorite son, Able Worth, playing Christmas carols on my guitar. Yes, I started him on guitar too, and he went on to become a much better guitarist than I have ever been. He used to come up to my classroom and play demonstrations for my students.
A couple of summers ago I found myself at a spiritual retreat in the mountains of New Mexico. The group was very warm and open and we became close in that short time we had together. Someone had a guitar there and I picked it up to try a couple of songs, just for the heck of it. It felt good to wrap my arms around the wood again. By the end of the week I had worked up the courage to sing some songs around the campfire for the group. It was the first time I had sung in public in three years; a breakthrough moment for me.
Last Spring a friend invited me to come to a sing-along group that was forming with some of her friends in The City (OKC). It was not to be a performing group this time, just some friends sharing the old songs or some new ones if we wanted to. I went, and took my guitar. Lifting it out of its case, pulling the strap across my shoulder, settling my fingers on the strings; all of it was achingly familiar, like finding a long lost treasure; a homecoming. I had to turn my back and pretend to be studying a picture on the wall until my eyes cleared.
We meet once a month now, this group, and I am coming to know these new friends better and better. I like them. They are good people. We remember the same things, have lived through the same things, and know the words to all the same songs: folk songs and protest songs, silly songs: The Eagles, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, John Denver, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Jim Croce, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beetles. You probably know the lineup and could sing right along with us. I enjoy playing and the harder chords are coming back into my hands. The other guitarist plays a 12 string and knows all the licks I never took the time to master. It's great.
Last week I drove into Enid and spent an afternoon singing the songs from the Folk Group days with an old friend who was in the group as well. We hadn't sung together for ten years at least, yet were perfectly in sync with each other, remembering interesting, quirky things we had done on different songs, taking turns singing harmony. On one song we got through a verse or two and suddenly realized that neither one of us was singing the melody. That was someone else's part and we weren't even sure how it went. We smiled a lot and sounded amazing (in our own heads at least). It was good therapy. I think we may do it again, letting her daughters sing and play along with us if they choose to.
This morning, for the first time in years, I woke up with a song playing in my head; something that used to happen every single day of my life. I had to smile, and then laugh out loud. Music is finding me, saving me, giving me a voice again.