My mother’s family were musicians. Her father played the fiddle and the clarinet. Her mother played a guitar and the piano. My mother liked music and made sure my sisters and I learned to play an instrument or two. We had a piano in our house before we owned a television. Our parents bought us instruments, paid for lessons, nagged us to practice and sent us to band camp.
Our father, however, could not play any musical instrument. He could not sing. He was completely tone deaf and could not carry a tune. His lack of musical ability may have been connected to the fact that he had a severe hearing loss from the time he was quite young. His father died when our dad was only seven years old. Our grandmother was left alone with nine children between the ages of 14 and six weeks. There was not much opportunity for piano lessons.
Not being able to sing on key never bothered my dad. He whistled while he worked. He didn’t whistle any particular tune. His whistling was more a tuneless rhythm than a song. Still, he sang every hymn, every Sunday. He sang the National Anthem at ball games. He didn’t stand with his head down, muttering quietly as he imperceptibly move his lips. He stood straight, opened his mouth and sang loudly…and off key. Maybe he didn’t know he couldn’t sing. Maybe he just liked to sing anyway and it didn’t matter to him what he sounded like. He wasn’t singing for “American Idol” or some other television show. He just sang.
We have become a country of non-singers. Look around you when the National Anthem is being played. Very few people really sing. We have lost the idea of folk music, music of common people, passed on from one person to another and sung by nearly everyone. It was music played by amateurs for amateurs. People sang while they worked. They sang in church. They got together and made music.
It seems now we have gotten the idea that the only people who should sing and play music are professionals or maybe children in the school band. We think we need to be “good” to sing. The rest of us just hold the book and barely move our lips.
Recently I had the chance to play my cello with a group of amateur musicians as part of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s annual Winter Conference. The banquet entertainment was so-called “Homegrown Music.” There were about a dozen of us singing and playing harmonicas, guitars, piano, fiddle, accordion…and one cello. That didn’t count the half dozen or so talented children who upstaged us all. No one was excluded because they weren’t “good enough.” Everyone suggested songs to play and sing. We sang folk songs, country songs, old-time songs, blues, rock. We played the songs we had practiced and then we improvised and played for a couple of hours more. The audience gradually wandered off. We hardly noticed because we were having so much fun. Some in the “Homegrown Music” group have played in professional bands. Others are self taught. Most can’t read a note of music. Some of us can’t play by ear. It didn’t matter. No one wrote a critique for the next morning’s paper. No one gave us a score. Everyone sang along and we all had a good time. I learned some new songs and improved my ability to play without a sheet of music in front of me.
Singing has gotten national press in recent weeks. Mitt Romney very courageously sang “God Bless America” a cappella and mostly on key. President Obama sang a song by soul music singer, Al Green at a fund raising event. Neither of them is a great singer, but they obviously both sing in the shower.
Perhaps our First Lady said it best when asked to comment on Governor Romney’s rendition of “America the Beautiful.” She said,”It’s a beautiful song,” adding that, “it is America’s song, and it’s a song that’s mean to be sung by every American.”
Even if you can’t carry a tune.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains