Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Carpenters, “A Song For You”

Every Friday for a while I’ll be sharing songs I love to sing and telling stories about their place in my life. Here I tell a story about the first celebrity death that hit me hard. I wrote this before the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, deaths that did not hit me particularly hard but did deeply affect many of my friends, and maybe you. It’s just part of being human to mourn the loss of people we didn’t really know, but whose work made us feel like we did. I wish somebody had explained that to me when I was a kid.

It could well be my first memory. Workday mornings, Dad’s alarm blaring, I’d get down out of bed and pad quietly into his room. If I lay still on the corner of his bed, he’d let me stay. While he got dressed in the dim light of his side-table lamp, his clock radio played softly on the Hit Parade station. I must have been three, because that’s how old I was when the Carpenters’ “Close to You” went to number one. Hit Parade played it every morning and I so looked forward to it. When it played, I’d close my eyes to see colors that flowed and shifted as Karen Carpenter sang. Such joy!

Growing up in the 1970s as I did, it was easy to be a Carpenters fan because their music saturated radio: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World,” “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” “Rainy Days and Mondays.” I especially loved “Only Yesterday.” I used to glide back and forth on our back-yard swing and sing it over and over again. I was in love with Karen Carpenter’s voice!

Those early records remained such radio staples that it was easy not to notice that the duo had few hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their early success brought enormous pressure, and they struggled to handle it. Richard wound up addicted to Quaaludes, a sedative. Karen dieted compulsively, to the point of damaging her health. Her case thrust anorexia nervosa into the public consciousness. Not only did they take time off to rest and recover, but the few songs they did release in those years just didn’t connect with as many people. Few became radio hits.

Meanwhile, I was just a teen who loved to hear and sing the songs from my favorite band. I had no idea the challenges Karen and Richard faced; all I knew of them as people came from their smiling personas on their frequent TV specials. And then, while idly watching TV one February evening in 1983, I caught this news brief on ABC:

I was shocked so deeply, so sharply, that I felt like I had suddenly been set on fire. The report went by so fast that part of me wasn’t even sure I had really heard it. There was no Internet to check for confirmation, and we didn’t have cable so I couldn’t switch to the fledgling CNN for more information.

I was deeply confused by the depth of my reaction. So much pain, so much grief, over a woman I didn’t actually know! I told my mom, my dad; they said they were sorry, but they were clearly surprised by how hard I was taking the news and didn’t know how to comfort me. I felt alone with my grief, which I couldn’t shake. Nobody knew how important Karen’s voice was to me. I scarcely knew until Karen died.

I had just one Carpenters album, a gift from my parents several years before. I ached to buy more so I could hear more of their songs. I saved my meager allowance and I did chores for neighbors for money for weeks and weeks until I had saved enough to buy another. Money in pocket, I rode the city bus to the mall, walked into Musicland, and picked an album out almost at random: A Song For You, from 1973.

ASongForYou

I came right back home and put the platter on my record player. The title track opened the album, and shortly Karen sang these words:

I love you in a place where there’s no space or time
I love you for in my life you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you

I could scarcely believe what I heard, and my head spun. I knew it wasn’t possible for Karen’s words to be a direct message for me, yet how could I not let them penetrate and help me grieve? At last, I cried openly. I began to move on.

I would buy the rest of the Carpenters’ catalog over the next couple years. Their music remains a beloved part of the soundtrack of my life. And I’ll always be grateful that fate, or perhaps random chance, delivered “A Song For You” to me first.

Click Play to listen to “A Song For You.”

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Music, Stories Told

Driving and singing: Wings, “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”

I sing. My goodness, do I love it. It’s a cathartic pleasure that lets me vent steam. Singing is key to my mental health!

While I’ll never be a singing star, I’ve got a decent voice, I can carry a tune, and I can sing out. If you want to hear, just join me at church on Sunday morning. But I do most of my singing in the car, alone. I plug in my iPhone and sing along to my entire music library. I know the words to most of the songs, a couple thousand in the library so far. They are the soundtrack of my life, and I love them.

In the weeks to come I’m going to share with you the songs I like to sing most. I’ll tell you something about them: a story about how they came to be, or how I came to know them, or stories from my life when I discovered them, or why I like to sing them.

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The first is “Daytime Nighttime Suffering,” the B-side to Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1979 disco-flamenco hit, “Goodnight Tonight.” That song was a staple of my school’s dances when it was new. I will always count it among my favorites, too.

But I didn’t know about “Daytime Nighttime Suffering” until college, when I bought my first copy of “Goodnight Tonight.” (It was actually a used copy of the 12-inch dance single!) “Daytime Nighttime Suffering” is so infectious and well constructed that it could have been a very successful hit, too. Who but Paul McCartney has such talent that he could afford to make a B side out A-side material?

When I finally did discover this song, it instantly became one of my top ten favorites from McCartney. And that’s saying something, because I’m an enormous McCartney fan and own all of his records.

But I find most of McCartney’s songs to be frustrating to sing because his vocal range and mine don’t line up. I’m forever straining to hit the highs or lows. Sometimes I just give up and switch octaves as needed to keep up with him. I’m sure that doesn’t sound all that great. But I can sing Daytime Nighttime Suffering all the way through in the same octave, and that’s satisfying!

Click Play to listen to “Daytime Nighttime Suffering:”

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Music, Stories Told

Singing to soothe my sons

I have three sons — a stepson pushing 30 and two teens. I’ve been thinking back on their lives as one of my sons turns 18 today and is making transitions toward his adult life.

I was there when the younger two boys entered the world. I did my best to be a good dad to my baby boys, and my fatherly duties naturally included soothing them when they were unhappy or sick. Like most kids, they’re unmistakably like their mother and father but night-and-day different from each other. But when they were in distress, both of them calmed down when I sang to them.

The older son was good natured from the start. It’s as if he awoke every morning and said to himself, “I think I’m going to have a happy day, and make sure everybody around me does too,” and then set about making it so. He filled his days with big smiles for everyone who caught his gaze. He encountered everything – toy, television show, meal, our dog, other children – with such joy and delight you’d think it was long lost and beloved.

Yet colic plagued him the first nine months of his life. He’d start to feel bad by late afternoon each day, and by the time I came home from work he was fully miserable and wailing like an air-raid siren. His frazzled mother immediately handed him off to me and and disappeared to seek relief.

Now, I cared about my poor son’s suffering. But honestly, I mostly just wanted his eardrum-piercing shrieks to end. You could hear the boy out in the yard even when all the windows and doors were closed. I quickly figured out that holding him to my chest as I paced through the house calmed him some. I tried singing to him as I paced and found that some songs calmed him a little while others had no effect. So I tried every song in my repertoire. When I sang this obscure Paul McCartney and Wings song to him, he went limp and silent in my arms. So I sang it to him over and over, pacing the length of our ranch-style home every night for hours at a time. Finally, blessedly, the colic ended.

My younger son, on the other hand, approached life with steely determination. Think Chuck Norris out to get the bad guys. The boy quickly sized up a situation, identified his goal, and set about achieving it. His first conquest was the couch. It was cute at first to watch him grunt and struggle to pull himself up off the floor and onto the seat cushions. But after he achieved that, he set his mountain-climber sights on the couch’s arm, then the side table, and then the side-table’s lamp, which was not going to end well. We had to keep an eagle eye on that kid!

But with each new objective his desires outpaced his abilities at first. He would try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, getting angrier and angrier all the way. Soon his frustration would consume him and he’d just cry in hard fury, turning brick red and gasping through his sobs. I’d collect him into my arms, fall back into the big comfy recliner, and rock while I sang to him just hoping he’d catch a breath! At first this would make him cry harder, as if he was determined to stay angry. But soon he’d start to relax, and the crying would ebb, and finally he’d breathe easy. This gentle Paul Simon song was easy to sing quietly to him and soon I sang it habitually. After a while, just hearing me sing it calmed him.

Do you have children? What songs did you sing to them?

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because I first posted it in 2012.

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Stories Told

At the foot of the stage

James Monroe School

I last stood in the wings of this stage when I was in the sixth grade in 1978. But I didn’t particularly want to be here. I would rather have been singing with the choir at the foot of the stage.

As part of a concert, a few of us entered the stage from here and danced our way across, strumming ukuleles while the choir sang Fascinating Rhythm. I hated to dance! But Mrs. O’Hair, a teacher who helped with the vocal music program, had considerable will. When she decided you were going to be in a production, there was no discussion.

And so I danced, badly. Then with great relief I returned to the choir.

I loved to sing. I could carry a tune, and I sang out loud. I joined the school choir in the second grade, a year before students were normally allowed to join. Miss Seidler, the music teacher and choir director, wanted my strong voice in the choir and so she asked my parents if they’d mind. They didn’t.

Practice was a lot of fun. I enjoyed mastering new songs and hearing my voice blend with others. I never really enjoyed performing, but the joy of singing every day was worth the two concerts each year. My dad never missed a concert. He still tells people that I carried the choir, but I think he suffers from too much fatherly pride. I was proud to have him in the audience, and I’ll never forget looking out over the dark auditorium trying to find him in the crowd.

James Monroe School

Dad liked to sit in the balcony where he could get the best view.

James Monroe School

I stuck with choir through middle school, where we sang in four parts. I sang tenor, but had enough range to cover the alto and often the soprano parts, much to my fellow tenors’ surprise. Then as my eighth grade year drew to a close, one morning I woke up and found that my voice had changed and I was suddenly a baritone. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to relearn a dozen songs quickly enough, so I just quit the choir and its early-morning practices. I found I really liked sleeping in, so I didn’t join the choir in high school. (It’s funny how things turn out – not being in morning choir practice freed me to spend time in the school’s computer lab instead, which led to my career in software development.)

But I didn’t stop singing. I couldn’t; it just felt too good. It soothed me when I was upset and lifted me when I was blue. When I was out of sorts I’d take long drives in the country, singing along at the top of my lungs to my favorite tapes until I’d regained my peace. And later when I found Christ, I was part of a congregation that sang a cappella in four-part harmony. I found great joy and pleasure in singing powerfully with a group again.

The only time in my life when my voice was still was during the last few years of my marriage, as things got really bad, and in the first couple years after my wife and I separated. But as I began to put my life back together, I found my voice, too. When I wanted to sing again, I knew that the worst was over.

I still sing nearly every day, mostly as I drive around in my car, accompanied by whatever music I’m playing. If I’m ever behind you on the road, if you look in your rear view mirror you’ll probably see me belting out a tune! My sons riding in the back seat are the only audience I ever have. Sometimes they sing along. That’s just how I like it.

Originally posted in November of 2010.

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Stories Told

A cappella

Yesterday’s post about Sacred Harp singing made me want to share again a couple posts from the archive about my experiences singing in harmony. I loved to do it and I miss it.

A long time ago my wife and I visited a little Church of Christ in a plain building that stood on an empty highway in a rural corner of the city. The warm and friendly members eagerly accepted us as guests. The service began simply with a welcome and a prayer. Then a man walked to the lectern and asked us to open our hymnals. We saw no instruments; I wondered if music was played on tape. No. He sang “sol,” raised a hand, swung it down – and then everyone exploded into song, belting out Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, without accompaniment, in four-part harmony, at the tops of their lungs.

Unprepared, I raised my hands as if to cover my ears. We stood there stunned, eyes wide, mouths open. We had been Methodists, timid singers the lot. In this building, even the tone-deaf sang out, the strong, resonant voices around them carrying everyone’s voices through the rafters and straight up to the Lord.

I loved singing, and had I missed singing in harmony as I had in school choir many years before. Elated to sing this way again, I turned to my hymnal and its shaped notes and tried to keep up with the congregation in this song I didn’t know.

In time I learned it, and many others, in joy that came from feeling a special bond with God and connection with my fellow Christians. I offered the Lord my best voice, singing directly to Him. But the congregation’s cooperative singing offered God something of much greater beauty than I could create alone. Our singing helped me not only acknowledge and praise God, but also transcend myself to remember everyone else in the room who also sought the Lord. I even considered Christians in other a cappella congregations singing unabashedly just like us. I felt in touch with the whole body of Christ.

I found comfort in my travels by identifying with Christians through a cappella singing. When away on business on a Sunday or a Wednesday evening, I usually found a congregation and went to worship with them. I noticed many times that singing the bass part of songs with them was a way others recognized me as a member of the church.

Unfortunately, a cappella singing was no less than a doctrine. The Church of Christ was born from the Restoration Movement in the 1800s, which sought to restore Christian practices to patterns found in the New Testament. The movement’s churches sought Biblical authority for all of its practices. Because the Bible does not mention using instruments of music in worship, the logic goes, instruments are therefore not authorized. Today, I consider this to be a real theological stretch. But back then I heard some preachers say that congregations that use instruments in worship are sinning and face hell unless they repent, and that a cappella Christians should not associate with instrumental Christians because to do so implies acceptance of their practices.

Sadly, arguments over instrumental music have caused Restoration Movement churches to split for more than a hundred years. When I attended this little Church of Christ, an enormous Christian Church sat about a mile down the road. The two churches were one until they split in 1894, and I’m told that instrumental music was one of the reasons. I know a former Church of Christ in my hometown that lost many members in the past decade as it underwent a spiritual transformation, a portion of which included adding instruments to worship.

When I left that little congregation, I turned to God for guidance. I expected to be led to another Church of Christ, but He directed me to a particular Christian Church. This and many other independent Christian Churches have Restoration Movement roots, and so its beliefs and practices were familiar to me. But that church featured a piano, a drum kit, and a guitar on the stage, and all of them got vigorous use during Sunday-morning worship.

It took me months to feel comfortable with the instruments, as I broke free from Church of Christ orthodoxy. I finally realized that because I was where God led me, that He knew what he has asked me to do, and that He was in control. So finally I became able to sing freely. Unfortunately, the congregation sang like timid Methodists. I came to miss the powerful congregational singing that helped me feel so connected to God and His people.

Originally shared in December, 2007. Tomorrow, a memory of singing in the school choir.

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Music, Photography

Singing the Sacred Harp

It’s an American vocal music tradition with roots traceable through two centuries. Sacred Harp brings groups together to sing hymns and anthems in four-part harmony without musical accompaniment.

Sacred Harp arranges singers a square, grouped by part. Singers take turns choosing and leading songs from the songbook. They stand in the middle of the square, starting the song and keeping the beat by swinging their hands. The singers follow right along with their voices and their hands.

Sacred Harp

There is nothing modern about Sacred Harp. The songs are old, the melodies and harmonies are old, the method is old. But anyone with even a scant ability to sing can participate after learning to read the songbook’s shaped notes.

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Each note has a shape and syllable (fa, sol, la, mi, fa) that makes it fast and easy to sight-read any song and sing along. Also, the Sacred Harp tradition is to start a song by singing a verse using the syllables instead of lyrics to help newcomers get a feel for it. To hear what Sacred Harp sounds like, check out this video.

A Sacred Harp group sings every year at the Indiana State Fair, and I was fortunate enough to be there when they were this year. They are not performing for an audience, although one always gathers. Rather, they are singing for the joy of it, and they welcome everybody to join them. While I sat listening, several people walked in, sat down in the square, were issued a songbook, and participated.

Sacred Harp

I so wanted to join them. I love to sing, especially in four-part harmony, having sung in choirs as a boy and in an a cappella Church of Christ as an adult. The Church of Christ hymnal even used shaped notes. But I never learned to read them because I learn songs by ear very easily. Unfortunately, I can’t learn a song fast enough to participate before the end of a song I’m hearing for the first time.

Sacred Harp

So I lingered around the edges of this intense group, photographing them in action. These were not professional singers, just bold ones. And my goodness, were they loud! My experience in the Church of Christ taught me that you can have marginal vocal ability and still participate fully in this kind of singing. The sound is always better than the sum of its parts.

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