Sunday, October 25, 2009

Family Singing

Dan with his guitar; Mary with "Emily," her double-bass.
Dave, J. and Dan making "country music."
J. with his mother's restored vintage autoharp.

Mary, Sharon, J., Dan, Dave on a summer evening.

Kathy, Mary, J., Sharon, Dave.

I grew up as part of a family that has been making music for generations. My maternal grandmother, an accomplished pianist, played "dinner music" at the summer hotels in her youth, sometimes joined by her brother on fiddle, her cousin on banjo. Later she played in a corner of the darkened "town hall" while the reels of a "silent movie" jerked and sparkled through a drama of intrigue and narrow escapes. She provided music for church services, as did her sister, and later, carrying on the tradition, her daughter and her sister's daughters sat at piano or organ on a Sunday morning while choir and congregation raised their voices in hymns of the faith. I have likewise played piano [less often--and less skillfully-- an organ] for my own church and area congregations who found themselves temporarily without a musician.
We lived in several rooms of my grandfather's farmhouse until I was 5. I have memories of relatives coming to visit on Sunday afternoons. When a meal was finished and talk had run down, everyone drifted to the parlor where my mother took her seat before the old piano. Popular tunes from "sheet music" were tried out, followed by old familiars from The Golden Book of Songs. As the sun slanted golden shadows through the parlour's west windows, the group turned to hymns, for which they needed no printed notes or words. Faces shone, the effortless harmonies soared robustly, each voice in perfect pitch.
My Mother taught me to sing before I could read words, years before she began to unfold the mystery of the black shapes which filled the lines and spaces of a musical staff. I can't recall at what point I could look at the "notes" and hear their sound in my mind before it was struck on the keyboard. She taught music in the public schools for many years, was still taking a few private pupils for piano lessons as she entered her 80's. The last time I was with her, at the nursing home where she spent much of her last two years, we played 4-handed piano in the social room. Mother's eyesight and her memory had failed, but we played the hymns and old songs with scarecly a false note.
We had no piano for a number of years after J. and I married. We put records on the 33 rpm turntable and sang with Tennesse Ernie Ford [hymns and gospel songs] or Johnny Cash and the Carter family. We copied words onto paper and sang again with the recordings until we were confident enough to sing for others at church. We sang often when our children were growing up, especially on long winter evenings. We had a succession of old upright pianos--some better than others.
We have found folks to sing with in Wyoming. About every six weeks our friend Dave drives 2 1/2 hours from the town where he and his wife Kathy live, loading his big van with tools, air compressor, high-intesity lamps, so that he can set up in the front of the quilt shop to service and repair sewing machines. He brings his guitar and on the evening that he eats supper with us, we look forward to an hour or so of singing.
This week we had two such occaisions: Tuesday evening at our house and Wednesday evening at Mary's home. Sometimes Kathy can leave her work long enough to make the trip with Dave, adding her strong warm voice and the throb of guitar or mandolin. We sing until someone reluctantly reminds us that we all have to get up for work in the morning.
When we went to Vermont late in August for my Dad's funeral, we took an afternoon away from sadness and tasks to be done, a time to meet with my cousins "across the lake" in New York. We had never made music as a group, but we sang the old hymns that our grandparents and great grandparents sang together; three women who sing harmony seemingly plucked from nowhere, the notes heard in our heads, two of our husbands, a guitar. Sadly, we realized belatedly that no one thought to take pictures. We were too absorbed in singing--just as the generations of our family had always done.
This comment on family singing is from the Farm Diary notes of Henry Beston which end each chapter in "Northern Farm; A Chronicle of Maine."
"How pleasant to spend some time with a singing family! During my own lifetime, one of the most dismal social changes of our world has been the disappearance of singing as part of human life and the work that has to be done. People used to sing, now you scarcely hear anyone even whistle. The world is poorer for the loss. There is nothing like music for giving one a sense of solidarity, and it lightens both labor and the heart."


  1. Keith's side of the family (the Birds, to be specific) have an incredibly musical gene. It passed Keith by TOTALLY, but his brother has it in bucketloads and his collection of music rivals the late John Peel's. He LIVES for his music, pretty well as I live for books. Tamzin has this musical gene too, and has a beautiful singing voice (though she rarely uses it these days, sadly). She plays the piano (though we have just had to smash the ancient one up we had here as even before we bought it, the felts had got damp and swollen and it didn't improve with keeping in this damp old house).

    She has a little zither?-type harp - smaller than J's - which she also plays but she asked us to put it away "somewhere" after our house ghost used to play it in the night in her room (fairly freaked her out!)

    When they were smaller we spend winter Sunday evenings were when we had light classical music playing as we ate our evening meal, quite often by candlelight, so a wonderful atmosphere for Grieg or Vaughan-Williams.

    Only recently, I came across the little booklets of English folk music I bought at an Eistedfodd many years ago now aand which Tam would play on the piano and we would sing together.

    I agree, it is such a shame that music and singing in the home aren't part of people''s lives any more. What saddened me even more was to read that mothers don't sing nursery rhymes to their children any more, but use pop songs instead as the nursery rhymes are seen as "old fashioned". You can imagine my response to THAT!!!

    Keep singing and music-making : )

  2. I wouldn't care for a resident ghost, musical or otherwise.
    You have me trying to recall what I sang to my children. Mindless crooning, sometimes, as I rocked them. Brahms Lullaby, hymn tunes, folk songs, whatever was running through my ragbag mind! When they were a bit older I read to them at bedtime: the "Little House" books, Carl Sandburg's poems and Rutabaga Stories; Winnie the Pooh. Then I often sat in the dark and played the piano, hoping/praying that daughter would settle down and sleep. Usually a vain hope.

  3. Wonderful to read of your traditional music making with family and friends.
    My father had a good tenor voice. He would teach me Scottish folk songs that we would sing together on winter evenings in front of the fire.

    Singing was important in my village school. Hymns of course, but also the traditional folk songs and sea shanties which seem less popular with today`s music teachers. I also seem to remember Schools Radio programmes where the class sang along and learned songs from our folk past.

    Young mothers might sing pop songs to their babies, but this Granny makes sure to sing nursery rhymes and traditional songs whenever I get a chance to "borrow" my little grandaughter. Brahms Lullaby, yes, and Bobby Shaftoe, Scarborough Fair, All the Pretty Little Horses.......

  4. DW: You have reminded me of school singing. I attended a one room rural school for the first 6 years, and during 4 of those we had a teacher who played with great gusto and had an old pump organ brought in so we could have music every morning. We learned Stephen Foster's songs [probably not politically "correct" today!] some the Scottish ballads; things like "Work for the Night is Coming" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." It was a very eclectic mixture.
    M grandmother's music was stored at my grampa's house and once I could play reasonably well my uncle brought it out for me to learn. Some of the vocal solos were quite dramatic. He stood behind me and sang them, then went off about his chores still singing.
    Thank you jogging my memory!

  5. What a great read in the home has been in our lives too.Way back in the thirties Mum and her brother and friends would play while Nana would throw the windows wide open for the neighbours to hear.When I was a child, mother would play piano ... as long as no one was there to see ...and sometimes we would sing together. When I had my own home, my husband and his friends would gather to play clarinet quartets and medeval recorder music, while I provided refreshments. All of this was wonderful but the most pleasure I had was a few years ago when I went next door at New Year and our dear neighbour has many of his family there. His GS played piano, his DIL played guitar and a few of us sang ...we had such fun and all of a sudden it was 3am lol

  6. Angie: Thank you for sharing the memories of music in your family. I would have loved hearing the clarinet and the recorders. I played clarinet in the high school band--though not with noticable skill. Music, especially made with others, truly lifts the heart.
    I really enjoy the way writing about a memory or throught process jump-starts everyone's recollections and soon we have a grand meeting of minds!