March 4, 1998

MY great-grandmother sang songs from the Civil War era, accompanying her cracked old voice on the piano that in flood years was hoisted up to the ceiling with a block and tackle. My grandmother played the piano and sang music hall songs from the turn of the century with a gusto undimmed by self-conscious reflection. My grandfather hollered cowboy songs and my father sang German songs he'd learned as a child in Milwaukee. My mother sang nursery rhymes and sad Irish laments as we drifted into sleep. My sister and I sang songs that we'd learned by rote listening to Burl Ives and Leadbelly and Gilbert and Sullivan records. We sang in church and we sang in school, and on the playground we sang naughty parodies of popular tunes. We learned the ABC and the books of the Bible to tunes that were probably older than they were. We sang at parties, and in high school on the bus to away games and coming home from outings in the dark, holding hands in promise of coming kisses. We sang sitting around the campfire at summer camp; strolling from house to house we sang Christmas carols; we sang as we worked and we sang as we played. Negro quartets sang on summer evening streetcorners, and Latin lovers sang and strummed guitar on front porches. In college we sang drinking songs in crowded beer cellars, and rhythmic spirituals and reworked 1930s union songs lightened our step on civil rights picket lines. We sang as we were arrested at sit-ins and we sang in jail.

Along about the middle of the Vietnam War we stopped singing.

We leave the singing to professionals now. The songs they sing are too complicated and they come and go too fast for them to become rooted in our hearts and voices. I sometimes hear schoolgirls chanting as they play at jump rope, and people echoing snatches of radio songs as they walk down the street, insulated in the privacy of portable music. I don't know if mothers hush their children into dreamland with lullabies learned from their mothers, or if schoolchildren sing on the bus coming home from a game. I think the time for singing may be gone.


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