Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more. – William Wordsworth
One of the best but surprising things about having a baby in the house is that we’re singing so much more. Tiny babies can’t play and they don’t do much more than smile and bat at things, but you can sing to them from moment one, and all the kids and adults in the house have a profound and seemingly innate desire to sing to a little baby. What they sing is pretty funny. Asher is particularly fond of a thrash-metal version of the song “If I were a rich man,” screamed by a loud six year old who thinks (or wants to think) that the words are “All day long I’d bite a bit of butt…if I were a wealthy man.” Oddly, Baby Z. seems to find this soothing. Of course, I close my eyes and try and go elsewhere mentally when he does this too (The same child, after being taught “John Brown’s Body” marched around the house singing “Big Bird’s Body lies a’mouldering in the grave…” with no idea whatsoever about why we were cracking up.)
The rest of us use a slightly more traditional repertoire, with the occasional input from Daddy’s badly thought out introduction of Weird Al Yankovic to the children (IMHO, teaching your children the words to “Dare to be Stupid” before they are old enough to discover them themselves is, in fact, legal grounds for divorce in any state.) When the sound of music began to echo in my house again in response to that baby impulse, realized that I used to sing much more than I do now. We still sing around the Shabbos table, still sing at services, still sing in the car sometimes, and my kids still, at 12, 10, 8 and 6 are put to bed with a four-song routine that they insist we sing that dates to Eli’s babyhood (Goodnight Ladies, but with everyone’s names inserted: Goodnight Sweetheart, Show Me the Way to Go Home (yeah, as in Jaws, complete with the banging on the tables) and finally the Shema and V’ahavta) but as they’ve gotten older, music from our docked IPod takes up more space in our lives than home created music of any kind. Eric used to spend more time jamming around on the piano when the kids were babies and toddlers as well – his one-handed version of boogie-woogie Old McDonald was a cranky baby favorite. The toddlers in our house liked to dance to a mix of jazz, classical and 1980s era pop favorites (“Come On Eileen” was always kind of intellectually kid music).
I love that the kids love recorded music, and I love it myself, it meets needs my own voice can’t. Still I am a bit sad to be suddenly confronted with the reality that we listen more to music, and make it less, because communal singing is such a source of joy. I have a voice that is passable at best, but it was better once, when I sang near-constantly at work or at play to calm babies in slings and my arms, or setting on a blanket while I tried to get something done. And after you do it for a while, you find yourself racking your brains to find more songs because you Just. Cannot. Sing. Polly-Wolly-Doodle. Again.
You find them in your memory – dredging up the under-sung verses to “The Sidewalks of New York” or “The Erie Canal.” You dig around through playlists and CDs looking for new songs suitable for singing to children acapella (Suitable doesn’t necessarily mean having suitable language – after all, babies don’t know when the songs are appropriate. Simon loved “Matty Groves” in the crude original, smiling and giggling at the emasculation of Lord Donald, Asher loved to be danced around to “I’ve Gotta Get Drunk” and Baby Z. has been sung down at night to “Seven Nights Drunk” (but only after the big kids are in bed.)
My father was a great one for singing to his children, and some of my best memories of him are of the songs he sang. He was partial to the songs from Marx Brothers movies, and I grew up on “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” and “Everyone Says I Love You.” Trying to recapture the songs of my own youth, I sing to my kids the ones he sang to me, searching out the lyrics to “The Walloping Window Blind” and all the old Joe Raposo number songs from Sesame Street (The Alligator King and his seven sons are everyone’s favorite.)
Eric and I like to harmonize on “Sloop John B” and “My Johnny was a Shoemaker,” or fail to harmonize on”Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast” and “Whiskey in the Jar.’ Simon likes the verses of “Old Dan Tucker” and “Yankee Doodle” that come from Laura Ingalls Wilder, and after a homeschool lesson is on a Stephen Foster kick. Everyone gets loud with the rocked up version of “Hodu” or my fake bass for “Cape Cod Girls” (which has a particular resonance for babies for some reason – both Asher and Baby Z. count it as an absolute favorite.
Fruitful sources of new song material are children’s albums that don’t suck (Dan Zanes is my fave here, Raffi not so much), books of folk songs (_Rise Up Singing_ has every hippie-dippy song of my childhood in all its glorious, overly sincere lyrics, which I admit to an ambivalent fondness for), old Muppet Show episodes (where else can you get “Cigarettes and Whiskey” and “The Bird on Nellie’s Hat”), popular music of earlier eras (Louis Jordan and Cole Porter are particularly fruitful, although unless you live in sight of it, you will have explain where the Zuider Zee is to your three year old), and anything you like that lends itself to this kind of off the cuff singing (do not forget Bugs Bunny versions of opera – there is just too much happiness in hearing a four year old sing “Spear and Magic Hel-met…). Choral music for pretty much all of human history and from every culture has plenty to offer, if that’s not too obvious.
Now that we are singing again as a matter of course, I find myself remembering why people sing, rather than listen. It isn’t just because voices, like everything else, get better with practice (after years of doing it, I can even sing a respectable version of “Summertime,” a classic “got a voice song” one of Eli’s favorites – but only because I pushed myself.) It isn’t that listening isn’t also a deep pleasure – but just as all technology has costs, the cost of always-access to performed and recorded music can be that it becomes the default option – you sing along, but not by yourself. If you aren’t organically or by training musical yourself, you may come to think of music as something created by artists or professionals – rather than the work of ordinary people.
We don’t want to lose daily singing by those of good, bad and indifferent voice. Song is one of those things that make work bearable – work that is physically demanding or just a little too mindless, call and response labor songs, or the songs you sing to pace yourself at field work have a long tradition. If you can sing while you do it, you are working at a pace that can be sustained – pushing, but not so hard you haven’t any breath. We don’t do that much anymore in our culture, but it used to be a natural part of manual work – and still is in some cultures. Helena Norberg Hodge writes of the harvesting songs of Ladakh, much as Wordsworth writes of the British reaper – as song that passes the time, modulates movement and has an eerie beauty that is as much a part of work and place as voice and person.
It is common for herders to sing to their flocks, often odd, high voiced ululations (but probably not exactly like this 😉 and I used to sing to the goats while I milked, mostly whatever song was stuck in my head at that particular moment, in the hopes of getting it out. I’m not sure when I stopped, but I did. Like the poetry in your head, though, the music in your head is yours to keep. You can get it in your head by listening, but you can never be sure it is wholly yours until you sing, play or make it your own – you will forget a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, except for a few bits, over time, unless you can make sure you hear it again. But even singing “Bah bum di bum bum bum” gets you closer to that elusive memory, and can bring you back to the sound of the performance you love – or create one.
This is an argument for playing an acoustic instrument, but also for singing – even if you don’t think you can sing. Because MP3 players get lost and CDs get scratched and the radio stops playing Wagner or Chumbawumba because Valkyries aren’t profitable to Clearchannel or its ten minutes are up. If you want these in your life forever with real certainty (and who wouldn’t), you must master at least a domesticated version of them. It does not matter how imperfect it is, the fact is that it is there, and part of you.
I didn’t expect the baby, and I didn’t expect him to bring gifts like reminding myself how much I enjoy singing with my husband, whether we are trying to improve our harmonies, learn a song or singing musical parodies made up on the spot back and forth. I forgot how much I delight in my childrens’ tunefulness, or hearing them lean over the baby when he begins to fuss and sing out “Mama don’t ‘low No fussin’ babies ’round here…’round here…but we don’t care what Mama don’t ‘low, gonna cry and fuss anyhow…” or “I had a little trouble…at the county seat…they put me in the jailhouse..for loungin the street.” Or just to sit back at night and sing to my tiny, sweet boy, knowing all the ambiguity of these lines about a child with two mothers, who I may not get to keep, “Oh, your Mama loves you, she loves you, she’ll get down her knees and hug you, oh she loves you like a rock” and rock him like the rock of ages.