Sunday, August 22, 2010

sing a cappella wah-oo-oo

One thing that does not come up often in the course of my NYC life is the fact that I grew up in a congregationalist Christian sect that falls, culturally speaking, somewhere between Mennonite and Independent Baptist. Some of the prime markers of this subculture are attendance at 3 church services a week, lace doilies on the heads of some women, a hemline that falls no higher than the knee, no "mixed bathing" (that's girls and guys swimming together, for the uninitiated), no alcohol, no cigarettes, no swearing, certainly no drugs, no dancing (yes, fine, like Footloose), and, perhaps most significantly for this discussion, no instrumental music in worship. That's right, instrumental use is a derogatory term in this community—a scandalizing accusation even. (About the only worse thing you can call somebody is a Baptist. GASP.)

If your mind is blown, let me spin this around for you: church - sings - a cappella - WAH-OO-OO. If you follow no other link this week, please click this one and allow the group "Acappella" to summarize the doctrine in peppy doo-wop style. (If the churches of Christ had a TV show this would be their theme song.)

Now, I realize that this is most unusual. Let me rephrase that: I realize now that this is most unusual. But when I was 5, it didn't occur to me that all the other kindergartners probably weren't actively singing 4-part a cappella harmony from shape note hymnals on a tri-weekly basis. Eh bien, tant pis. Their loss, really. Looking back, it is no wonder my opportunistic band director all but drop-kicked me into a French horn case in 6th grade. Ears!, he thought. Such magnificent ears! While I don't have perfect pitch, I'm a mean sight-singer with serious pitch memory after all those years of reading hymns. Other less musically-useful skills include the ability to recite the books of the Bible in rapid succession without pause, and the ability to know immediately when someone is misquoting/misattributing any Biblical text to suit their own political purposes.

Still, these are my origins. And I may have become a bleeding-heart moderate with a taste for tequila and a nutso passion for salsa-dancing, but to this day I have found no greater experience this side of heaven than harmonious a cappella singing. A couple of years ago I came across this passage from Julia Cameron's The Artists Way that finally brought everything (literally) home for me:

If the demand to be original still troubles you, remember this: each of us is our own country, an interesting place to visit. It is the accurate mapping out of our own creative interests that invites the term original. We are the origin of our art, its homeland. Viewed this way, originality is the process of remaining true to ourselves.

So I invoke the Alabama church camp where I and hundreds of other preteens sat lakeside in the pitch dark that summer, singing hours of hymns from memory, accompanied only by the mesmerizing chanting of cicadas. And I recall the hayrides and bonfires with churchfolk, where men, women, and children of all ages watched the fire crackle and sang: "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."

And on nights like this I open my Hymns for Worship songbook, surround myself with the memory of these voices, and I sing, and I sing, and I sing.

1 comment:

  1. Four-Part Harmony Rocks!!
    WoooHoooo =)

    As far as the other stuff goes, I know where you're coming from.
    One thing I've found, is every different coc congregation has a different opinion about those topics (mixed swimming, dancing, etc..)

    Where we go not, you wouldn't BELIEVE the views they have...veeeeeeery interesting =)