Trying not to bark

One of the sweetest and most sacred sounds I have ever heard and one that I would give almost anything I could possibly ever get to hear again was the high-pitched, thin, monophony voice of my late grandmother as she sang to herself while standing over the sink or an ironing board or while sweeping the floor.

And in the longing for a lost loved one, and lost youth and lost time, I am tempted to wax corny and to describe the sound of her singing as soothing, like a lullaby or maybe with the same tranquil qualities of bird songs or the earthy tune of a bubbling brook. But that might just be the way I remember it.

Not all sounds are music to everyone’s ears and I must acknowledge that had there been a neighbor’s window close enough to hers, there is the possibility that my grandmother’s squeaky, granny voice may have grated on the nerves of that hypothetical auditory innocent bystander.

It has recently been called to my attention that I have a tendency toward, or a bad habit of, singing along with my MP3 player while at the gym. The person that pointed this out told me that not only they, but many others find it annoying, so I am trying to quit. It has been difficult so far. I am like a dog trying not to bark.

I think that it is a shame that our generation has developed a “What did you do with the money your mother gave you for singing lessons?” mentality. It is more normal to make fun of someone who sings aloud than to sing along with them.

I think that somewhere, some time, something convinced the masses that there is a highly-produced standard that a vocalist must meet and anything not polished to a pristine, glistening, diamond-speckled idea of perfection should be discouraged, or ridiculed if that is possible. It is as if we expect a voice like a tuxedo in a world full of flannel shirts and jeans.

I personally sing like a sweaty, sleeveless T-shirt.

But it is still pretty amazing to me, when I get to thinking about it, that I can get my breath out of my body with fun little rhythmic puffs and vocal chord vibrations and sounds that carry words that can say everything from how nice it is to be in love, to songs that lament working on the railroad, all the live, long day.

And pondering on, I realize that yes, birds do sing, and there is some basic, emotional experience that acknowledges a love of life when one is treated to sweet tweeting from a tree – but did you ever hear one deliver a line like Paul Simon can? I am pretty sure that we are the only species who delights in language and letting it out on notes and tunes and in harmonious get-togethers like choruses, chain gangs and choirs.

I remember distinctly a Sunday I sat with my great-grandmother in the second-to-front pew while her daughter and our church choir did their thing in song.

And though I certainly had heard them sing, many, many times before, on that morning, in a minor revelation, a sort of musical epiphany, I was given the gift of “Oh, now I get it!” as God removed some buffer between my ears and my brain and like a healing, I could suddenly hear how that group of old guys and gals got it together in hymn.

Though I’d had my soul stirred before by that gang of robed harmonizers, on that day I had what I like to remember as a minor spiritual experience, when I somehow was able to tune into each voice and listen to individual singers like I was adjusting audio levels in a studio.

And as I went from voice to voice, I heard the high parts and the low parts and when I got to my dear, sweet, “Grammy,” I got a small glimpse of God’s great plan when the voice I had heard so many times softly singing to a broom’s sweeping seemed so perfectly and seamlessly to fit just where that song needed it. Her high-pitched, granny voice, which alone could seem meek and small, was one part of the many that together made the choir. And aren’t we all like that?

Whether we are singing along, or even to our own tune? Aren’t all our voices just chirping or squeaking or barking along just trying to sound a note in some bigger score? And could it be the soul, more than just the throat that truly sings? I like to think so.

I guess that something of what makes it so annoying when I join in with my MP3 player is that those on the outside can not hear the song that I hear. I wish that you could.

(Staff Photographer Roger Vogel can be reached at rogerv@dailyamerican.com.)
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