I have a very…wait. Play this while you read:
I have a very immediate visceral response to Gospel choirs which is cathartic weeping while smiling. I imagine it looks something like the Ecstacy of Teresa of Avila but with lots more snot. Thus it has always been, at least since I hit puberty. And I should probably stop listening to it at work. “Are you okay?”
“ALLERGIES.” I say with “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” pinging out of my headphones.
I can’t handle Sister Act II. At least in mixed company.
When I was 20, a friend of mine and I were spending the summer at our university doing summer theatre. In the lag time between the end of the school year and the beginning of rehearsals, we had a couple weeks to bum around Oxford, Ohio waiting on our fellow summer theatre friends to return. We watched a lot of movies. Ate a lot of crap. And we attended some of the relaxed events of a University in Summer. Steel drum bands. That sort of thing. We also taught a class to a theatre summer camp that I had actually attended as a high schooler. The camp was part of a larger program called Governor’s Institute that many Ohio colleges provided to “gifted and talented” high school kids from all over the state. Miami’s included a theatre portion, among several fine arts programs, AND a Gospel Choir program. My friend Matt and I were intrigued by the Gospel kids. It was headed by one of the more prestigious professors in the music department.
“The Gospel kids have their final performance today. You wanna check it out?” Matt asked me.
“Sure!” I said.
We popped into the back of Souers Recital Hall just as the program was starting.
I don’t remember exactly what they sang, or what happened in general, because I was so swept away by the voices I was left devastated and sobbing. I’m not exaggerating. It was one of those emotional outbursts where your body takes over and your consciousness is left only to marvel at what a mess this mortal coil can be.
“Are you, heh heh, okay?” Matt says as I sob into his t-shirt.
“I think sooooo-ooooo-ooooo. I don’t know what’s happeningggggggg.”
This might imply that I was an enthusiastic church singer as a child. I was not. I was a reluctant church singer as a child. But you can’t be the niece of the minister (who also holds a doctorate in music) and NOT participate. Or MAYBE you can’t be the child of my Mother and NOT participate. Not sure. Doesn’t matter. I’m onstage in a black velvet dress with white lace trim and a red bow in my hair. Arms folded. Barely audible. I walk away from the mic before I’m finished singing my line.
That is, in fact, the anti-mic drop.
“Well, I guess we know what Betsy’s NOT going to do when she grows up,” my Dad chuckles in my Aunt and Minister Uncle’s kitchen after the service.
It’s not that I’m an actively contrary person, but…
Quick anecdote: First time I rehearsed that song I broke down into tears immediately much to the discomfort of everyone else in the room. “The soldier’s name is WILLLLIIEEEEEEE,” I snotted into the piano, arms draped over my head. These poor people knew me so little they didn’t even know my husband’s name yet, so that little bit of trivia probably did not help their discomfort. “I guess…use that?” said my director.
See, church choir for MY church wasn’t staid, exactly. Nor was it true gospel. It was… Folksy. This was the 80’s and the choir of St John’s UCC in Archbold, Ohio was populated with basically Elise and Steven Keatons peppered with the occasional Les Nessman.. Think “By My Side” from Godspell.
The KIDS choir, however, was headed up by an entrepreneurial sort. No, we weren’t hawking our wares. She was just…how shall I say…innovative, I guess. We didn’t sing things like “Praise Him All Ye Little Children.” That was for the congregation to belt out on Palm Sunday. No we sang, “Pharoah, Pharoah” which is just “Louis, Louis” with the words changed. “Pharaoh, Pharoah, Pharoah, WOa-ooooahh baby, let my people go.”
May God strike me down if I’m lying. Go Buckeyes.
The point is, I don’t exactly know what transpired in between pained solos… “We’re tired of slaving night and day, without even getting a penny for paa-aay. You treat the Israelites real bad, and that really ma-aa-akes (walk away from mic) mee–eee maaad. Pharoah, Pharoah, Pharoah…” and total catharsis in shorts and a tee shirt on a Saturday afternoon at Miami.
I have experienced total catharsis twice in my life. Once was in the back of Souer’s Recital Hall. The other was after I saw Finding Neverland (recent loss of a close female family member). Both times I managed to embarrass both myself and my companion. Belated apologies to Matt. Will wasn’t too bothered. “I’m going to lean you against this wall. I have to go to the bathroom. Be right back.” Later in a grocery store parking lot- I’m still wailing. Already at the sup sups- Will says, “I’m going to get a six-pack now. Are you okay?”
“Ye-eeh-ehhhsssssss,” I slide my damp and mascara and snot-smeared cheek down the passenger side window. “Get *hic* a bottle of *sniff* Menaaaaaagggggeeeeeee waaaaaaaaaaa….” I did not pull it together for two real hours.
I am not a Religious person, per se. I do not adhere to any particular teaching. I am, as one of my favorite writer’s coined, “A spiritual mutt.” I believe in vastness and peace. Life, I suppose. For my parents, while we definitely attended some church yes ma’am, nature seems to be their house of worship. For me, it’s soaring music. And sometimes not so soaring.
Our voices, humans in general I mean, are naturally melodic. Even the tone deaf among us are speaking on a particular note, monotone it may be. What is it about that note when we choose to sustain it – turning speech to song?
PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW. That is one of life’s great mysteries to me. THAT is a higher power. It’s universal. It’s sweeping. It’s transcendant.
My sister once came home from a “hard” day at work. “YOU GUYS I WORKED FIVE HOURS OKAY.” And as she relayed the horrible details of her shift, my Mom and I without consulting each other, began to hum “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” intermittently.
“My boss was in a shitty mood…”
“Alright now,” I interjected.
“HMMMMMMM!” sang my Momma.
“Shut up Betsy.”
“Don’t tell your sister to shut up.”
“Hallelujah!” I belted.
“ANYWAY this horrible bitch (came in and-)”
“(Precious Lord) Take. MY HAAAANNNDDD, LEAD ME ONNNNNN HELP ME STANNNNDDD…” Our arms were in the air and we were harmonizing to boot.
You can do a lot of things in my family. Most things, in fact, except self-pity and taking yourself too seriously.
I will sing Gospel alone. I will sing it with a friend. I will sing it with a mouse. I will sing it in a house. I will sing it near and far. I will sing it in your car.
Even if you don’t want me to.
Anyway, you may reach me lying prone on my bedroom floor, perhaps on the bottom rung of “Jacob’s Ladder”, “Wading in the Water” of “Heaven’s Bright Shore”, mascara streaming, kleenex hanging out of one nostril, with one erect arm spasmodically shaking a tambourine.
I don’t understand why I react the way I do to music. (I also get goosebumps and/or emotional during certain progressions, powerful modulations, familiar iconic phrases, including “9-5” and…um…kick lines.)
But I know it’s Divine.