In a little Bible Camp by Fort Smith, Arkansas, I discovered how to sing in 1966. Really sing. Not opera, which is too stagey, and not what happens at most Sunday mornings, which is too polluted by self-conscious inclusive wannabe-oppressed but too whitebread-rich-to-say-so music (few things are worse than hearing and watching mainline priestesses directing the crowd to “celebrate and get down”).
No. I discovered true singing in the third hour of the Tuesday night camp meeting, where singing is done to shaped notes, an out-of-tune piano with a third of the 88 ivories chipped off and the rest discolored by age, humidity and a lot of pounding. I discovered that singing is best done, not from the diaphragm, but from a gut that sets the heated air in the lungs close to exploding into the night. It is best done with the phase shift produced by the waving of the funeral home handfans, which were made of those ubiquitous brown romantic portraits of Jesus stuck onto a big long tongue depressor. It is best done, also, with generous ladles of lukewarm water slugged down by a very common cup from the zinc pail in the middle of the room.
The singing ladies and men, who did some sort of antiphonal thing, knew how to stretch a single refrain into a crossroads with forever: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that Name.” Or, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full into His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” And then, my favorite, a song entitled “Unworthy.”
All that week during the hot days we wrestled in the sand of the grassless lawn after our flannelgraph Bible story, ate fried chicken and meatloaf and mashed potatoes and hot green things with bacony stuff in the early evening, and then preaching and singing.
I can’t remember much from the preaching except that there was a lot about Joseph, Moses and David. These old sermons were not afraid to talk about Old Testament stories in the idiom of King James and blood. I remember getting the hell scared out of me, and as I get older, I see more that this was a good thing.
But the singing at the end set me back on solid ground, on the solid rock, out of sinking sand and the miry clay, and higher up and further in, “just over in the glory land.”
Next morning, the sun gleamed golden down on the whiteboard chapel, and into the mildewy concrete-slab basement we ran, whiteshirted, scrubbed necks and ears, waiting, breathlessly, for the afternoon to come when we’d be free to undo all that unnatural cleanness in tag, “country jake” (I forget the rules), peak around the corner (my heart would flail if I played this again), and that district’s brand of hide and seek (I could never understand the rules).
We all loved Jesus, and He was real, and we were not conscious of any other possibility, and so we only believed and did not do any meta-thinking about belief.
We were also multi-cultural without knowing it. We sang to God without looking at ourselves. I didn't know until years later that I was, that week, a minority of one.
We ate, we sang, we prayed and played.
I can only hum the melody of “Unworthy” now, I’ve forgotten all the words, and the shaped notes swim in my memory. I’ve replaced that softback black old hymnbook with my prayerbook, and the sinner's prayer with the Orthodox prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
But water never tasted so good as that cool stuff, singing, from the silver pail.
I’ll know I’m in heaven when the joy of that Day will exceed and restore all that play and the long table dinners, and the songs of forever will complete and fulfill the day when I discovered how to sing for real.
Thanks, O., for helping me to remember.