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Guided by Voices

Finding Grace Through Shape-Note Singing

ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1950s, I lived on the very distant outskirts of popular culture. I was a Mennonite, the only one besides my brother among the more than 1,000 students attending Glenbard High School. I was not allowed to dance (even square dance), go to movies, ice skate on Sundays, or participate in any of the noisy seductions of the secular world. And though I did sing in the high-school choir (one of the few acceptable activities), I spent much of my young-adult life struggling under this heavy blanket of prohibitions. Sometimes I dreamed of the day when I would be free from the strictures of the church, free to create my own life. It was a vague, adolescent dream, but I held its promise close. 

After I graduated from high school in 1959, I attended, at my parents’ insistence, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Northern Indiana. Life there was less fractured than my time at Glenbard High, as I now lived in a thoroughly Mennonite culture. Still, we could not dance, and female students could not wear Bermuda shorts, both seen as unnecessary, worldly temptations.

All freshmen were required to take a two-semester course, Introduction to Fine Arts, taught by Mary Oyer. She asked us to sing familiar Mennonite hymns with her, then diagram their repeating elements to understand their structure. She played symphonic works and helped us find all the times and ways in which a four- or five-note motif was scattered through the work, like tiny jewels in a handful of sand. She held these works up to us with intensity, joy, and intellectual dexterity. She was utterly convinced of their importance, and I believed her. 

Mary Oyer introduced me to Byzantine architecture, Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamps, recent sculpture by Alberto Giaco-metti, paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, and the music of John Cage. But I was most intrigued when she played excerpts of Gregorian chant and the madrigals and motets of Michael Praetorius, John Dowland, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and many other late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century composers. These works all took root in my growing awareness of unaccompanied vocal music. Some were complex harmonies, others spare lines with only one or two voices, but I was drawn to their clarity and coherence. I listened to each piece as one might approach an unexplored landscape: attentive to the topography, the play of light, and the possibility of mystery. Each line of music seemed to have a life of its own, and collectively these works seemed knowable, almost personal to me. 

As my interest in music grew, I worried less about the deprivations of a Mennonite life, and for the next two years I sang in two of the large choruses at Goshen. In my third year, I decided to audition for membership with the Motet Singers, an elite group of twenty musicians. I was moved by the works I had heard two years earlier, and believed this music held great promise for me. Even though I was only an average singer, I wanted to learn to sing motets: contrapuntal works written for unaccompanied voices, and usually based on sacred texts.

I climbed the stairs to Mary Oyer’s office on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. She greeted me with her friendly, toothy smile, inviting me to sit in an armless chair. Her office was bright and orderly but dense with shelves of books, stacks of music, color prints of works of art, and cabinets of notes. Though seldom called Dr. Oyer, she held a doctorate of musical arts performance in cello from the University of Michigan. 

Now I sat forward in my chair, my back straight as a good musician would sit. Mary Oyer sat beside me in a folding metal chair, then handed me the Mennonite Church Hymnal, opened to “O Worship the King,” a familiar hymn I had sung for years. I relaxed a bit. She asked me to sing the bass line, humming my first note for me. I had been told that she had perfect pitch, a gift given to only a few musicians. I sang the first five notes of my line, scarcely looking at the book I held. 

She held up her hand, stopping me. “Let’s try that again, and pay special attention to the second note.” I sang it again, this time looking at the notes carefully, and realized that for years I had been singing the melody, the soprano line, for the first five notes, rather than the bass line. Slowly, she sang my part correctly, and then asked me to try it again. I still couldn’t sing it as it was written—five simple notes I had sung incorrectly all my life. 

She smiled and said, “Don’t feel alone. Many churches sing that line incorrectly. Let’s try another piece.” She handed me music for an eighteenth-century German motet, opened to the third page, and, pointing to the bass line, said, “Please begin here, but don’t worry about the German text, just sing the bass line in la la.” I suspected this was the piece of music that separated the real musicians from the pretenders. I sat up straight again. She hummed my first note. I plunged in, and although I was shaky, I made good progress through the first several measures. Then I came to a very difficult interval, the last in a run of sixteenth notes. I took a stab at it and she stopped me immediately. 

“Oh, please do that again,” she exclaimed, smiling and pointing at the beginning measure. “It is a difficult passage. No one auditioning has sung it correctly, and you sang it very well.” 

“It was a lucky guess,” I confessed. “I probably won’t be able to do it again.” And though I tried several times, even with her singing the line for me, I could not do it. I was lost in the tangle of notes and my disappointment with myself. The audition had lasted about three minutes and was over. She set the music aside and rose to lead me to the door, thanking me for auditioning. 

When the members of the Motet Singers were posted on her office door a few days later, my name was not there. I was disappointed but relieved. I had grown to respect the climate of excellence in musical performance at Goshen and knew I would have been the weakest bass. The audition also confirmed my impression that I would never be, even with training, a professional musician. But it did not diminish my attraction to a cappella vocal music. 

Students at Goshen College came mostly from Mennonite families in Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kansas, and most of us had sat through years of four-part a cappella congregational singing, breathing in the music at least three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. Organs and pianos were considered too secular for use in worship services. At Goshen we were required to attend chapel every morning, and this service always included unaccompanied singing. The chorister walked to the podium, announced the number of the hymn, blew a note on his or her pitch pipe, and with his or her free hand led the song. Eight or nine hundred voices sprang to life singing hymns in four or sometimes six parts, a collective, vocal instrument born of skill and tradition. Many church choirs had trouble finding a tenor or two; this choir had fifty good tenors. I sang bass, rumbling along below the other parts, my line often obscured by the more colorful tenor, alto, and soprano voices. Sometimes I wished I were a tenor with a high, clear voice, soaring through the hymns as a hawk would rise and fall with the currents of the air, buoyant and radiant. 

The sound filled all the empty spaces in the large auditorium, like waves overflowing the crevices on a rocky coastline. Singing these hymns had always been construed as a form of worship, but as my allegiance to the orthodoxy of the church slowly faded, my attraction to a cappella vocal music gradually expanded. This music, sung without pretense, rich in vocal harmonies, always on pitch in this setting, seemed to activate my emotions, a sense of wonder, the hesitant weight of affection, and the feeling of not being able to fully embrace the mystery of what I beheld. It was not unlike the early fever of being in love. Visitors often shook their heads, marveling at what they heard. 

Many years after my time at Goshen, in October 2013, Garrison Keillor hosted a show there. Following his performance, the Goshen College Bulletin would quote Keillor as saying:

I think I maybe did the best show of my life Tuesday night and all thanks to the audience, a thousand Mennonites and their neighbors in a small town in Indiana….They sang beautiful four- and six-part harmony in a fine acoustic hall and I sang a modest bass, no arm waving, no coaxing, and the sound of this impromptu choir made everyone intensely happy. I steered them directly from one verse of a song to a chorus of another, no pausing, and when I did pause once, trying to figure out where to go next, they did not applaud. Marvelous. Because it was not a show. It was for real. Mennonites are quiet, peace-loving, kind-hearted people, salt of the earth. If I knew a church where people sang like that, I’d be there every Sunday morning, sitting right smack in the middle. 

In 1974, eleven years after I graduated from Goshen, I moved with my wife, Jan, and our two children to an isolated mountain farm in Western North Carolina. We were back-to-the-land people seeking an uncluttered, agrarian lifestyle, and lived at the end of the road in a small valley known as Sugar Creek. I was making furniture for a living. Church attendance and singing had not been a part of our lives for eight or ten years. I missed the music of my days at Goshen, but our lives were overloaded with the tasks of sustaining ourselves on this steep, rocky ground. 

On a blustery fall Sunday evening, two close friends, Jerry Israel and his wife, Willie, who owned and worked on a small farm about eight miles up the road, came by for dinner. Our times with these friends were always relaxed, and our conversations often centered on some aspect of traditional mountain culture: claw-hammer banjo technique, how to store beans by making leather britches, or the soapstone quarries of nearby Yancey County. This evening, Willie had a basket with two loaves of banana-nut bread under one arm; Jerry was carrying a black, clothbound songbook, holding it against his side as one would carry a book of some importance, a ministerial grip.

After dinner, Jerry stood at the end of our dining table, holding the songbook. “I want both of you to look at this,” he said as we stood beside him. “You all are Mennonites, and I wondered if you can sing shape-note music.” The book, of oblong format, an “end-opener,” had printed across the cover christian harmony in gold script.

Jerry explained that William Walker, a South Carolina native, had compiled and published Christian Harmony in 1866 to introduce a seven-shape do-re-mi notation system as an aid for people learning to sing, and that it was one of several books intended for Southern congregations and singing schools. 

He leafed through the book and asked if we wanted to try a song or two. I said we were rusty, but we could try. Jerry would sing lead, Jan and Willie agreed to sing alto, and I would sing bass; this quartet had no tenor. We set our wine glasses down and cleared our throats. 

We stood in a tight row at the end of the table, straining to see the words as Jerry held the book and pointed at the first line of the song. All the notes had different geometric shapes attached to vertical stems—except the whole notes, which had no stems at all. The first note in the ascending seven-note scale, do, was an isosceles triangle; re, the next note, the bottom half of a circle; the next, mi, a diamond. An inverted right triangle, an oval, a square, and a top-rounded triangle (ice cream cone) completed the scale. The Mennonite Church Hymnal I grew up with used the same seven shapes, but I had learned to sing without reference to them.

Jerry began singing, his voice strong and clear, absent of any vibrato. He and Willie were familiar with the song, but Jan and I stumbled occasionally, missing several notes and entrances. We all laughed at our halting efforts. Though our singing was ragged, and the harmony cloudy, and though it was my first exposure to this Southern shape-note tradition, it prompted memories of the power of those 1,000 voices in the college church. 

Several weeks later, Jerry and I attended “Old Folk’s Day,” held for more than 100 years at the Morningstar Methodist Church, near Canton, North Carolina, about forty miles southwest of where we lived. The church, a handsome brick structure with double oak entry doors, sat securely on a knoll. About fifty people had gathered to sing, some from as far as North Georgia and East Tennessee. Many greeted one another as old friends as they walked slowly into the church. All carried black or brown songbooks, and most, especially the older singers, were dressed in Sunday clothes. Jerry, who seemed to know almost everyone, handed me an extra songbook, then he joined the lead singers and pointed to the bass section, where I seated myself. Several of the arched, stained-glass windows along the sides of the sanctuary were propped open against the heat of the afternoon. The oak benches smelled of old varnish and stuck to my pants a bit every time I stood up. 

Quay Smathers, who lived nearby, and who for years had traveled to festivals and colleges to teach traditional shape-note singing, extended greetings to all. He wore a brown suit and a wide tie, and as he sang the pitches for the first song, “do-so mi-so-do,” he raised his hand to gather everyone’s attention, then swept it downward as most of the singers erupted into song. The first time through each song, only the do-re-mi syllables were sung, the tune thereby “noted out.” The second time through the words were sung instead. 

For some this was undoubtedly a worship service. A few looked like graduate students, perhaps studying rural Southern vocal traditions. Some sang with their eyes closed. Others had their faces buried in their books and never looked at the leader. One man held his book in one hand, the book completely bent over like a repair manual, its pages fanning slightly like a deck of cards. 

Several singers seemed to be ignoring the written score, singing notes that were not there or leaving out notes that seemed critical to the piece. Rests were ignored, entrances were blurred, and there was little sense of careful timing except the loud thumping of feet keeping a heavy, unwavering beat with many songs. Most singers did not seem to be listening to one another, an effort that would have helped create a unified and resonant blend of voices. I was disheartened; I had hoped for more attention to detail, and had assumed that an assembled group, part of a long-standing tradition, singing from a popular book, a leader at its center, would approximate the congregational singing of Mennonite churches. 

I heard one brassy alto who sounded like she was yelling for her kids to come home. One female lead singer’s penetrating, laser-like voice seemed to be about a quarter step flat most of the time. The bass singer beside me sang reverently, but seemed to have a repertoire of only three notes—one high, one medium, one low. 

After leading several songs, Quay chose the succeeding leaders, each of whom came to the center and led a song or two, some leaders conducting by making triangles in the air with their free hand, others with a straight downward slash with their hand held rigid. 

Most of the songs were foreign to me. I sang hesitantly, literally trying to find my voice in this strange turbulence. I cringed at the loud, disjointed music; I wanted the leader to stop when the altos were flat and help them get tuned up. I wanted people to sing carefully, accurately, and together. This music seemed alien compared to most of my vocal training and experience. I had learned to practice a piece of music, a hymn or a motet, until it was sung as accurately as possible, to do justice to the carefully created polyphony, and to perhaps achieve some intersection of the aesthetic and the spiritual. 

But everyone seemed to be having a good time, some smiling, some waving their hands as they sang, some nudging their neighbors and pointing to something in the book. Favorite songs were sung with great energy, often with no need for books. I seemed to be the only one concerned with getting it right. I thought if there was any beauty in this music it would be found by singing the notes accurately, but the moving, personal experiences with music I had found at Goshen did not seem possible in this clamor.

By the time the singing ended, several hours later, I had tired of the noisy confusion. As we drove home in my dusty Land Cruiser, I was preoccupied with questions for Jerry about this music, which he obviously held in high regard. But I was cautious about voicing my reactions to what I thought was very marginal singing. I didn’t know where to begin, and didn’t want to offend him. We traveled in silence for a little while. 

“Did you listen to the man who led ‘Volunteers’?” Jerry finally asked. “It was page 110 and we sang it toward the end. It’s worth going to a singing just to hear him.” 

I said I didn’t remember it specifically. 

“That man was Lyman Clark,” Jerry continued. “He’s a farmer and lives over in Crusoe in Dutch Valley a few miles from the Morningstar Church.” Jerry said Mr. Clark led with both hands, one holding his songbook, his index finger pinched between the pages where the song was printed, and that he added lots of grace notes of his own invention. When he noted out the song he added his grace notes with the proper do-re-mi names—a rare skill, Jerry added. I was impressed; I had struggled to sing the most basic do-re-mi sequences. 

I asked if Mr. Clark was a member of the Morningstar Church. Jerry said no: “Lots of singers were not church people.” I had assumed that these events were an extension of worship services, but Jerry explained that the shape-note business was a different thing altogether. Good, I thought. I was familiar with the language and the evangelical themes of many of the songs, but I was interested in the harmonies and what they might hold for me, hoping they would allow me to recapture some of the experiences I had had in the round sanctuary at Goshen. 

I asked Jerry if he liked the music. “Well, I grew up with it,” he said. Then he told me that a friend of his once remarked that he wouldn’t walk across the street to listen to this music, but he would drive half a day to sing it.

That day at Morningstar, frustrated by my efforts, I began leafing through the songbook, reading the texts, often written as poetry. The minor harmonies often fit the words with which they were paired: tragic, melancholy meditations on the trials of this life. Some lyrics posed questions reflecting acute existential despair: “Am I born to die…?”; “When will the mournful night be gone…?”; “How lost was my condition…?”

I had been able to sing most of a song written by Daniel Read around 1785, “Windham.” The text of this song, like others, ended with the sinner’s need for redemption, a predictable evangelical solution to human weakness, but I read the poetry of the first verse several times, and was drawn to the image of a traveler: 

Broad is the road that leads to death,
and thousands walk together there,
but wisdom knows a narrow path
with here and there a traveler…

As I kept reading, I realized that the traveler, the pilgrim, the uncertain wanderer—all mentioned in numerous songs—was someone I knew well. Our life on Sugar Creek did feel like a path with very few travelers. We were not part of a well-defined social network; we depended on our wits and imagination to make mortgage and health-insurance payments, to keep the water running in the winter, to keep the house warm and animals healthy. It taxed all our resources—personal, financial, and emotional—to make it work. 

I began to see the language of these songs not as remnants of nineteenth-century evangelism but as engaging and personal. The questions of how we lived, where we were headed, and how we should structure our lives sat squarely in front of us. Our lives on this steep land always seemed somewhat urgent, precarious, and laden with questions of sustainability and permanence. These songs did not hold the answers to these questions for me, but the language reflected the struggles shared by others at a different time and place: “Come, O thou traveler unknown…”; “Dark and thorny is the desert through which pilgrims make their way…”;“I am a stranger here below…”; “Oh cease my wandering soul…” 

Many songs in Christian Harmony also spoke of the “land,” usually a metaphor for heaven: “There is a land of pure delight,” “In a land where we’ll never grow old,” “There’s a beautiful land far beyond the sky,” “Canaan’s fair and happy land.” For me, “land” was not a metaphor for heaven. It was not even a metaphor. These lyrics reminded me of my hopes for this particular place where my family now lived—its hills, springs, windy ridges, and starlit nights.

Over the next several weeks, I spent time in the library reading about the history of shape-note music, and Christian Harmony in particular. This music was not based on any assumptions about performance. Rather, its collective heart was driven by participation: the more people, regardless of skills, background, or convictions, the better. Everyone was a singer. It was without pretense. No one was trying to impress anyone; what you brought to the experience and what you took away were largely your own business. 

If fifty singers had gathered, the sound they produced was the result of fifty people each singing the songs as he or she personally wished to sing them—an opportunity for individual expression, not a concert, collectively envisioned. I began to see this as a reflection of regional values. The Appalachian Mountains have a long history of independent lifestyles, and individually held values. Not many folks, including me, are eager to sign up for much of anything in the way of group endeavors. Jerry, an eighth-generation resident of these mountains, knew as much, and made no effort to convince me of anything about the music, which for him and most singers was not a subject for cultural analysis, more a tradition to be shared. 

The notes written in the songbooks were not intended to be interpreted literally. What sounded to me like a flawed reading of the score was usually a variation in style, often an embellishment, developed from generations of tradition and aural history: when to add or subtract a rest, when to add particular grace notes, or when to slide between notes. For me, this was a new and believable understanding of “correct.” 

Many of these tunes were based on variations of the standard major and minor scales, known as modes. These modal harmonies often created songs with a spare, darker sound that, to me, heightened the music’s interest and strength. They often ended in open fourths or fifths rather than resolving into predictable major chords. I realized that I had always been attracted to these arrangements, but had never known their history or structure. One day I found myself humming a line from “Hail the Blest Morn” and realized I was developing an appetite for this music. 

In the following months, Jerry and Willie and Jan and I invited friends to join us to sing out of Christian Harmony. Gradually, the “singing group,” as we called it, expanded, and within several years became a sustaining tradition in our lives. The core group was usually about ten people, and included three people who worked at the Asheville Citizen-Times as managers and journalists, two health-care professionals, a professional musician, a political scientist, an archaeologist, a librarian, and a schoolteacher. We were nominal Presbyterians, Mennonites, Sufi, Unitarians, and Baptists—mostly backslid. We were essentially middle-class people, but were all, in different ways, antiestablishment, unsettled, and discontent. 

We all bought copies of Christian Harmony and Sacred Harp, a popular collection of shape-note tunes based on a four-note system. We began meeting regularly, usually at our house, an A-frame I had built for our family at the end of Sugar Creek Road. As we sang, we developed our own variations and amendments to the music, much as traditional Christian Harmony singers scattered throughout the South, but concentrated in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, had modified these tunes to suit their tastes. 

We created our own rituals and folkways. I taught the group to sing the doxology, common to most Protestant denominations, as it was sung by many Mennonites, slow and in four-part harmony; it became our shared song before every meal. I always stood next to the altos when we sang the chorus of “Better Land,” as we entered together in a short but gratifying duet; and Jerry often told the story of the deaf man who always asked the singers at Morningstar to sing “Angel Band,” though invariably it had already been sung. In those days none of us had any expectation that this group of singers would survive in various configurations for forty years. But it has. 

For at least the first ten years, we sang almost every month. Our May singing, commemorating Mother’s Day, was held at Craggy Gardens, on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We liked the sensation of sending our voices out over the high ridges, and while holding glasses of champagne we always sang “Pisgah,” a tune that shared its name with a mountain farther down the Appalachian range. We felt no loss when the wind whipped our songs away as if they were skeins of smoke, our voices joining the cool and sometimes foggy morning air as it coursed over the ridges and peaks. 

The singing group and the music we sang became an essential dimension of my life—the mix of the secular and the spiritual, though “spiritual” was a word I would not have been able to define. I found great freedom in the minor harmonies of shape-note tunes in the company of faithful friends, without any need to wrestle with the meaning or assumptions suggested by the lyrics. We paid attention to the words, but our time together was never understood to be a worship service. 

Our farm on Sugar Creek Road became a refuge of sorts for our singing group, a social ecosystem in which we could sing about sadness and our hopes for a better land and be understood. Our shared view of a fragmented and hostile world in need of healing was implicit in the energy with which we sang, especially when we all landed together in full voice on an especially evocative line: “My soul shall quit this mournful vale and soar to worlds on high.” Or Bill Monroe’s bluegrass song “Lord Build Me a Cabin In a Corner of Gloryland.” Sometimes we sang holding hands or with our arms around one another. 

Occasionally someone would mention how special this group was, and occasionally after we sang “Angel Band” someone would say quietly that we could sing this song at his or her funeral. But other than in the music, we seldom spoke of the color and texture of our interior lives. Our time together was an energy field we didn’t experience anywhere else, but we didn’t search for words to define it. Though no one said it out loud, those struggles we held within us, and our affection for the music, were what bound us together so clearly and profoundly. We were the ones with existential questions, the ones with unarticulated spiritual values, the ones unable to change a violent and unjust world. We were singing about ourselves. 

The members of the singing group brought a wide range of experience in vocal music; one permanent member of the group didn’t even sing. The conflict between singing the music “right” and the shape-note tradition of not trying to perfect a piece of music was always with us, but usually negotiated with some grace. Some wanted to use a piano or pitch pipe to find the beginning pitch. Others preferred to begin singing at an approximate pitch and adjust it later to suit our voices. There were frequent discussions of notes, rests, and how many times to repeat a chorus, but eventually we developed a style with each song that was partly correct as written, partly traditional, and always a product of our own tastes and inclinations. We all contributed to this discussion, but we often looked to Jerry for faithful portrayals of traditional singing. I came to realize that there were many ways to be moved by music, many conceptions of how to approach it, and infinite modes of expression. I no longer struggled with any definition of “correct.” 

My old worries about correctness were lodged in my assumption that vocal music, other than congregational singing, implied performance of some kind. Once learned and practiced, a piece of music would be sung for others, nonmusicians or perhaps less well-trained musicians. I would stand before them as part of a group, hoping to make no mistakes. Shape-note music requires no credentials and creates no hierarchies of skill or acclaim. There are no auditions, no rehearsals, no soloists, no awards, and no outsiders; only the implicit and sustaining affirmation that everyone is welcome. 

I recently spoke with Jerry to ask about details of our shared experience with shape notes—the names of certain songs, his memories of the early days of our singing group. At one point he paused and said, “I need to tell you about how we sang when Lyman Clark died.” Jerry is a taciturn man, one who rarely mentions his needs or displays his emotions, but he spoke with some urgency as he described the large group of singers who made a great circle outside Mr. Clark’s small, white farmhouse to sing from Christian Harmony, tunes he had led so often with such energy and grace. Jerry, his voice filled with admiration and joy, said you could hear the beginning pitches being passed around the circle, and the sounds of those voices raised in the night air; the plaintive harmonies drifting out over the fields, sending Mr. Clark on his way.

Several years before we began singing together, on a warm morning in July of 1973, I had reentered the circular sanctuary of the Goshen College Mennonite Church, pausing to survey the familiar concentric rows of curved pews, the podium and plain chairs for the worship leaders and chorister jutting into the circle on a raised platform the shape of a piece of pie. The building lacked ornament: clean, simple lines and white walls; no stained glass, statuary, paintings, or visual distractions except one simple white cross on the wall behind the pulpit. Family and friends were assembled here today for a memorial service; my paternal grandfather, Joseph Eshleman Brunk, was dead at eighty-five. He had been a member of this church for decades. 

My daughter Ingrid and I had flown north from Asheville to be a part of the service. She was six and wore a pretty summer dress. I got a haircut and wore a green and yellow tie Jan had sewn for me. I polished an old pair of black wingtip shoes and, in general, tried to not look like a wild man walking out of the forest.

I knew my grandfather as restless, stubborn, generous, and strongly opinionated. He had operated a sawmill, grew potatoes, worked in a grocery store, supervised a large fruit cannery, and moved houses. He was closest to being a carpenter, but had never embraced any line of work as a career, and was often at odds with some real or imagined obstacle he found in his path. He often volunteered for projects sponsored by the Mennonite Church, and moved his family many times during my father’s childhood. He had no interest in the symbols of wealth: large homes, fancy cars, or fine clothing. I was like him in some ways, impatient, task-oriented, possibly even obtuse. 

People nodded quietly to one another as family and friends slowly entered the sanctuary. The movements and gestures of the assembled people, the occasional cry of a child or a muffled cough hanging in the silence before the service began, were all familiar, as Mennonite services at that time did not include a prelude of any kind. I had always understood those silences as a time to still oneself. 

After a short sermon by the minister, the song leader walked to the podium and asked the congregation to rise and turn to page 536 in the Church Hymnal and to join him in singing “Lift Your Glad Voices,” a popular hymn in Mennonite services, one I had sung many times.

I had not been back in this sanctuary, nor had I attended any Mennonite churches, in the ten years since graduating from Goshen College, but it was here that vocal music had become a fundamental part of my life. It was by far the closest thing to keeping me in touch with the Mennonite church.

I had looked forward to singing in this place again, but on a day I most wanted to sing, I could not. The embracing sound of several hundred voices in that circular room washed over me like the swells of an ocean. The music was in my body, an aching sadness, stored in inaccessible regions of memory and personal history. Something cloistered and deeply buried had been loosened by the music. I could not sustain a breath, or relax my throat long enough to produce a sound. My tears splashed on the hymnal.

As family and friends greeted me after the service, their words made it clear they assumed my tears were for Grandpa. I loved him as best I could, but my tears were neither for him nor for the nostalgia of being reunited with Goshen College and part of my family. These tears were for something personal, this music, which was bound to my life in ways I did not even understand. Perhaps it was the fragile, impermanent cadences of my own breath I mourned. Breath is life, singing a particular kind of exhalation. 


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