Down the River

down the riverDown the river, we pray for one another.
Down the river, we hold on to our dreams.
Down the river, hard times make us stronger to get by,
And leave this world behind down the river.
Malcolm Holcombe

Current events have me feeling a little like a character in a Dickens novel, surrounded by tragedy and injustice while those who have the capacity to help seem like nothing more than unfeeling caricatures of leadership and strength. From global terrorism and oppression to presidential candidates’ buffoonery, from irresponsible journalism to a religious debate over non-religious coffee cups, I am overwhelmed with the amount of strife at every turn. I wish I had the answers, but of course, I do not.
This weekend, however, I think I got a glimpse of some things that could lead us to the answers. Or maybe they’re just things that can provide respite for a time as we attempt to navigate this chaotic maze of negativity in which we find ourselves. I’ll share it here, and you can take what you need from it.

I went to a wedding.

The bride has been my friend since first grade. In nearly 50 years we have witnessed lots of ups and downs as one would expect. The greatest “down” of all was when she lost her husband to a lengthy, terminal illness. It was the cruelest kind of disease, the kind that ravages the mind and leaves a lingering, failing body. Watching her provide care and advocate for her husband was one of those situations that makes you say things like, “I don’t know how she does it,” or “I could never do that.”
She did do it. She did it well and for a long, long time. Anyone would have understood if she had emerged on the other side tired or bitter or just ready to focus on herself. But after her husband passed away, her heart remained open, as it has always been, to new possibilities, new love, new life.

On Saturday she married again. It was a small wedding as weddings go, but it was grand in many ways. Her three grandsons walked her down the aisle and gave her away. Her granddaughter stood with her in the wedding party. The weather was grand, sunny and warm, on an incredible Texas autumn day. We were reminded, in the words of the apostle Paul, that while many things we value are temporary, three remain: faith, hope, and love. A grand idea for troubled times.

And then I went to a concert.

It wasn’t a big venue event, but a house concert in the home of a friend. Malcolm Holcombe was the artist. I had seen him several times before and heard him, recorded, long before that. Malcolm is a force of nature, someone you must see to truly experience. He is both childlike and ancient, his conversation moving in a direct path from juice to Anita Bryant to black and white TV (“as it should be,” he says) to matters philosophical.

Malcolm plays guitar with his entire body from his furrowed brow to his tapping, stomping feet. His chair moves back and forth like a rocker on the back porch. It is not a rocking chair, but a simple metal folding chair that he balances first on front legs then on back. For much of his time on stage, he is balancing on two chair legs and one of his own, the other three on the way up or on the way down. On the rare occasion that the chair is fully grounded, he is sideways in it, and soon the rocking begins again. He is a teacher’s nightmare, but an audience’s delight.

Holcombe’s rasp suggests years of smoking and drinking, maybe whiskey, maybe sand. Tonight however, he drinks coffee and pineapple juice. His stories and songs make me nostalgic for places and things I have never known. He stares, trancelike, into the audience during an instrumental piece, and I know he has gone somewhere else for a moment. He returns, and eventually ends his show with words that, despite his colorful language, can only be described as a benediction. I feel like I have been to church. Or down the river.

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Sing Along

girl, guitar cartoon

We sing acapella in the shower.  We sing along with the radio in the car.  We sing with beautiful instrumental accompaniment at church.  We sing.  We sing to multiply our joys, dispel our fears, and diminish our sadness.  Even people who think they can’t sing, sing!

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love to sing.  We didn’t have a radio in the car when I was little, but we always sang wherever we went.  Eventually we did have a car with a radio, and when I was old enough I had my own record player and eventually a stereo with a tape deck.  I sang in the choir in elementary school, around the campfire with my Girl Scout troop, and in the youth choir at church.  As an educator I used songs to teach content, from the Preamble to the Constitution to the “be” verbs to prime numbers.  Now I love to sing on the back porch with friends and guitars, and of course, I never stopped singing in the car.    I think the best singing is when a concert audience in a huge sports arena spontaneously sings along.  Under what other circumstance would you ever find tens of thousands of people so connected?

A few weeks ago the acapella group, Pentatonix, released a new album.  My favorite track is called “Sing,” and it’s what prompted me to think about singing today.  Here is my top 10 list of favorite songs for singing along:

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt – Few things are more satisfying than yelling “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” at the top of your lungs after singing each verse quieter and quieter and quieter.

If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song) – This might be my very favorite song on this list.  There’s just something about the sing-along power of a Pete Seeger protest anthem.

These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ – This was the first song I learned from the radio.  I was only five, but I had a pair of white go-go boots just like Nancy Sinatra.  Are ya ready boots?  Start walkin’!

Karma Chameleon and My Sharona – Okay, I know these are really two songs.  Just consider one a bonus track.  I put them together because they are great sing-alongs for the same reason; the percussive repetition of syllables is just fun!

Deep in the Heart of Texas – Sing the first line of this song any place in Texas or in the presence of any Texan and watch what happens.  In fact, if you ever need to escape the clutches of a Texan, sing this song and be prepared to run when clapping commences.  And it will.  It always does.  Always.

Build Me Up Buttercup – Can’t remember lyrics?  This echo song is a perfect sing-along for you!

Bohemian Rhapsody – We’ve been singing along with BR for 40 years, experiencing every musical genre and a whole host of emotions all in six minutes.  Magnifico!

You Are My Sunshine – My grandmother sang this song to my cousins and me when we were little.  We just sang the chorus, so I was an adult before I realized what a sad song it really is.  I still just sing the chorus.  And maybe the first verse.

We Didn’t Start the Fire – You have to bring your A game to sing along with this one.  I was so determined to learn this song that I wrote down the lyrics by hand hitting the pause button every so often to write.  After I finished, I realized the lyrics were printed in the liner notes.  Now we have the internet, and singing along is so much easier!

Me and Bobby McGee – Whether you prefer Kristofferson or Joplin, singing along to a song about singing along just makes sense, and it makes you feel good.  And, well, feelin’ good is good enough.

You’ll notice this list isn’t numbered.  It was difficult enough to pick only ten.  I’m pretty sure it would take weeks to rank them, and by then, I’d have some new favorites.

Maybe you found yourself singing a line or two as you read this post.  Maybe you have some sing-along favorites of your own.  If so, please share them in the comments so we can all sing along!