It was the Observer’s turn to usher at church last Sunday, which meant we had plenty of time to read through the bulletin as we waited out the sermon in the narthex. (The place was packed. We had no choice.) This Sunday had been set aside to spotlight the church’s various musical offerings, and so included in the bulletin for inspiration were the rules for singing John Wesley included in his book of hymns. Now Wesley was a bit, well, mythodical, and it’s reflected in his rules, which start off by saying singers should learn all the hymns in his book first, and then they can go learn whatever else they want. Spinach first, then dessert.
The rule that caught our attention, though, was number IV: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”
Now every big church choir, it seems, has at least one soprano who’s taken that rule as her own personal license to shrill. You know the one, jumping up an octave to screech out a few notes with vibrato wide enough to drive a Lincoln Continental through. (As for Wesley’s fifth rule, “Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation …” — well, Methodists don’t do literal interpretations.)
But the Observer grew up as a semi-regular visitor at a tiny little church in Valley Springs, where just about everybody was as old as our grandparents and the arrival of the three kids in our family doubled the size of the children’s Sunday school class. There wasn’t a choir, wasn’t usually even a preacher — just a woman named Peggy who played old-timey hymns on a piano, and Gramps Observer in a pew midway back bellowing out the words with all the lusty good courage John Wesley could ever have hoped for. He provided plenty of cover for the rest of the congregation — with Gramps singing, nobody was going to notice a softer voice’s errant notes. We like to think they all sang louder for it.
The big-city churches The Observer’s attended all our life don’t much sing those old-timey hymns anymore — no “Standing on the Promises” or “This is My Story, This is My Song.” But every once in awhile, we’ll stand up when the organ starts and hear, from a row or two ahead or behind, some old man’s voice steamrolling over the timid and the mumblers. And we’ll think, now that’s the way to praise the Lord.
The Observer is getting a big kick out KUAR’s history segments being aired, we guess, as a run-up to the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School. The one we heard this week was an interview with Carlotta Walls LaNier. She describes the meeting the Nine had before school started with the superintendent of schools in those days, Virgil Blossom. It was a list of what they could not do, rather than what they could. They could not sing in the school choir. They could not play football. They could not go to dances. They could not take part in the life of the school. LaNier’s interview hit hard, short, if not sweet.
Then the voice of the Central High Museum came on. It is, of course, Spirit Trickey. Minnijean Brown’s daughter. Now that was sweet.
The weird thing is, The Observer lives in Virgil Blossom’s house. The one he lived in in 1957, that is. We eat dinner where he ate and slept where he slept. We think about it from time to time. Did he write the sluggish Blossom Plan somewhere in this house? (It proposed to integrate the schools so slowly that it would have taken two generations, one history suggests, for justice to be done and it still wasn’t good enough for the segs.) Did rocks fly through the windows? Did he get ugly phone calls here? Did Faubus ever visit? That last thought really makes our flesh crawl.
The house isn’t haunted, thank goodness. Still we wonder what the walls saw.