BY MADONNA HAMEL
Last week I went to a friend’s barbecue. Bring instruments, he said, we’ll have a singalong.
Of course, I’m not bringing my guitar, I told myself. I can’t play like those boys. I haven’t tuned it in months. I remember when Victoria Williams said at a concert: “I apologize for that out-of-tune guitar!” I didn’t know it was out of tune!
I was raised to sing. We were a singing family. We sang folk songs and Christmas carols whenever we got together, as did my mother when she was a child. In fact, her older sister, my Aunt Cecile, raised chickens and sold the eggs to earn enough to buy the family piano. As in so many homes in Saskatchewan in the 30’s, furniture was sparse, but they had a piano!
I grew up singing to myself. As a grown woman I continued to sing while washing dishes, walking to work, driving across country. Once a boyfriend commented on how he liked hearing me singing around
the house and I didn’t even know I did. I did not realize what a powerful ritual I was re-enacting in those song-filled days. Until I stopped.
When exactly I stopped, I’m not quite certain. My mother was a voice teacher, so early on, while learning harmony, we caught ourselves singing off-key. I also began to notice that people around us simply listened when we sang. We were the ‘main act’. We performed at high masses and weddings. It was around the time ‘The Sound of Music’ came out, so I called call us ‘The Big Trap’ family, a play on the Von Trapps. Or sometimes we were ‘The Rhythm Pals’ – which served as both a comment on the highly unreliable Catholic birth control method and a nod to ‘The Tommy Hunter Show’. Perhaps it was then I started to listen to how I sounded, afraid of delivering anything less than angelic or praise-worthy.
I do know that I became downright pompous after a brief life touring as a back-up singer; I could not stand hearing an off-note even around a campfire or in a living room. I decline going to singalongs if people had a few too many beers or there was no evident leader to count us in, to keep the beat. When I first moved to Val Marie, away from life on the road, I realized I had lost all sense of melting into the experience of just being together, of howling, crooning and lalalaing. I either dominated or left early.
And then I remembered watching with my friend Helen, the Joseph Campbell series, ‘The Power of Myth’. Every Thursday night we’d set up the VCR player in our painting studio, hungry for a deeper connection to the process of art-making and a more solid understanding of the tradition into which we had enlisted. It was there I heard the story of the importance of song, of finding our own song by listening for it, being open to it, holding it close, breathing life into it, feeding it.
A moment in the series sticks with me. It’s when Bill Moyers, ever the wide-eyed wonder-er, recalls the legend of a man who neglects to feed a bird: “And the legend says, the man killed the bird, and with the bird he killed the song,” he says. “And with the song himself. Isn’t that a story about what happens when human beings destroy their environment, destroy their world, destroy nature and the revelation of nature” And Campbell replies: “Destroy their OWN nature”.
I came across the importance of song again in reviewing Lynn Gehl’s “Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit”. I came to the realization that commodifying is a form of colonizing; even if we don’t see ourselves as the geographical Imperialists of the 19th and 20th centuries, we are economic imperialists in the ways we attempt to commodify everything, even spirit.
Of course, Spirit cannot be commodified, so it gets left behind. In the same way I believe that a camera can’t steal your soul, so it leaves it behind. However, as we attempted to understand in our art-making days, when the person behind the camera or the paint brush leaves ego behind, an evocation of Spirit is possible.
If you believe in keeping your Spirit alive, watching the Spirit of children and Nature thrive, then you might be tempted to burst out into song whenever and where-ever you feel like it. Then, as Gehl writes, the act of singing would carry an “inherent practicality”, would be nothing less than a necessary ritual ,“an embodiment of the knowledge philosophy” that “we are good human beings.”
I recall another story, about a healer who stood over the body of an ailing man and asked him: “When’s the last time you sang your song?”
When you go to a ‘singalong’ where there are professional musicians it usually goes like this: ‘players’ play their guitars, ‘singers’ sing, the rest sit back, like an audience, and listen. Some hum quietly or mouth the words. “Come and sing something”, one of the musicians might say. But the reply is invariably the same: “Oh nonono, I can’t sing! I can barely carry a note.”
That night I waited for a song I knew so I could hop on the song-train. At the same time, I didn’t want to step on somebody else’s solo. It was exhausting. At the same time I was resenting any urge to ‘perform’ instead of just melting and merging into the song. I wasn’t looking for accolades; I just wanted to be part of the group, But that’s impossible when your energies
go toward not messing up the song.
“Reality” shows like “The Voice’ or “American Idol” commodify the human voice and turn the joy of singing into yet another competition. Such shows have turned millions into self-conscious wretches who
dare not open their mouths. They decimate the motto of the voice teacher: “If you can talk, you can sing!”
Last night I went for a walk along the river. I sang and sang and sang a made-up tune with neither beginning nor end. I felt re-animated, “de-colonized”, “de-commodified”. The sheer joy of emoting spontaneously chased away the outside world’s specifications of the ideal singer and song. This time, the song came from deep, deep inside. And, I promised myself, it would not be the last time.