I decided to wake up singing.
A few weeks ago, I’d come upon The American Songbook on a shelf of second hand books, the very same songbook I grew up with and on: the same olive cover, red print, and jolly, Dutch-inspired drawings of mules, slaves, mountain people, maidens…
Now, at five a.m. or six, before the noxious ruminations can start, I open the songbook to one of the songs I remember, surprised at how many I still know, and at how old some of them are, dating back to the beginnings of this nation:
“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”—the slave driving a wagon has the bent back of eternal labor.
“Drink To Me Only”—how that line perplexed me as a child.
“The Erie Canal”
“In Dublin’s Fair City…”
I sing each morning’s song as loudly as I can, to dispel the vapors, and, to my amazement, it works.
Songs carried me to the women who worked around me, as a child. Cleaning a toilet, mopping a floor, polishing my father’s leather shoes, banging an iron down on a recalcitrant linen napkin, their songs came to me when they were too busy to talk. The rhythm of their work didn’t necessarily correspondent to the rhythm of their songs; they didn’t sound jaunty, even when the tune was, or sad when the tune was, but rather, automatic, the tune existing independently from what their hands were doing.
I would love to know, now, how those long-dead, beloved women learned those songs.
It never occurred to me to wonder, then.
They sang as they breathed. But I did notice that you had to be at least middle-aged, and either black or poor white, to sing.
I don’t know why the hymns I heard, and remember, from church don’t come winging in these cold mornings. I love them, too. Perhaps it is because they were not set to working hands; they flew up from the lips of comfortably seated or standing white people. And so lack necessity.
It’s easy to allow black moods to dwell, to think “promiscuously,” as the poet David Whyte calls it, allowing our minds to wander in all sorts of dismal graveyards, out of sheer lack of energy, or lack of belief in the sun that will, after a while, be rising.
Here we are almost to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the bleak period of Lent that always seems so excessive for me and for all the other dark-dwellers in the early mornings.
Are we not already ashy enough?
And I know I will speculate on the people I see with that smudge on their forehead: do they sing?