Author: Kuster, Ted

Old Songs

Every year around this time I put everything aside and go to work on the Posarela, a staged Christmas story based mostly on some old traditional Mexican holiday songs. Itís put on by a community music center in my neighborhood called the Community Music Center. You could see it yourself, if you happen to be in the Mission district in San Francisco on Dec. 7 or 8.

Dozens of people get involved. Thereís a youth orchestra in the pit, some professional actors, and an amateur chorus. Most years I help rehearse the chorus. It takes me away from my banjo for a while, but itís worth it. You get to sing loud and proud on songs that lose none of their beauty for being old and a little worn. Some of these songs are as clichÈíd as La Bamba. Nobody cares.

The chorus is 12 to 20 singers, mostly senior women from around the neighborhood. Some of them live in the old folksí home down the street from the CMC. Most of them sing in an alto range, even the ones who used to be sopranos. Some are tenors.

When I was a teenager my family lived for a time near my dadís parents. My grandmother, like most preachersí wives, was the engine of the church her husband served. One of her many duties was to sing enthusiastically in the church choir. She and I were tenors together, and we had a good time there in the back row of the choir. We werenít great singers, but we held up our end. She thought I was extraordinarily gifted, and I was a little scared of her but I knew she could sing.

My grandmother (I called her Oma) got the idea that the choir needed new members and new energy, and that a talent show was the way to get them. When youíre a preacherís kid, you get used to the expectation that if anything needs doing around the church, youíre going to be in there doing it, so I waited for my assignment. The song she assigned me was Red River Valley.

I had four weeks to practice, and I practiced the way a teenager will practice a piece someone else has chosen for them: a little, reluctantly. But Oma was as good at discipline as she was at playing the piano. By show day I knew the words, at least.

Oma sat at the piano and I stood next to it. I stumbled through that song in the most half-hearted way I could manage, just wanting it to be over. I sort of whispered the melody and sort of mumbled the words. Afterwards, Oma declared it the prettiest rendition of Red River Valley sheíd ever heard.

I felt terrible about that. Iím pretty sure she wasnít pretending. She really did think Iíd knocked it out of the park. Love isn’t just blind, it is pretty hard of hearing, too.

Years later, when Oma was long gone and my own kid was old enough to be interested in singing with me, that was the first song I showed her how to play on her cheap little æ size guitar. We learned all the obscure verses and cooked up an arrangement with swapping harmony parts and minor II chords and all kinds of bells and whistles like that. We worked that worn-out song to a fine polish. Iíve seen my daughter make strangers cry with that song.

What I wanted her to see was that you donít ever give a song, however old and familiar, a raw deal the way I did in that church basement in 1976. Most of the songs that youíre likely to take up have been around longer than you, have earned their place in this world more thoroughly than you have, and deserve to be sung with vigor and commitment. If you canít treat a song with the respect it merits, just donít do the song.

So I spend most of my year looking forward to getting back together with my chorus of old women. I get in there and sing those hackneyed old songs for my grandmother, with expression and diaphragm support and hand motions and all the fixings. If on occasion weíre not all singing in exactly the same key we practiced it in, I enjoy the dissonance. Itís easy to do, because Oma is still there in the back row, and Iím still a little scared of her.

Posted:  11/26/2013

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