Around here, music just happens, emerging from the air around and inside us, effortless as rain.
It is our neighborhood Sunday supper, and we are singing “Tonight” from West Side Story as we assemble cheese enchiladas. Peggy, our host, started us off when she absently hummed a few bars while stirring the pinto beans. At the counter chopping cilantro, I joined in, adding lyrics. From the table, her husband, Scooter, upped the volume, leaning hard into “Today, all day I had the feeling.” Soon enough, the whole gang of us, my children Dixie and Matilda included, are belting out the chorus as if we are on Broadway and not making dinner in a sweet old house in Tennessee.
Music is as much a part of the South as humidity, thanks to our Scot-Irish and African-American heritage, the church, bourbon. When we lived up North, music was formal. Children took lessons from diffident instructors employing “methods.” Maybe during holidays singing would commence around a grand piano après the cheese course. But spontaneous outbreaks of questionable pitch were not on the playlist. Mercifully, music here isn’t so much about the song as the spirit.
The first weekend we moved back, we were sitting on a friend’s porch, watching the sun give way to a bruised dusk, when a new acquaintance pulled out a banjo and began picking her way around a Carter Family tune. Someone else happened by with a fiddle. Everyone sang. Those who didn’t know the words stomped their feet and slapped their knees. No one was self-conscious.
It reminded me of my youth, when my mother and her sisters would trill in the kitchen while washing dishes. Or farther back, when my grandmother would sing forties war songs in the car as my grandfather drove the winding roads of rural West Virginia, me lying flat as plywood in the backseat, the notes floating above my body like stars.
“They’re either too young or too old,” she would warble, her arm draped like a cat over my grandfather’s shoulder.
Singing was, in my family, a fast track to connection, a more pleasing mode of communication. As such, we sang a lot. So much so, my mother made a rule that there was to be “no singing at the dinner table,” the endless musical provided by her three girls no doubt beginning to grate on her nerves. (We sang anyway.)
The other night I heard my own girls belting out a tune in their bedroom. It was Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” My children love pop fluff as much as any tween. But when they are moved to pick up the hairbrush and wail into the plastic end, it is Dolly’s words that flow out more often than not. They sing without embarrassment. They sing loud. And it is nothing short of magic to hear them claim their voices.