Wendell Berry on folk music:
"They would greet me and one another as they came in. They took chairs, sat down, commented on the weather and other events, smoked maybe.
"And then one or another of them would pick up his fiddle or guitar or banjo (you could never tell who it would be) and begin to tune it, plucking at the strings individually and listening. And then another would begin, and another. It was done almost bashfully, as if they feared that the silence might not welcome their music. Little sequences of notes would be picked out randomly here and there. (Their instruments just happened to be in their hands. The power of music-making had overtaken them by surprise, and they had to grow used to it.)
"Finally Bill Mixter would lower his head, lay his bow upon the strings, and draw out the first notes of a tune, and the others would come in behind him. The music, while it lasted, brought a new world into being. They would play some tunes they had learned off the radio, but their knowledge was far older than that and they played too the music that was native to the place, or that the people of the place were native to. Just the names of the tunes were a kind of music; they call back the music to my mind still, after so many years: 'Sand Riffle, 'Last Gold Dollar,' 'Billy in the Low Ground,' 'Gate to Go Through,' and a lot of others. 'A fiddle, now, is an atmospheric thing,' said Burley Coulter. The music was another element filling the room and pouring out through the cracks."And on hymns...
"What I liked least about the service itself was the prayers; what I liked far better was the singing. Not all of the hymns could move me. I never liked 'Onward Christian Soldiers' or 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' Jesus' military career has never compelled my belief. I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: 'Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,' 'Rock of Ages,' 'Amazing Grace,' 'O God, Our Help in Ages Past.' I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever. Old Man Profet, who was a different man on Sunday, used to draw out the notes at the ends of verses and refrains so he could listen to himself, and in fact it sounded pretty. And when the congregation would be singing 'We shall see the King some-day (some-day),' Sara May, who often protracted Saturday night a little too far into Sunday morning, would sing, 'I shall see the King some-day (Sam May).'
"I thought that some of the hymns bespoke of the true religion of the place. The people didn't really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all if had given them, but they still liked it. That they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another's help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing 'The Unclouded Day' and 'Sweet By and By':
We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs on the blest...
"And in times of sorrow when they sang 'Abide with Me,' I could not raise my head."Hymns and folk songs aren't just memory work. They are memory work, in that we hope they lodge in our children's memories and abide there for always. But the door to the memory isn't just the mind. We aren't treating the memory as a faculty -- as simply a means to an end, something to use and exercise, with the goal being as much knowledge as our students' minds can hold. We are treating memory as a gift, one that we may enter sweetly, gently, delightfully, calmly through the mind, but also through the heart and soul, the ear and eye, the community, our faith, sacred spaces, family moments, shared experience, relationship.
It is a beautiful thing, our memory. As Robinson shares in Gilead, which I was fortuitously reading at the same time as Berry's book, memory is pure gift:
"I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own sort of mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a gracious reprieve." (emphasis mine)In that vein, we can view hymns and folk songs as memory contained in song, and when we play them for our students, we give them the opportunity to enter into a collective experience of beauty in word and tune. More than that, we can think of learning those songs as an invitation to add our own layer of texture to the song, as our family memories of singing them bind together with that collective experience and create something moving and special -- something new to us yet linked to all that came before us.
That is a powerful invitation and beyond anything a checklist can convey, no matter how masterfully crafted. When we play, sing, or even just listen to a song, we open a space for the Holy Spirit to move and stir our soul. It's a beautiful thought.
May we always think of memory work as a gracious reprieve!