Nothing could seem more strange, right? I mean, what’s to sing about? Here in Canada, we’ve just experienced a terrifying attack on our Parliament Buildings and the murder of two soldiers in three days. The culprits were freelance terrorists, converts to an extreme form of Islam.
As of this moment, a few billion pixels have already been spilled on this incident and I have little I can add. Only to say that since the summer, I’ve been following the spread of a cruel psychopathy that has swept so much of the Middle East under the guise of profound religious devotion. Profoundly depressing, is more like it. An ache, a crushing rock-weight on the spirit.
Then there’s Ebola, Africa’s tragedy (along with our exaggerated panic in the West). Surely this is bad news at its most heart-rending.
Given the state of the world, I wasn’t in the mood for singing when we drove down to New York City for the long October weekend. However, I brought along a stack of favourite CDs — operatic arias, Middle Eastern folksongs, popular music of the French Renaissance, and my treasured Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall (1958). In a previous blog, I mentioned that I’ve been a fan of the late basso profundo for decades. His singing embodied dignity and a capacity to rise above violence and injustice. Alive and passionate, his music continues to free the heart of its burdens. It also catches a bad mood off-guard. And so I sang along.
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole
Sometimes you don’t know you’re wounded until you sing the words.
As I sang along to the old spiritual, my burden of depression about the world lifted, a weight so familiar that I’d no longer noticed how heavy it was. Perhaps the power of great music lies in the fact that an artist has borne the burden first, has understood and expressed it, has given it back to us — no longer as a burden but as a gift.
Music, I think, is the most direct of all the arts. It strikes the heart before the head can intervene, before we slam shut the iron door of cynicism. On that long drive, the music let me sense how I felt, let me embrace the comfort of a singing voice that knew its way through the darkness.
I’m no stranger to singing. As kids, my sibs and I used to sing in the car, on road trips. Loud. Good grief, we’d harmonize. Those were some of our happiest moments as a family. My parents encouraged this commotion and I think they must have loved it. Many years later, singing in the car sustained my spouse and I on a dark night some weeks after 9/11, driving to my native city and listening to the same music as we made our way toward the ruins. Paul Robeson once again sang us through those long shadows.
It’s not far, just goes by
through an open door —
work all done, carried by,
going to fear no more.
We sang so that we could be brave, so that we’d not feel alone in the darkness that had, for a moment, overcome the world.
And here we were, years later, once again singing through our long night.
Now I know that singing won’t erase the evils in this world. It just happens that I’m a product of the Sixties, with its rich lode of protest songs and anthems, and I know that singing with others brings joy and reassurance. More than that, it’s about imagination. Long ago, singing together freed us to believe that we’d overcome, that we’d help put an end to a terrible war. Perhaps it helped, in some immeasurable way, to do these things. I would like to believe that.
It shouldn’t surprise us that radical fundamentalists (such as the Taliban) do not permit singing.
When we sing, we set hope free.
Heads-up, dear readers: on October 29th, I’ll be a guest blogger at The Brockton Reading Series blog (http://brocktonwritersseries.wordpress.com) prior to my reading (from my novella Midsummer) on November 5th. Joining me that evening will be IF the Poet, Sheniz Janmohamed and Zoe Whittall. If you’re in Toronto, please join us at Full of Beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC)