Editor's note: Noble Collins is a columnist for The Rim Review. His column, "The Edge of Payson" runs every other Wednesday in The Rim Review, which is available free on newsstands.
During the holidays, my wife and I enjoyed one of the best musical productions either of us has heard in a long time. The Payson Choral Society performed a wonderful Christmas concert in the high school auditorium. It was superb. Several standing ovations were enthusiastically given. This group is as good as any in the state, perhaps in the Southwest.
We both come from musical backgrounds. Her grandfather was once National Fiddle Champion. I once sang in Havana, Cuba, before Fidel Castro took over, (long stories -- no room here). We have both sung in excellent choirs and know the long hard hours of practice necessary for a good performance.
Congratulations for a job exceedingly well done, Payson Choral Society.
It got me to thinking of an essay I once wrote. Bear with me for a few minutes if you have the time.
When I learned to sing
On many summer Sunday afternoons, I was a prisoner in the back seat of a ‘49 Chevy when my father drove the 70 miles from Atlanta to White, Ga. to visit "kinfolk."
Two hours over a narrow asphalt highway, I counted cows or attempted other diversions, dreading saccharin attention sure to come from aunts and uncles and contemptuous shuns from country cousins. (They had a great old time one afternoon putting me on the back of an old bull and watching him buck me off. Naturally, my father was embarrassed at the ineptitude of his son.)
The day might go well enough, if I could wander alone through a pasture to find a slow-moving creek and look for crawfish. Beneath the banks of the stream, I was unnoticed and therefore not called upon to either model new clothing or pretend to enjoy a "baseball" game in the unbearable heat and humidity. Air conditioning was unknown. Keeping cool was not high science, however. Crawfish knew how to do it.
Sooner or later, I would be called to dinner: Several tables filled with an avalanche of food, not a square inch of space left open, one table just for pies, cakes, fruit cobblers.
Everyone ate equally from the feast, but, of course, the elderly ate first, then women, men and finally children, starting with the youngest. I was in the middle of that group. The chicken legs and breasts would be gone, but there was always a wing or two, and the sweet tea never ran out.
My father was usually the only man who wore a suit, but before dinner was over, his coat and tie were off and his shirtsleeves were folded up.
He seemed more at home there than at our home in Atlanta. My mother (did I not mention her?) would always search out one of the aunts who had married a city man, (a railroad conductor, no less) so they could discuss fashions and trends.
Slowly, everyone would finish their dinner, pick out a dessert or two, pour a fresh glass of tea, and move to the porch, or bring out a folding chair to sit under a large pecan tree, talking about everything that had happened since their last visit. I usually found a way to sneak back to the stream to feed a piece of chicken to the crawfish.
Several hours later, as darkness was approaching, my father would round up me and my mother and say his goodbyes to every creature there, babies and all. I was at his side, repeating the words faithfully. Then, we would climb into that hot, dusty Chevy and head toward Atlanta.
I never saw my father happier than on those drives back home. As soon as we pulled off the dirt road onto a paved two-lane, he would begin singing.
In a decent baritone voice, he would sing "The Old Rugged Cross," "Precious Memories" and "Shall We Gather At The River." He knew every verse.
To my astonishment, my mother would occasionally join in for a verse or two.
This never happened at home.
I didn't know the words, so I kept quiet. It was too dark for counting cows, so I listened, and to tell you the truth, the time passed pretty well.
From time to time, I heard that same soulful baritone in church, when my father wasn't taking up the collection or administering The Lord's Supper. He was a deacon, after all. This is the voice I still hear in the back of my mind -- a marker, a guide to how hymns should be heard. I am unable to sing these songs without that sound. They don't seem right.
And I do sing now. Unknowingly, my father taught me. Once I got the hang of it, I liked it, and I understood why singing was one thing that would always make him happy. Singing expresses whatever the Soul is feeling. It is free, unburdened, and independent of circumstance. It doesn't have to answer to the mind.
At the age of 12, I had no idea of the reasons my father sang on the way back home, and not on the way up. All I know now is that he taught me to sing, too.
It's one thing we will always share.