Martin Luther King Day, 2016
A friend emailed me this morning, asking what I remembered about our college’s reaction to, and observance of, Martin Luther King’s assassination (we were first years at the time, and roommates). It was a huge event, certainly, and a big shock to all of us—one of a number of unsettling occurrences during our college years, which largely defined who we became. But I don’t remember the words, the speeches, the assemblies, the dormitory and dining hall discussions. It was a long time ago, and a lot of water has flowed over that dam. What I remembered, I found, when asked, is the music. I remember the songs we sang—both the informal community sings, of protest songs and spirituals, and the formal ”In Memoriam Martin Luther King” concert my choir later sang. I remember the people with whom I sang, and the music we sang—the words and the melodies; I remember the concert hall, and the look of the audience. I remember the highly charged emotions of our conductor, who spoke of King as though he were a close personal friend. I even remember the poster and printed program, nearly fifty years later, though I did not save copies. Music has this power. Especially, for me, vocal music. And especially the personal performance of music. Significant events, relationships, locations-- most seem anchored in my memory, and in my convictions, by the music that accompanies them. I suspect most people are like me, in this respect, and that this is not a function of special capacity or professional choice. I remember my 99-year old grandmother being called back to the here and now, when her pastor sang “Tryggare kan ingen vara” to her, unlocking a flood of childhood memories and stories, which she so eagerly shared. I will always remember the death of Tony Garner, announced to the choir just before Robert Shaw conducted a performance of the Howells Requiem, in Greenville, South Carolina. I remember my summers working as a counselor at Camp Buckskin, singing my cabin of ten little boys to sleep, night after night. And sitting on a point jutting into the water on Eddy Lake at sunset, singing “L’heure exquise” to myself as the sun set. Elsa Charlston and Steve Hendrickson performing “Let the bright seraphim” at our wedding. Holding hands with the singers on both sides of me while my college choir sang the Vaughan Williams Mass in G. Hearing my mother sob while ironing in the kitchen, listening to La Boheme on the radio. Singing to my daughter as she lay in a coma, after a car/bike accident during her senior year of high school.
I grew up surrounded by music, all kinds of music: some of it great, some of it not so good, all of it startlingly memorable. I realize now that the richness of my life’s experience, and my memories of that experience-- joy, sorrow, tragedy-- all live in my memory accompanied by music. The adults I knew best, and now care most about, were my music teachers and conductors; the high school and college friends with whom I have maintained contact sang in choirs with me. The younger people with whom I have been able to form relationships, have sung with me, or for me. It occurs to me that I would be almost nobody, inarticulate and disconnected, had I not music to create a life for me.
Facebook has featured Dr. King’s favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” several times today, along with the story about his calling Mahalia Jackson on the phone and asking her to sing it to him. Along with recording of both Mahalia Jackson and Reggie Mobley singing it. I’m sure these recordings, and this story, will become defining features of my remembrances, from now on. Music has that power.