I used to “play for church.” In all the eleven years of piano lessons and the laborious practicing which finally drove my parents to hire a man to come help Daddy move that huge old black Baldwin upright out of the living room and into my room with bed, dresser, chest-of-drawers, nightstand and desk, I managed only a passable rendition of a “recital piece” each Spring and Fall, plus about four, including STARDUST, for my Senior Recital. And I could play the foot-patting old hymns, Broadman and Cokesbury from front to back. There’s just something about that rhythm I could master, and so I was drafted, for many, many years.
We had a wonderful little choir, and we made good music. But the Voice I Remember was not of our church, but a visitor who would come to services when she and her husband were back home to visit his parents. She’d married the youngest Chisholm boy, and they lived down about
, coming back several times a year
for family visits and other events. Hattiesburg
Sometimes they’d get seated after I’d already sat and started the prelude, or maybe they’d come in while we were all still in the back getting ready. Somehow I hardly ever knew Belinda was in the house, until that first hearty G chord of The Doxology, the great shuffle-to-their-feet of a hundred or so good people, and something magical would happen as they all sang the first “PRAISE GOD FROM WHOM . . .” This divine golden sound would float above them from way in the back, singing the words a bit louder and more firmly than they, with the clear perfection of a priceless gift.
Glory Hallelujah, that girl could SING. It was not operatic, in those great bursts of sound which seem barely reined in by the singer, with all the living power alive in the intricate runs and harmonics.
And it was way before all but maybe six female singers became so enamoured of that method called melisma---doesn’t that sound like some sort of disease, to be treated with sunbaths and raw egg cocktails and essential oils from the Age of Aquarius? Indeed it IS a malaise of singers whose only volume is shout and who chew the mike and make agonized faces and run up and down twelve notes per syllable, dragging many a song around by its hair til it expires of embarrassment, disappearing from good society forever.
I cannot tell you how GOOD that voice was. It was the purest, clearest sound I could imagine--- hitting every note like holding your hands in the air, then scribing a sphere to cup a cool, perfect rose. Not a waver, not a tremor, as the notes sailed up pure and true, resounding through the tunnel of white rafters and seeming to echo gently from what would have been the back wall of the apse had we not been such “plain church,” with the baptistry carved in, and even its great drape of demure velvet failing to mute the purity.
I want to tell it, and I don’t know how. There was no strain in it, no reaching for notes beyond its range, nothing but pure and clear and since I was not looking in that direction, I could have sworn it had a colour to it---a vibrant, iridescent sort of liquescence, formed in the air and pouring over us. You know how a June breeze feels, so sunny and warm and cool at the same time, blowing past your skin like water? That’s what it felt like, that voice curled around our beings.
I could almost hear the necks craning and the whispers amongst the pleasantly amazed congregation, as we sang on. She took us higher and farther in song than I think any of us had ever been or have again. I was once privileged to be invited to Miss Marguerite Piazza’s house, where we stood gazing up the staircase at her as she led us in Christmas carols. And this was equal to that, or better, for there were more of us, crowded into the companionable familiar place of our worship, and we knew all the words, singing our hearts out in the old hymns of our raising.
That remarkable voice took us off somewhere on another plane, to our best music and our best selves, I think. And it was another one of those occasions in life when there would be an intensity in the air, a hum that was not of voices, but was akin to standing beneath the engines of an airplane---a power not of ourselves, not harnessable, like the swinging, surging notes of that old piano to I'll Fly Away---gripping and carrying, so that all you could do was jump in and hang on til the tide rolled in and deposited you, breathless, on the damp sand.
I think of her often, especially now on Spring Sundays, and hope that she’s somewhere still sharing that enormous, magical gift. What a marvel, and what a memory.