Even for Minnesota standards the cold of the last few weeks has been challenging. Schools have been closed more days than in anyone’s memory, not for snow, but for the sheer cold of the wind on young, fragile faces. It is a time that throws one’s privilege in the face. I have a warm home, a reliable car. I have enough food to eat and the clothes I have are designed to keep out the cold and keep skin safe. My mind and my prayers have focused on all those whose life circumstances do not hold such simple privilege. These are days when we must have great admiration for the weather. It is a force with which to be reckoned and we would be unwise to think differently.
On Monday evening my husband and I decided the cabin fever was creeping in too closely and we needed to do something to keep it at bay. So, we headed over to one of our local haunts where, once a month, there is singing, singing with a capital ‘S’. It seemed the right thing to do to shake some of the ice off our spirits. We were not disappointed. Not long after 6:00 people started pouring in to find tables, grab a little supper, and be ready to join voices at 7:00. These are sea shanty songs, folk songs, music that tells stories,makes people laugh and cry. No one is a professional but many have ‘their song’. Much like karaoke only without accompaniment. It is all sung a cappella and always in harmony. It feels a throw back to a simpler time.
As the intergenerational group sang, the words of the songs hung in the air. ‘For winter is here with its icy coat.’ ‘We’re singing through the hard times, singing through the hard times, living for the good times to come.’ ‘In that wee, dark engine room, where the chill seeps through your soul, how we huddle round that wee pot stove, that burns oily rags and coal.’ ‘Ring for the yellow daffodil, flower in the snow, all shall be well I know.’……On and on we sang the winter songs and lifted the hope of what was to come as people have been doing in similar landscapes and around the world for hundreds of years. It felt like an act of solidarity with one another, the ancestors and the survivors of winter everywhere.
There were many highlights of the evening that warmed my heart. One young girl, perhaps six or seven years old stood on a chair and led us all in ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down’, lifting her tiny hand at the chorus, singing ‘Everybody now!’, as the crowd of people joined her in harmony. I tried to image the affirmation, the power she felt at that moment. Her father stood just next to her giving support and her younger sister looked on with a love that filled her small, upturned face, perhaps dreaming of a time when she would be ‘old’ enough to sing so boldly and command adults to join in.
But it was the singing of the sea song, ‘Northwest Passage’, a song by Stan Rogers of adventure and hoped-for discovery in a new land that took my heart. It is a song I have heard many times,and know just enough of the lyrics to harmonize on the chorus. This was the song that the father of the young girl who had led us so ably sang. She sat in her chair listening intently to the complicated lyrics flowing from her father’s voice. But as the chorus came around, her eyes closed and she lifted her face toward some distant place as she sang:
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
What was that young child seeing, thinking as she sang those words? Most of the songs sung on Monday were not ones to defy the cold as much as they were sung to bring warmth to the singer and hope to us all. Perhaps the single thread that wove them together was this knowing, this deep knowing that we were in this together and that we would get through it together. We left at the end of the evening full of hope and the warmth of the power of singing. And how timely it seemed to come home to learn that Pete Seeger, the man who taught so many the power of singing, had died. I thought of our experience that evening and it felt like a wake of sorts for the man, the music and the assurance that song is a powerful gift and a powerful tool for creating community and forging hope in the world.
In so many ways, we have Pete Seeger to thank for that. Rest well, good and faithful servant.