Street Music

It never really occurred to me that The Temptations wrote any good music other than My Girl.  I mean…they probably did, but why would I be familiar with it when there are so many other, newer, hipper groups around now like the Jonas Brothers??

Well, I’ve been teaching a music class to homeless women for about a year and a half now, and I’m pretty sure I’m learning more than I’m teaching.  I tried not to expect anything when I started…which I’ve found is good, because there’s no way I could’ve been prepared for what this has become!

Bethany's Women of Praise and others singing for the N Street Gala

We meet at least once a week and sing a wide variety of music together, learn how to read music, listen to music, and learn a bit about music history.  We also talk a lot about the feelings and emotions that music brings to light and how it’s healing power can be transformative!  Whether we’re singing Moon River, Lean on Me, This Little Light of Mine, or the Battle Hymn of the Republic (which Betty always requests!), I feel inspired to sing out with joy and without care of how I sound or if I’m using the proper techniques!  My college professors would probably kill me, but this is not your typical choir…this is street singing.

One of my ladies calls me Songbird…she’s convinced I never stop singing.  Sometimes I think that’s silly, but then I remember the favorite family video clip where I declare to my Great Aunt that “I’m not one…not two…not three… I’m FOUR!  And I’m not too little to sing!!!”  (Although I think, due to my childish lisp, I actually said I’m not too little to thing…)  So I guess she’s right.  I sang my way across the street to N Street Village as I started and continued that music class.  And then I sang my way right on down to the basement of Luther Place to the often overlooked Oasis Senior Center through Emmaus Services for the Aging.  Oasis is a day program for homeless seniors (usually men).  The men chill in our basement M-F, 9am-4pm.  Somehow, most of the Luther Place congregation is unaware of this organization.  And to be honest, I was quite afraid of going down to the basement myself until this year.  But I knew if anything would break down the barriers between white and black, young and old, man and woman… it could be music.  So that was that.  We established a weekly music class, and though it has been a huge challenge to create anything stable, this past Monday we were 7 strong and singing with gusto!  I recently allowed the group to put together a playlist of songs they wanted to learn and record(!), and here’s what they came up with:

Don’t Look Back, The Temptations
I Am Redeemed, Jessy Dixon
I Wish it Would Rain, The Temptations
If You Don’t Know Me By Now, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
For Your Precious Love, Jerry Butler & The Impressions
The Last Mile of the Way, Same Cooke & The Soul-Stirrers
Rough Side of the Mountain, F.C. Barnes
Somebody Prayed for Me, Traditional Spiritual
When We Get Married, The Intruders
People Get Ready, Curtis Mayfield
Lean On Me, Bill Withers

They might as well have been asking me to teach them Chinese.  They could’ve requested Bach or Debussy or Copland or Cage…or even Hanson or the Spice Girls or Backstreet Boys, and I would’ve done okay!!  A degree in music did not prepare me for this.  But luckily, a liberal arts education did prepare me to be open-minded.  So for the last several weeks, we’ve been working hard on our playlist, and I have had to do extra homework to learn these songs.

This whole experience has really gotten me to thinking about institutional racism and music (damn you, LVC!).  One day, I brought in my violin to class and played some good ole J.S. Bach.  When I asked the small group of black men in their 60s if they had heard of Bach before, only one said yes.  In my mind, this is unheard of.  I think every white person I know (granted, I travel in music/Lutheran circles…) at least knows OF Bach.  This discovery got me to thinking about other related experiences.  For example, out of the 100 or more women that have come to my music class at N Street in the last year, the only ones who generally have any background in reading music are white.  How do we teach music, and who do we teach it to?  Why is it that the only black composers/musicians I really learned about were involved in the Jazz/Blues era?  Why is that the only mention of Asian music was in relation to Debussy’s influences?  White, Western men prevail once again.  I haven’t quite made sense of all of this yet, but it’s floating towards the top of my musical interest list.  My senior choir (self-named The Aces of Voices) is on to something, as far as I’m concerned.  Their playlist is equally as powerful as anything Bach would’ve put together.  And my women’s choir (self-named Bethany’s Women of Praise) is teaching me the value of singing by ear, and is simultaneously thrilled with the opportunity to learn how to read music.  What a joy it has been for me to receive further education about music in a place I least expected it!


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