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What We Keep

That Old Song


St. Helen's Bishopsgate, London

carved screen


This season of carols, I find it easy to get lost in that old music, and wish for the millionth time that I could sing.


I am almost, but not quite, tone deaf, with just enough ear to allow me to sing horrible, vaguely recognizable versions of songs I love. I always appreciate it when people sing in groups and I can sneak in quietly. I can actually get closer to the right note if I sing with someone, but not alas actually on it. My husband knows more weird old ballads, my favorite genre, than almost anyone else. His repertoire includes dismal train wreck songs ("murdered upon the railway and laid in a lonesome grave"), songs about seal lovers and cabin boys who turn out to be girls, and Hank Williams classics. And Christmas carols, oddly. He's not a fan of Christmas but even my Jewish husband gets caught up in their song, and surely we can agree on "O Come, O Come, Emanuel," a carol for all eventualities.


In my twenties I worked as a copywriter for a rock radio station and listened to Top 40 hits all day whether I wanted to or not. It was years after I quit that job before I could turn on the car radio, scarred by too many repeats of "Wildfire" and "Kung Fu Fighting." By night I hung out with boys who sang folk songs. Maybe that is the basis of my occasionally unfortunate susceptibility to guys who sing, including my husband, who is one of the fortunate instances. Another semi-serious crush was on a guy with an angel's voice who's now a priest. A Lutheran priest, I might add, I'm not that bad. He insisted that he could teach me to carry a tune, and he did get me closer, but the ear just wasn't there. It's like being color-blind maybe. You just don't have that fine tuning. Another was the kind of guy who leaves you wondering what in holy hell you thought you were doing, but oh, he could sing.


It was my husband who, in the long ago before we were married, introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers and to Richard Fariña and to folk music that went beyond the pop versions of the Kingston Trio. I read somewhere that you imprint on the music of your adolescence, and nothing else ever sounds as good to you. That would explain a lot.

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