Clippings: Just rollin’ along, singin’ a song

I’ve stumbled onto an unexpected joy of parenting: singing with my children.
This is unexpected because growing up I didn’t sing with my parents much, nor did I often sing with my siblings, either. Oh, there was singing around. We all sang together in church, and I loved it. We would all stand up when the priest and the altar boys stepped into the central aisle at the back of St. Henry’s for the processional; Mr. Huss or Mr. Hoelscher would step to the lectern and remind us that we were singing hymn No. 36 in the green songbook, “Faith of our Fathers”; and then the whole church would explode in beautiful noise that was probably more filled with heart than it was sung in key.
And there was singing with Mrs. Britson twice a week in grade school, where we’d learn such classics as “An Old Woman Had One Big Bedstead.” Mrs. Britson also organized a choir for all fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade boys, called the Mighty Mouths. We’d go to places like the Rotary and the Jaycee’s pancake breakfast and sing a set of tunes like “I’m an Old Cowhand From the Rio Grand” and “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music.”
When I was really young the soundtrack of the breakfast table was KFJB-AM, which had a lot of talking, a lot of advertising and the occasional song (often country and western). The main reason to listen to this radio station was that it would let us know if they were cancelling school because of the snow. One advertising jingle from those days that has particularly stuck with me is a guy sawing and singing about a lumber yard:
Oh hand me down
A two-by-four.
Oh hand me down
A two-by-four.
Oh hand me down
A two-by-four,
I’m going back to Stewart’s
For some more,
’Cause all my home are sold
When my girls were very little and getting antsy in the back of the car on a long trip, or even just going to the grocery story, I’d sing them that song. It was simple, and it would prompt questions like, “What’s a two-by-four?” and “Why did he sell his house?”
My kids are used to me singing; I’ve sung them to bed at night since they were infants. When I started with the first one I’d be able to get away with singing a few short kid songs like “Old King Cole Was a Merry Old Soul.” The second one came along 22 months later, and then I had a girl on either knee singing and rocking and singing, trying to get both of them to settle down for a long night’s sleep. As time dragged on and my thin cache of kids’ songs began to bore even me, I started singing other things, like Mother Goose nursery rhymes and Sandra Boynton’s “Going to Bed Book.” I branched out to songs written for adults, including Randy Newman’s “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” and the old standard “Ukulele Lady.” Eventually I started to hold open the song book “We Sing” to the girls and let each pick a song for me to sing to them.
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not a great singer. Often I’m not even a good singer. I’m blessed with a tin ear that makes even the worst clunkers sound to me like innovative turns of a musical phrase. I try to be honest with myself about my personal shortcomings, but when it comes to singing I’m happy to be a bit delusional.
Good students, both of them, my girls learned from Chuck Miller at their grade school tons about real music and how to really sing. Thankfully, their mother got them interested in dancing, where they learned about genuine rhythm, coordinating with your partner in artistic endeavors and really paying attention to others. Thankfully, I say, because now, they are taking an interest in singing together, with others, and with me. Finally, a group of their friends has really taken to singing, so much so that raising their voices in song is now comes naturally for my girls. This is a particularly welcome turn of events with the older one, who will be heading to middle school next year and all the distractions that age brings. And it’s nice that she can share the love of singing with her younger sister, who turns 10 today (happy birthday, sweetheart!).
And they also sing with me.
Lately during car rides, the girls and I have been trying to perfect a song that they and their friends made up. There is the regular version and the “opera” version, which really puts on airs. It’s only four lines that is sung twice, but there are loads of variations you could do if you had the time and let your mind run wild. Grandma came over for dinner the other night and we sang her the song as a round, with the first singer starting out, the second starting as the first finishes the first line, and the third starting when the second finishes the first line. Then we turned up the heat and had the second start singing when the first singer was only half done with the first line, and the third starting when the second was half a line in. Finally, we went way up-tempo to see how fast we could go. It was silly and ended in a chorus of laughter, and really a delight.
I’d urge you, dear reader, to join in next time you hear a song. It may be an old standard, a classic rock song, a TV theme song, or it might be the song that cracked up my girls and me the other night. Here are the words, sing them through twice:
My name is Bob
I am a cow
Meow meow meow
Meow meow meow.

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